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How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits

If you’re out of work right now, the first thing I want to say is this: I feel for you. Losing your job is always a difficult and scary thing to experience. Life has punched you in the gut—but you’re not down for the count. You can choose to get back up and press on. What seems like a setback now can actually work out in your favor to move you into a new and better position down the road.

But first, there are some priorities to take care of, especially if you’re the primary breadwinner in your family. One of your options is to apply for unemployment benefits—money that’s funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s insurance program to help people who are temporarily out of work. Unemployment benefits are like a financial band-aid: They’re a short-term fix to keep food on the table and the lights on until you find another job.

And keep in mind that unemployment isn’t a free handout. These are your tax dollars at work. Keep a long-term mindset and don’t let a check from Uncle Sam keep you from being productive and pursuing your purpose.

Let’s walk through how to apply for unemployment benefits together.    

Do I Qualify for Unemployment?

The most important factor to qualify for unemployment is that you lost your job “through no fault of your own.” Translation: You can’t receive unemployment benefits if you quit or were fired due to a lack of poor performance or behavior issues. You only qualify if you were laid off because there was a lack of available work.

You also need to demonstrate that you’ve been working up until recently, establishing what’s called a “base period.” Most states require proof that you’ve been working the first four of the past five quarters—meaning that steady employment was your “norm” before you were laid off.

Unemployment Benefits Expanded Due to Coronavirus

Back in March, the president signed The CARES Act into law: a stimulus package with expanded unemployment benefits. It extended aid to a larger group of people than ever before and offered enhanced benefits of $600 a week.1 Those payments expired the last week of July.

So, what next? Well, congress is still ironing out the details of the next bill: The HEALS Act. One of the major changes that Republicans want to see is a reduction in unemployment benefits from $600 to $200 a week, with the potential to increase payments to replace up to 75% of lost income. These benefits would run through December 31 of this year. We also might see a $450 “return to work” bonus that will incentivize people to get back out there and find a new job, or return to a job they held previously.2

No matter where the government lands, hear me on this: You can’t wait on someone else to bail you out. Ultimately, it’s your job to provide for yourself and your family. Focus on what you can control and keep pressing on.

Do I Qualify for Unemployment if I’m on Furlough?

If you’ve been furloughed without pay, but you’re technically still employed, you should still qualify for unemployment aid—as long as you’re not receiving income.

As the coronavirus forces many businesses to close their doors, companies are putting their employees on furlough instead of completely laying them off. This has an upside: Once the economy starts moving again, you will hopefully have a job to return to. But in the meantime, you still need income!

How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits

Before we move any further, let me set some expectations for you. Record numbers of people—we’re talking millions—have filed for unemployment since early March 2020. The system was not prepared to handle this rush. It’s like trying to channel the Mississippi River through a straw! Okay, maybe that’s extreme, but you get my point: Be prepared for some delays and be patient. The people who are working on your behalf are doing the best they can.

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Follow these three steps to get your application going:

1. Contact your state’s unemployment office.

Contact your state’s unemployment office as soon as possible after you’ve lost your job. Some states have a short waiting period between qualifying for unemployment and receiving your first check, so you want to get the ball rolling as soon as you can.

Due to the spike of activity from the coronavirus, some states are implementing systems to help organize the process. For example, you might be asked to apply on a certain day of the week to space things out. Pay close attention and read directions carefully. The last thing you want is to make a mistake on your end that causes your check to be delayed.

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2. Gather all the information you’ll need.

Ask the administrators or read online about the information you’ll need to provide. Gathering your documents before applying will make the process easier and keep it from being delayed. Here’s a list to get you started:

  • Social Security number
  • Driver’s license information
  • W-2 (which you will use to locate your Federal Employer Identification Number)
  • Address of former employers and dates you worked there (over the past 18 months)
  • Reason for being laid off
  • Salary/compensation history (over the past 18 months)

3. Fill out the application.

Most states will allow you to apply online, especially since offices are closed due to social distancing. You should apply in the state where you worked, even if you’ve since moved to another state. Each state varies, but you can generally choose how you’d like to receive your benefits—via check, direct deposit or a debit card.

How Long Does It Take to Receive Unemployment Benefits?

It generally takes two to three weeks before you receive your first check, but once again—each state is different. Some enforce a one-week waiting period before your benefits start to come through. You’ll want to make sure you’re budgeting and paying only your essentials until your benefits start to come in.

Take care of your Four Walls—food, utilities, shelter and transportation—first to tide you over if you’re missing a paycheck. If necessary, look for part-time jobs to supplement your income until you’ve found your next full-time gig.

How to Overcome Setbacks in Your Career

You can’t live on unemployment benefits forever, and you need to make sure you have enough for your family in the meantime. Take advantage of the program to cover your basic needs for now, but make sure you’re preparing for your next move. Here are three ways you can make progress in your career after you’ve lost a job:

1. Get a side gig. Work part time to make extra money during this time so you can take care of your family and keep up the momentum. While you’re there, build relationships with your new coworkers. You never know who you’ll meet and what connections you’ll make that will set you up for the next phase of your career. If you lost your job at Christmas, finding a side gig will be even easier as retailers expand their workforce to cover the holiday rush.

2. Reflect on the big picture. Were you happy in your job before the pandemic? Do you want to return to that industry, or is this your opportunity to get on the path to your dream job? Take advantage of the extra time you have to journal and come up with a long-term plan for the changes you want to make.

3. Prepare for your next move. It’s time to dust off the ol’ resume, search online, and start preparing for upcoming job applications. I’ve got several free guides to help you get hired—from creating a resume that stands out to preparing for an interview.

These are tough times that test us and reveal what we’re made of. But in good times and bad, anything worth doing requires time, perseverance and patience. You have what it takes. Press on!

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Ken Coleman

About the author

Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman is the author of the national bestselling book From Paycheck to Purpose and the #1 national bestseller The Proximity Principle. He hosts The Ken Coleman Show, a caller-driven show that helps listeners find the work they’re wired to do. Ken also co-hosts The Ramsey Show, the second-largest talk radio show in America, and makes regular appearances on Fox News and Fox Business. Through his speaking, broadcasting and syndicated columns, Ken gives people expert advice, providing strategic steps to get clear on their unique purpose and grow professionally. Learn More.

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