As layoffs pick up, here’s what workers need to know about filing for unemployment benefits

Personal Finance

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A wave of companies, including Amazon, Google and Spotify, have announced deep cuts to their head count, leaving former employees without a paycheck.

Fortunately, the unemployment insurance program, created in 1935, offers support to certain people who have lost their job. The federal program is administered by states, and the rules vary based on where you live.

In a handful of states, employees and employers pay into the unemployment insurance program, said Michele Evermore, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. In the bulk, only employers pay into the program, but it’s a benefit workers have earned, she said.

As a result, she said, laid-off workers shouldn’t be shy about applying for the aid.

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How soon after a layoff can I apply for unemployment?

“As soon as you leave your job, you should be on your way to the unemployment insurance office,” Evermore said.

In some states, it can take weeks for your claim to be approved, so the sooner you file the better.

While most states have a one-week waiting period before they can start paying you benefits, you don’t have to wait to request the relief, Evermore said.

Where do I apply for unemployment?

Apply with your state unemployment office. You can typically submit an application online or over the phone.

Do I qualify for unemployment benefits?

Generally, to be eligible for unemployment benefits, you have to have been laid off through no fault of your own, Evermore said. Maybe the job just wasn’t a good fit for you, or your company was downsizing.

But it doesn’t hurt to apply even if you’re unsure if you qualify, Evermore said. Many people prematurely exclude themselves from the program, she said: “There’s a lot of mythology around who qualifies.”

People may be surprised to learn, for example, that in some cases they can qualify for unemployment benefits even if they quit, Evermore explained.

For instance, in some states you’re eligible for the benefit if you made the choice to leave your job after your employer asked you to transfer to a location where your commute would be too long, or if you had to leave your job because your partner’s employment was relocated.

What are the requirements of the program?

To receive and keep receiving unemployment benefits, you have to be able to work and actively be seeking new employment, Evermore said.

States have different ways of making sure you’re looking for work, she added. In some cases, you’ll be responsible for keeping a log of work search efforts on your own, and in other states, you’ll have to call in to the state unemployment office and share what jobs you’ve applied to on a regular basis.

“In some states you may also report work search online,” Evermore added.

When you apply for benefits, make sure you learn about how to fulfil any requirements in your state.

Are unemployment benefits taxable?

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Yes, Evermore said. The benefits are subject to federal taxes and most states take them, too.

When you start to get unemployment payments, your state will typically give you the option to have taxes withheld.

“I’d always take that option,” Evermore said. “You could be in for a long spell of unemployment and then get hit with a big tax bill.”

What is the typical weekly benefit?

In the third quarter of 2022, the average weekly unemployment benefit was around $385. But there’s a large range in the payments by state. For example, in Washington state, the benefit was nearly $600 during that period. In West Virginia, it was around $305.

There are other resources, too, for people struggling financially due to job loss, Evermore said.

“Unemployment insurance isn’t the only program in the world,” Evermore said, adding that out-of-work people can also try applying for food stamps and other aid.

How long can I get the benefit?

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The standard duration for unemployment benefits is 26 weeks but that timeline varies by state.

For example, Missouri recently slashed its benefit duration and some workers may only receive payments for eight weeks there.

I received unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Could I qualify again?

It’s possible, Evermore said.

Workers are typically eligible for unemployment benefits for a certain amount of weeks per benefit year. Depending on how long has passed since your last period of joblessness, and how many weeks you previously received the benefits, it’s possible you could qualify again after a follow-up job loss for at least some more weeks and possibly another full duration.

I received severance pay. Will that affect my unemployment benefits?

In most states, if your layoff included severance pay, your unemployment benefits will likely be reduced for the period in which you’re still receiving payments from your former employer.

But, again, that depends on your state. In some cases, your severance package will have no impact on your unemployment benefits, Evermore said.

Clarification: In a handful of states, employees and employers pay into the unemployment insurance program. In the bulk, generally employers only pay into the program, but it’s a benefit workers have earned. An earlier version didn’t draw that distinction.

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