Instructor, Caroline Bender
Because the unemployment insurance experience is handled at the state level, it is difficult to give a comprehensive breakdown of what you can expect from your initial claim. Begin here if you do not know how the system works in your state. Like most public services which have embraced new technology, the unemployment experience does not necessarily meaning standing in long lines until the office hours end just as you reach the window. This can still happen, of course, but your state labor office is more than happy to have you contact them from home.
In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where I have begun my own journey, the tools are surprisingly simple and thorough, and the phone agents (in my case, "Dorothy,") have been efficient and compassionate.
Step 1: Read Up
Take some time to review the unemployment site for your state. It can not hurt to do this now even if you are employed. Our goal for this series on Unemployment is to help prepare you for what 1 in 10 of us are expected to experience. The unemployment system relies on you, the person with time on her hands, to initiate and manage your own caseload. If you are in a 10+% state like California or Nevada, you can see how expecting outreach is just too much to ask.
Your entitlement is a percentage of the salary you were severed from, and there is a ceiling. Unemployment checks can not replace the salary you were used to. But they can see you through grocery or utility bills, and supplement your emergency fund.
Step 2: The initial claim
If you have never been in the system before, the secret insider lingo for what you are doing in filing your "initial" claim. If you have received unemployment insurance before, you are "reopening" a claim. The procedure may vary in your state. In Massachusetts the activity was not particularly different; it was all about establishing the record for the first time. Picture Dorothy putting a sticker on a clean manila folder as opposed to pulling a dog-eared folder from a drawer in the back.
This can be done by phone, though you may be limited to what day you can call by your Social Scurity number, last name, area code, ZIP code, or some other method of traffic control. You will verify your identity and set up some profile information. Dorothy will explain the next sequence of events. If she does not, ask her to. It will only help in the long run, and you have a right to understand what is expected of you, and what you can expect of the state.
Step 3: Withholdings
Unemployment insurance is income, and will be taxed accordingly, sooner or later. Consider carefully whether you wish to defer this tax to your annual return, or have it removed up front. It can leave a hole, just as it was on your payroll check, and at times like this "20 bucks is 20 bucks," as we say in New England. If the amount of the tax is not going to make a significant contribution to your household, arrange to have it withheld. You won't want that coming around in April.
Step 4: Your weekly claim
As mentioned above, the burden is on you to claim your payments. This can now be done by phone, online, or still in person. As part of your Steps 1 & 2, be sure you understand what is required.
You will file your claim for the preceding week, and will be asked if you looked for work during that week, and if you were eligible for work. (You may not have been, for manhy reasons: sickness, jury duty, family care, travel, or even because you found some work to tide you over). If you worked, declare what you earned, and your check will be adjusted accordingly.
Even if you worked, you must file your claim. Missing a week signals to the state that you are back in gainful employ and your file will close. Repeat Step 1.
Step 5: Feel OK
Unemployment insurance is not charity, and it was never meant to be. The "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" image you have in your head is misdirected. Unemployment insurance is paid into by your employer for events like this.
The Committee on Economic Security described it this way:
"Under an unemployment insurance system reserves are accumulated during periods of employment to be paid out as benefits to workers during periods of unemployment. Small contributions based upon wages are paid into reserve funds from which weekly benefits amounting in most cases to 50 percent of wages can be paid to workers for as long as several months when they become unemployed. Unemployment insurance benefits come to the worker not as charity but as a definite right to which he is entitled by reason of his previous employment...Instead of requiring an unemployed worker and his family to bear the entire burden of unemployment it spreads the cost over the largest possible section of the community so that many may without difficulty share a load too heavy for the individual to bear unaided."
You have earned it. Claim it.
And by the way, there is nothing wrong with accepting charity either.
ACLU Civil Rights of the Unemployed, 1935
Unemployment Benefits Yanked for Earning
Surviving a Layoff
Oct 22, 2009
Instructor, Caroline Bender