Unemployment insurance benefits can be incredibly helpful when a worker is laid off and between jobs, but the claims process can be very complicated. Even after a person is awarded benefits, there can still be unanswered questions: How many weeks can a worker get benefits? What does certification entail? Can a worker restart benefits after a short work period? What are the biggest common mistakes to avoid when filing an unemployment claim?
It's important for a worker to get a complete overview of the unemployment system to be certain they get the benefits to which they are entitled.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Each state enacts its own unemployment insurance laws. That means that the number of weeks of benefits available vary from state to state. Federal pandemic unemployment laws authorize additional weeks beyond state maximums in some cases.
Lowdown on Unemployment Benefits
Employment benefits include some that are discretionary, like paid vacation leave. They also include some benefits that are mandatory for all. These benefits are required by employment laws and include minimum wage, work breaks and unemployment coverage.
Unemployment benefits are intended to provide financial assistance to employees who find themselves out of work through no fault of their own. Most states mandate that claimants have worked for a certain number of hours or earned a certain amount of income in a base period, and the amount of a weekly unemployment benefit will depend on the wages the employee was earning.
Unemployment insurance (UI) benefits are financed by employers, and no amounts are deducted from a worker's salary to cover them. The amount an employer must pay is based on their payroll. Generally, only an employee whose employer paid into a state's UI system will be eligible. That excludes freelance workers, independent contractors and gig workers.
Three Pillars of Eligibility
State unemployment laws are not all alike, and critical details – like the amount of benefits and how many weeks a worker can receive them – differ among jurisdictions. However, most states impose three standard requirements. A worker must:
- Be unemployed through no fault or misdeeds of their own.
- Have earned certain minimum income during the base period established by their state's law.
- Be able to work and be actively seeking employment.
The no-fault requirement is standard across the country, though each state defines the eligibility requirement slightly differently. An employee is considered to be unemployed due to their own fault if they were fired for good cause or misconduct, like showing up to work drunk or stealing money from the till.
Also, an employee will be eligible for UI benefits only if they have worked for a certain period of time and earned a base amount of income over a number of calendar quarters . The time and/or amount is specified in state law. Finally, all states require that to be eligible for unemployment benefits, a worker must be able to work, be available to work, and be actively looking for employment.
Duration of UI Benefit Payments
The single biggest factor in determining a worker's UI benefit amounts is the state in which they live and work. State minimum weekly benefits range widely, from a high of $742 in Massachusetts to a low of $235 in Mississippi.
The length of time a worker can collect benefits under state law also varies considerably. The vast majority of states offer weekly UI benefits to qualified unemployed workers for a maximum period of 26 weeks. However, the maximum number of weeks available in Florida and North Carolina is only 12, and the only state that offers more than 26 weeks of benefits is Massachusetts, where a claimant can get paid UI benefits for 30 weeks. Note that an employee can collect the maximum amount of benefits only if they do not find work during the period.
The length of time a worker can get benefits has been expanded temporarily by federal government legislation. This legislation, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, was intended to provide assistance during the coronavirus pandemic for those who lost work due to COVID-19. In addition to increasing the duration of benefits, the CARES Act also expanded employment eligibility for those who lost their work due to COVID-19 and provided supplemental payments to them.
Federal Law Provides Additional Benefits
The initial federal pandemic unemployment law was enacted on March 27, 2020, as part of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC). It provided an additional $600 a week of unemployment benefits through July 31, 2020, for any worker who lost their job or had their hours reduced due to COVID-19; was unable to work because they had COVID-19; was caring for a family member with COVID-19; or was looking after a child whose school was closed because of COVID-19. It also added 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits to the maximum benefit that a state provided and extended all unemployment benefits to self-employed individuals, freelancers, gig workers and independent contractors.
In December, 2020, Congress changed and extended the FPUC as part of the Continued Assistance Act (CAA). The amended FPUC offers a supplemental weekly amount of unemployment insurance, but not the $600 initially provided. The new amount is $300 per week in unemployment benefits starting in the week ending January 2, 2021, and running through March 14, 2021.
The CAA also extended the program that makes self-employed and gig workers eligible for benefits and set the maximum duration of PUA benefits at 50 weeks, up from 39 weeks. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program also expires on March 14, 2021. All of these programs are expected to be extended by pending legislation.
