Have you or somebody you know recently lost a job? You might be entitled to unemployment insurance through the federal and/or state government where you live. Like all government programs, navigating the path to benefits isn’t necessarily easy.


All states follow general guidelines established by federal law, but unemployment insurance is primarily administered at the state level. Because of this, the program's laws and guidelines vary by state.

The federal Department of Labor issues guidelines and helpful information, but to learn how to apply in your state, go to your state Department of Labor’s website. Click here to find your state’s office.

Am I Eligible?

To answer this question, you first must understand the base period. Most states define a base period as the first four of the last five quarters worked. (The three months prior to your claim are not considered.) In New York, for example, you must have earned wages in at least two quarters in your base period and earned an income of at least $1,600 in one of those periods. Finally, the wages earned during your base period must be at least 1.5 times your highest quarterly wages. Remember that each state will have different base-period qualifications.

If you don’t qualify for benefits under the regular base period, you may qualify using the alternate base period. In Ohio, the alternate base period is the last four completed calendar quarters before benefits begin. In other words, the alternate base period may take into account the most recent quarter that the regular base period does not.

In addition to the above requirements, you must meet other conditions. All states require that your employment was terminated through no fault of your own. If you were laid off, you’re probably eligible; but if you quit because you were unhappy or you were fired because of certain reasons as defined by your state, you’re not eligible. If your hours were reduced from full- to part-time status, you may be eligible for benefits as well.

However, the rules aren’t completely black and white. If you quit your job to care for a sick family member, you may have the right to appeal for benefits. In cases of quitting or firing, your state office may schedule an interview to determine eligibility.

You also must be physically able to work. If you’re not, state programs dealing with the disabled are more likely to apply to you. Finally, you must be actively searching for a job, "which means to be ready and willing to immediately accept work," as California puts it, should a position come available.

If you receive benefits, you have to prove weekly eligibility, which includes being ready to work and actively searching for a position.

How Do I File?

First, contact the office in your state that handles unemployment insurance (see "Overview," above, for a link to get you there). The website will have all the information you need to file a claim. Often, the application starts online or over the phone. If you need assistance filing, contact your state office using the phone numbers listed on its website.

According to the federal Department of Labor, you should file as soon as you become unemployed since it will take two to three weeks to receive your first check.

If you recently moved out of state, start by filing for unemployment insurance in the state where you now live. That state’s office will guide you through the process of receiving benefits from another state if applicable.

Required Documents

When you file for yourself or on behalf of somebody else, have the following documents and information ready:

  • Personal identifying information (name, mailing and residence addresses, telephone number, e-mail address);
  • Social Security number;
  • Complete information about the applicant’s last employer;
  • Information about any other employer in the past 18 months;
  • Driver’s license or state ID card number, if applicable;
  • Dates of last employment and reason for leaving; and
  • Citizenship status.

If you were a government employee or separated from the military, you may need additional documents.

How Much Will I Receive Weekly?

Benefits are calculated based on your income while working in addition to other factors mandated by each state. Maximum weekly benefits vary widely from state to state. For example, Florida's 2014 maximum is $275, while Washington state pays $637.

During periods of economic crisis, Congress and/or state legislatures may approve additional benefits.

How Long Will Benefits Last?

A claim is good for a benefit year, defined as 52 weeks after you make your initial claim. Most claims will receive 12 to 26 weeks of benefits. You may reapply after the benefit year has expired, but only if you've done enough additional paid work to re-qualify for benefits.

What is Disaster Unemployment Assistance?

If your area was deemed a disaster area by the federal government because of a tornado, hurricane, flooding or other event, you may be eligible for Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA). This is a federal program for people who are unemployed as a result of a natural disaster. Victims receive information on how to apply, and claims are evaluated using criteria similar to those for unemployment insurance.

The Bottom Line

If you recently lost your job through no fault of your own, you may be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. Since claims are handled at the state level, contact your state office to start the application process. Normally, you can submit an application online or over the phone.

Unemployment is designed to be a short-term solution while you find a new job. Benefits won't replace your current income, but they will help cushion the blow of being without work. As soon as you start getting checks, plan for what you will do if you have not found a job by the time they end. Options to consider include a Self-Employment Assistance Program (SEAP), which enables you to use unemployment compensation and special training to start your own business while you're receiving benefits. See Help! My Unemployment Benefits Are Running Out for more information on SEAP and other ideas.

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