Who qualifies for unemployment?
Each state sets its own unemployment guidelines, but in most states you’re eligible if:
- Being unemployed wasn’t your fault. You likely aren’t eligible if you quit, and being fired for cause can disqualify you, depending on why you were fired. For example, if you’re fired because you don’t have the skills you need to do the job, you could qualify. Misconduct or illegal activity are disqualifying.
- You meet wage and work requirements. These will vary state-to-state, but typically you will have had to work for a set length of time before you became unemployed and/or have made a specific amount of money within a quarter. For example, many states require you to have worked for four of the last five quarters to qualify.
- You meet additional state requirements. Some states have additional standards you must meet to become eligible for benefits, but most require that you be actively looking and available for work. So document your job search, as you’ll likely have to show proof that you’re trying to find work.
What disqualifies you from unemployment?
You can be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits if you:
- Quit your job. If you choose to quit your job, you give up your eligibility for unemployment benefits. But if you leave for a compelling reason, such as dangerous working conditions or sexual harassment, you may still qualify.
- Receive severance. You need to wait until your severance payments run out to start receiving unemployment benefits, but you can usually sign up while still on severance just in case you are unable to find work before your payments stop.
- Get fired for misconduct. If you are fired for misconduct on the job, or in some states for misconduct outside of work, that likely makes you ineligible for benefits.
- Are involved in criminal activity. Misconduct that includes theft, embezzlement or other criminal activity can make you ineligible for unemployment for a set amount of time, depending on where you live.
- Turn down a job offer. Even if your unemployment payments have already started, if you are offered employment similar to the job you lost and you decline, you may lose your benefits.
- Are unable to work. If you have an illness, disability or family emergency that keeps you from being able to work, you won’t qualify for unemployment benefits, but you may be able to apply for disability or other benefits.
- Fail to look for work. Your state’s unemployment program should provide you with a way to document your job search. Failing to look for work or documenting your search could end your benefits.
- Commit fraud. Failing to report a new job or source of income not only disqualifies you from your benefits, but may have additional criminal or restitution consequences.
COVID-19 and unemployment
The federal government responded to the recent coronavirus pandemic by signing two relief acts into law: the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The FFCRA provides paid sick leave and expanded family medical leave for some employees who have been affected by Covid-19. The CARES Act expanded unemployment benefits in the following ways:
- Increased the weekly benefit amount by $600 until July 31, 2020
- Extended the states’ benefit periods by 13 weeks
Additionally, the CARES Act expanded who would be eligible for unemployment benefits to include people who are:
- Permanently or temporarily laid off due to coronavirus measures
- Reducing work hours due to coronavirus measures
- Self-employed, contract and freelance workers who have lost income
- Quarantined and can’t work due to coronavirus
- Unable to work due to a risk of exposure
- Unable to work because they are caring for a family member
How to apply for unemployment
Contact the state unemployment office as soon as possible after you become unemployed. Each state’s process will differ slightly, but most allow you to apply online or in person, and some states allow you to apply over the phone.
When you’re ready to apply, keep the following in mind:
- You need to apply in the state where you worked, not the state where you live, if that’s different
- Have the addresses and phone numbers of your previous employers ready
- Bring an updated resume with you, if you have one
A representative will walk you through filing your claim and give you instructions on how to maintain it. It may take two or three weeks for your claim to be processed.
What happens when my claim is approved?
Once your claim is approved and processed, you can expect the following:
- Payment. Typically, you are paid weekly, either through a check or money deposited onto a debit card issued to you by the unemployment office. In some states, you can choose a direct deposit option.
- Certification. You are required to check-in weekly using your unemployment office’s website or by phone. Each state will have a different set of requirements for check-in, but usually you need to report any job offers and any income you made during the week that might offset your benefits.
- Job boards and training. Your state will most likely have a job board for you to search to find opportunities. Some states also provide free or discounted job training classes to help polish or expand your skills as you search for a job.
- Audit. Some states will have regularly scheduled or randomly selected audits to check on your account and progress. You may be required to meet with an unemployment officer either in person or on the phone and prove details of your job search and any income you’ve received while earning benefits.
How much money will I get?
Each state has its own formula for calculating benefits, but the national average in 2019 was $347 a week, which was a little over 30% of the average weekly wage. Typically, your weekly benefit will be a percentage of how much you made per week over the previous year. But the state also caps its benefits at a specific amount.
How long will I receive unemployment benefits?
Most states offer up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. But those benefits can sometimes be extended if there’s high unemployment in your area, or if the federal government has provided an extension, such as with the CARES act.
Requirements to maintain unemployment benefits
To maintain your unemployment, you’re required to report weekly or biweekly on the status of your job search and any wages or compensation you’ve made that might offset your unemployment benefits.
Some states also have an audit system that requires you to go to the unemployment office to check in and report on your job search. Document the jobs you’ve applied for and show that you’re actively searching.
What insurance do people who are unemployed need?
Even while you’re unemployed, finding a solution to cover your health insurance and life insurance can make sure you’re still protected during your job search.
How unemployment affects health insurance
When you’re unemployed, you have a few options for health insurance:
- COBRA. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) gives you the option to continue the health insurance you had through your employer, but only if you’re willing to pay the full premiums, which can get expensive.
- The ACA Marketplace. Losing your job grants you an exception to apply for a Marketplace health plan outside of the normal enrollment period. Your reduced income can help you qualify for premium tax credits to reduce your monthly premiums.
- Medicaid. If your income is low enough, you may qualify for Medicaid through your Marketplace enrollment. If your Marketplace directs you to Medicaid, contact your local office to apply. If you are already on Medicaid, be sure to report your new income.
- Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). If you have children and your income is too high for Medicaid, but too low for the Marketplace, you may qualify for low cost coverage for your children through the CHIP program.
- Medicare. If you are already enrolled in a Medicare program, your unemployment shouldn’t affect your benefits. But if your income is significantly lower, you may consider applying for Part D low-income subsidies to help you pay your prescription drug costs.
How unemployment affects life insurance
If you want to replace the group life insurance you had at your previous job, you can sometimes still get a life insurance policy when you are unemployed, but the amount of coverage you can get depends on how long you’ve been out of work and why you left your job in the first place. Most often, a term life insurance policy will offer your best chance of approval.
It’s also worth noting that many life insurance policies come with the option to add an unemployment waiver-of-premium rider. With this rider, you let your life insurance company know that you are unemployed as soon as possible, and as long as you are actively looking for a new job, your premium is paused until you go back to work.
Compare alternatives to unemployment insurance
Unemployment is something you pay for with your taxes, unlike most insurance that requires you to purchase a policy in advance. But if you can’t work because of a debilitating illness or injury, unemployment insurance won’t cover you. Having disability coverage can ensure that no matter why you end up unemployed, you have a safety net to help you pay your bills.
What rideshare drivers should do if they qualify for unemployment
If you are a rideshare driver and you are out of work due to the coronavirus or another qualified reason, you are eligible to file for unemployment, regardless of where you work. But keep in mind that your state’s automated system might not be set up to handle freelance or contractor income questions. For example, the system may ask for your W-2, when you only have 1099 forms.
Be sure to visit your state’s unemployment website or call during office hours to make sure you don’t get rejected over a system failure.
If you’re still unsure if you qualify for unemployment benefits, now is the time to apply. As long as you are truthful in your application, you may be eligible for weekly compensation to help you pay your bills. And as the government’s understanding of the gig economy and freelance workers’ right to unemployment changes, it’s possible these benefits will extend to more workers who find themselves out of a job.
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