Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Money

How Does Unemployment Work? What You Need to Know

person sitting in front of the couch on the floor with a laptop and papers
Christopher Robbins/Getty Images

It’s never easy to stare unemployment in the face—especially if you received little to no notice or severance pay from your last employer or if losing your job took you totally by surprise. But if you qualify to collect unemployment, the benefits you receive can make lean times a bit less stressful.

Despite the number of people out of jobs, many of those who qualify for unemployment benefits don’t cash in, perhaps because they don’t know the unemployment requirements. A study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank found that in the height of the recession in 2008 and 2009, only half of eligible people applied for unemployment. That figure eventually surged to 95% the following two years, but in total, about 200,000 people still missed out on unemployment benefits to which they were entitled and could have received, had they simply known the unemployment qualifications.

So how do you know if you qualify for unemployment? Rachel Sanborn, a certified financial planner, gave us the scoop on unemployment eligibility.

Related: Laid Off Due to Coronavirus? Here’s What You Can Do Now

Are You Eligible for Unemployment?

According to the Department of Labor, you need to meet two criteria to qualify for unemployment:

  • You are unemployed through no fault of your own: That means you are out of a job due to reasons beyond your control, like a layoff. So, if you quit your job without good cause or are fired for gross misconduct, you’re not eligible. “Gross misconduct” is a vague term, but generally refers to illegal or dangerous acts committed in the workplace, like stealing from your employer.
  • You meet your state’s requirements for time worked or wages earned: Every state has different rules. For example, New York requires you to have worked in at least two calendar quarters of your “base period” (generally that just means the year before), be paid at least $2,600 in wages in one of those quarters, and during that period made a total of 1.5 times the amount you made in your highest-paid quarter that year. Complicated, right? Fear not: If you had a solid, long-term job that you lost, you probably meet your state’s minimum time and wage requirements. You can learn about your state's rules at CareerOneStop.

You also need to be actively looking for a new job, so those who head back to school full time won’t be able to collect because they’re no longer actively job-searching. Nonetheless, if you’re seeking training in a high-demand field, some states (like Washington and Oregon) have allowances that let you receive additional weeks of unemployment benefits without looking for work, as long as you’re enrolled and making satisfactory progress in your training program.

One thing to note: Contract laborers don’t qualify for unemployment because their employers didn’t pay unemployment taxes for them when they were working.

What to Know When You File for Unemployment

Exact details vary by state. Some states require waiting periods, in which you need to be unemployed for a certain amount of time before you can collect benefits. Often, this is a week, so the second week you claim is the first week you’ll get paid for. The maximum benefit you can receive will also vary by state, and so will the formula for how those benefits are calculated. Keep in mind that severance pay or vacation time at the end of your job can delay when you begin receiving benefits.

Regardless, Sanborn says that newly laid-off people should file as soon as possible. “Don’t wait until you think you qualify,” she says. “It can be such a hassle and such a long, drawn-out process that the sooner you start, the better.”

How to Get Unemployment

To begin the unemployment process, contact the unemployment insurance agency in your state of residence or past employment. If you lived and worked in different states, Sanborn says you can choose which state to draw benefits from, so it’s worth “shopping around” for where to file unemployment. Depending on the state, you can file a claim online, by phone, or in person.

To prevent delays, make sure the details you provide about your former job (dates of employment, company address, and so on) are accurate. And if your claim is denied, you have the right to appeal for unemployment eligibility.

How to Stay on Unemployment

While collecting unemployment, you are required to file weekly or biweekly claims detailing your job hunt, job offers, earnings from part-time work, and any times you’ve refused work (and why).

There’s no one set path for all unemployed people because requirements vary by state, but there’s a good chance you’ll have to attend in-person meetings to update the unemployment agency on the progress of your job search. You also might be encouraged to attend training sessions to help you increase your job prospects.

“It’s not easy to stay on unemployment,” Sanborn says. “You have to go to a lot of in-person meetings and career training sessions on finding a job or updating a resume.” If you don’t report to your unemployment office for a check-in when you’re supposed to, you could lose your benefits. “Usually you have to submit a list of applications and put down the name and phone number in case they check in on it,” Sanborn notes. “But the biggest hassle is that you do need to keep going to those meetings.”

While collecting unemployment, keep in mind that your benefits are subject to federal income taxes and you need to report them on your federal tax return. If you want, you can choose to have the tax withheld by your State Unemployment Insurance agency.

How to Collect Unemployment Longer (Sort Of)

Sanborn’s best tip for the newly unemployed? Look for a part-time job. “Any week that you make enough so you don’t need unemployment is an extra week tacked on to the unemployment period you can collect,” she says.

Unemployment rules for dealing with part-time work vary regionally. Some states will prorate your unemployment by a percentage (or deduct a certain amount from your unemployment check for every dollar you earn over a set limit), and others will let you earn a certain amount from part-time work as a supplement to your unemployment before they reduce your benefits. If there are weeks when you make too much to collect benefits, you’ve just earned yourself a safety net of an extra week.