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Can you collect unemployment benefits?

Unemployment Benefits application
Highlights
  • The national jobless rate hogs the spotlight, but state numbers count.
  • Despite high joblessness in the city, New Yorkers can't get benefits.
  • Jobless workers who meet certain criteria should not hesitate to file.

No one wants to see economic conditions deteriorate -- do they?

When local unemployment rates are released each month, residents and policy makers want desperately to see employment circumstances improving. But here's the catch: If you're jobless and you want the full 99 weeks' worth of unemployment benefits Congress just authorized, your state's unemployment rate has to be pretty high. That's because the bulk of this federal money is distributed to ex-employees only when their state's jobless rate for three months clocks in at elevated levels.

"It's a double-edged sword," says Ann Hatchitt, communications director for the Texas Workforce Commission. "We really don't want the rate going up but it could mean additional benefits for some people."

The Labor Department's latest release shows that unemployment rates in seven states come close to the money, but stand just behind the threshold that would allow the jobless to actually touch the dollars. They are: Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Texas, New Mexico, New York and Hawaii.

For states "lucky" enough to qualify, Congress recently extended for laid-off Americans the length of weeks they can collect unemployment insurance -- from 26 weeks to 34 weeks. After that time, there's the potential for another 13 weeks' worth for those living in states with a jobless rate higher than 6 percent, an extra 26 weeks for those in states with 6.5 percent unemployment, and another 49 weeks in states where 8.5 percent are jobless.

So if you've been laid off, your financial fate is determined in part by improving conditions near you, even if they're actually hundreds of miles away. In the state of New York, the rate averages 8.3 percent, just under the 8.5 percent mark, but in New York City, 9.5 percent of the people are jobless. After last month's local unemployment report, money dried up for out-of-work families in Vermont, Montana and New Hampshire because too many of their friends and neighbors were lucky enough to find jobs.

"There are sometimes high pockets of unemployment within a state," says George Wentworth, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project in New York, an advocacy organization for low wage workers.

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But losing your job and living in a state plagued with joblessness doesn't automatically qualify you for money. You must have been employed for more than three months, though state laws vary. You must have lost your job due to no fault of your own -- get fired and you're disqualified. And you'll prove you're not only able to work -- if you left for a medical reason, forget it -- but also that you're actively looking for another job, says Wentworth.

And regardless of your state's unemployment rate, the number of weeks' worth of benefits you receive will always be tied to the length of time worked at your previous job. For example, an engineer laid off after 20 years on the job will collect benefits for longer than one who'd worked just six months.

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