Certifying for Continuing Benefits
Just because a worker is judged eligible for UI benefits one week does not mean that they will continue to receive benefits for the maximum period in their state. It is obvious that some workers actively seeking work are likely to find work before 26 weeks have expired. In order to ascertain a claimant's continuing status, states require workers to certify for benefits at regular intervals. This certification is essentially a sworn statement by the worker that they are available for work and actively seeking work but they haven't found a job yet. Failure to certify results in cessation of the worker's benefits.
Not that taking temporary work will not knock the worker off the rolls permanently. If the worker gets a temporary or part-time job that pays enough to preclude UI benefits for a week or two, they simply report this pay on their certification. While they may not get any benefits for that week, they will be able to certify the following week. If they earned no wages, they will once again receive benefits.
Restarting a Claim for Benefits
On the other hand, if a worker reports that they have found a job and now have new employment, their claim is considered closed. They are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits since they are employed once again. Ideally, the worker continues happily at this position for years, but that is not always the case. If the worker once again finds themselves unemployed within 52 weeks of their prior claim for UI benefits, they can reopen the prior claim instead of having to file a new one. Note that a worker can only reopen a claim if they are laid off through no fault of their own.
How does this work? If a person applies for UI, starts getting benefits, then finds a job, they must notify the agency of that when they certify. If they are laid off from that job within a year of the date they last applied for UI, they can simply reopen the old claim by certifying and continue to receive benefits under the old claim. It's much easier than filing a new claim.
In practice, it would look like this: Say the worker is in one of the states that offers 26 weeks of benefits. The workers applies and gets benefits for 13 weeks, then gets rehired by their company and works for a few months before getting laid off again. The worker can simply pick up the old claim and collect the remaining 13 weeks of benefits, along with any supplemental weeks provided by federal legislation.
No Limit on Number of Claims
No state imposes a maximum number of unemployment insurance claims a worker is permitted to file in their lifetime. A worker who meets the requirements for unemployment benefits in their state can get benefits, regardless of how many times in the past they have received them. The state unemployment agency reviews every claim on its own merits. Any worker meeting the criteria will be eligible for benefits. If they get rehired, then laid off again, they can apply again.
Filing an Unemployment Insurance Claim
If a worker does need to file a new claim for unemployment insurance benefits, it is easier than it used to be since any worker with internet access can now file their claim online by going to their state's UI website.
To make the procedure as easy as possible, a worker should collect the required information before filing. This generally includes:
- Name, address and date of birth.
- Social Security number.
- Signed affidavit about citizenship and permanent residence status.
- Photo ID such as a passport, driver’s license or DHS Employment Authorization.
- List of all employment within the past two years including employers, wages and reason for separation.
After submitting the claim, the worker will have to wait for a careful review. At some point, the agency sends a letter to let the worker know if they quality for unemployment benefits. The worker will also get another communication that lays out the amount and duration of unemployment they may be eligible for. After that, the worker has to file weekly statements under penalty of perjury certifying their current situation in order to continue to receive payments.
Common Mistakes in Filing Initial Claims
While UI agencies are often backed up these days, delays to determine claims may also result from a claimant's errors in filling out the claims form. It's a good idea to get familiar with some of the common mistakes that workers make in order to avoid them. One very simple mistake a worker can make that may delay the claim is to identify themselves by a nickname rather than by their given name. This can also happen if the worker accidentally puts their first name where their last name should go and vice versa.
Another common mistake involves the separation information. A worker needs to specify their employer's name and address, as well as the reason they were laid off. The agency will contact the employer to verify the date and the reason. The worker needs to do this even if they were not officially laid off but simply informed that no work is available. This lack of work also constitutes a separation.
Finally, a worker needs to be sure to note that they are able to work and be available to work on both the initial application and the biweekly certification. That is a requirement to collect state unemployment although the rules are more relaxed for COVID-19 unemployment insurance benefits.
- World Population Review: State Rankings Unemployment Benefits
- Investopedia: Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act
- Nolo: Unemployment Benefits
- Nolo: Unemployment Benefits: How Much Will You Get?
- CNBC: How to Restart Unemployment Benefits
- WPXI News: Top 5 Mistakes People Make Filing Unemployment
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.