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Qualifying for unemployment

Highlights
  • Typically, about one-third of jobless get unemployment checks.
  • Many states now let you apply online or by phone.
  • Each state has a maximum on the amount the jobless can receive. 

To thousands of out-of-work Americans, living from paycheck to paycheck sounds like a luxury.

And for many jobless, even living off unemployment benefits would be a welcome blessing.

Typically, only about one-third of jobless receive unemployment insurance checks, but in recessionary times, the percentage pushes higher to about one-half, says Wayne Vroman, economist at the Urban Institute.

Whether or not the unfortunate jobless are fortunate enough to receive unemployment benefits depends on the rules in their state -- and whether they even pursue the checks.

No more unemployment lines?

Being jobless isn't pleasant, and neither is trudging down to the unemployment office to claim benefits.

Many states, however, now let you apply online or by phone, making it easier to file an unemployment insurance claim.

A 2005 study showed that half of people who don't apply for benefits didn't because they thought they were ineligible, says Vroman.

But if you're unsure whether or not you'll qualify, it can't hurt to apply, says Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness.

Who qualifies?

If you quit, worked part time, were fired for misconduct, or didn't earn enough during a defined period before your job ended, your state may deny benefits.

Qualifying rules vary somewhat from state to state, however.

For instance, "if you're working part time by choice, you probably don't qualify, but in some states (you qualify) if you've been part time because that is all the hours your employer could give you," says Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project.

Moreover, if you simply quit, you can't collect -- but some states make exceptions for workers forced to leave their jobs to care for ill family members, he adds.

Recessionary rush

During recessions, not only are there more jobless, but they're more apt to qualify for benefits, because they are part of mass layoffs.

In many cases, workers who initially are laid-off temporarily can qualify if the layoff subsequently becomes permanent. "A lot of people don't file because they think it's just a couple of weeks (layoff)," says Vroman. "But if the situation turns permanent, you can still file, although the length of time allowed (between making a claim and the initial layoff date) varies betweens states."

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Do it yourself

States don't charge jobless residents to apply for benefits.

Services exist that charge consumers for filing on their behalf, but "they can't get you the benefits any faster," says Brantner.

Indeed, most states operate under performance guidelines that mandate the jobless receive a response to their application and start to receive benefits within three weeks, adds Brantner.

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