A Very Practical Guide to Filing for Unemployment Benefits

Step 1: Get fired or laid off. It doesn’t really matter how this comes about, whether you screwed up something huge with an immediate and paralyzing consequence, or sat in wait for months, your stomach churning every time you heard a whisper of “budget cuts.” It happened; you were called into a room with a long printed document on what you would and would not receive, nodding as you heard the words spinning and echoing against the walls. You turned and stumbled out of the room into a terrifying and barely believable unknown.

Congrats! You’re on your way.


Step 1a (optional): Reach for a beer. It takes the focus off what you’re going to do with the shock of this day, and your skin crackling from dried tears. Very few things will taste as good as chugging that cold saltiness down, fast, barely blinking at the snow on the ground or the clock clicking to 10 a.m.


Step 2: File for unemployment. Not tomorrow, not when you get your head on straight—right now.

Trying to get unemployment benefits can sometimes feel like a filibuster in the Texas State House or a game of Name That Punky. If you don’t follow the rules to the letter, your claim can be denied, and you wind up back at the beginning. This isn’t meant to dissuade you if you have genuinely earned the right to unemployment insurance. But the system is built to err on the side of denying claims in order to keep fraud to a minimum. It can be precise and exacting, and as a result, isn’t the warmest, cuddliest, friendliest process to go through. But that’s okay! I’m here to hold your hand, and I can be warm and cuddly (see step 1a).

So where were we? Yes, step 2: FILE RIGHT NOW. There’s a few reasons to file immediately:

You learn the rules. General caveat for all advice in this piece: unemployment varies from state to state. You may have filed before in Iowa, but the rules might be different in California. It’s important for you to learn the requirements for your state so you can get benefits. Maybe you need to show up in person, or must provide proof of living in-state for a minimum of time. Maybe you can’t collect benefits while you’re getting severance pay—or maybe you can. Find out what these requirements are early on so you can meet them and get your benefits.

Your claim can take a while to get processed. Even when you are approved, some states have a waiting period before you can receive benefits. It’s in your best interest to file now so that you can get the waiting period over with ASAP.

If there’s a mistake, you’re ahead of the game. Say you file, but you forget an important piece of information, or type in your SSN wrong. Don’t wait until you really need the money to find out what happened. Do it now, straighten out issues early on, avoid being stressed about it later.


Step 3: Be willing and able, and search for work.

Again with the rules, but in my book, following the rules > defending yourself against a fraud allegation. Your state will probably require some combination of being willing and able to work. What do willing and able mean? Usually being physically able and present, available to go to a job, and willing to accept appropriate work. If you’re out of town, you may not qualify for that particular week of benefits. It’s worth researching what this means in your state. If you reject a job, can you still collect benefits? What about if you’re searching for jobs out of state? Get your questions answered ASAP, even if it means sitting on a phone for hours or showing up at a benefits center before it opens so that you can talk to someone. The system can be complicated, and it’s worth finding out what you need to do to collect benefits if you’re eligible.

Your state may also have requirements on your search, like showing up for a job fair or applying for a certain number of jobs each week. There may be a formal or mandatory way to record your search. In my case, I needed to record two job contacts each week through a downloadable form.


Extra credit: Apply for jobs that are traceable.

You know what’s easy to prove? That you submitted a resume for a job on a website that sent you a confirmation email. You know what’s hard to prove? That the resume you mailed in, or gave to Aunt Carol’s friend’s nephew who she said had a job open actually reached a hiring manager.

Every Monday morning of my unemployment, I formally checked the box on my unemployment requirements by submitting resumes to two jobs online. They were interesting jobs that I was qualified for—but they weren’t the crux of my search. Checking the box on these applications gave me an e-paper trail that I could point to when filing for benefits. By fulfilling the minimum requirements to collect unemployment at the beginning of the week, I could devote my time to networking, preparing for interviews, and getting the job that eventually ended my time on unemployment. Maybe what works for you is something different—the benefits requirement could motivate you to apply to more jobs or accept more interviews. Figure out your own system, keep records, and keep at it.


Step 4: File for benefits, and repeat, as necessary, every week.

There’s an emotional toll that comes with unemployment. Freedom and time can be amazing and stifling. Job phone calls and rejections can toy with your heart like a cruel teenager. Filing for benefits can feel like a terrible acknowledgement that this phase of your life is lingering, side by side with tremendous relief that some money is coming in. It’s not meant to bring shame, but to help, and it does. Set a calendar or phone reminder, ask a friend to call you, or do whatever it takes to file for benefits within the weekly deadline. It can remind you that there’s a future where you’ll be getting checks—paychecks—without logging into the unemployment system every week.


Deb Weiss was grateful for unemployment benefits, and is now grateful for her job. She previously looked at The Cost of Therapy.



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