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.”

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.

Last year, the Nebraska Department of Labor issued a warning: “It has come to our attention that there are Web sites offering fee-based services for filing for unemployment insurance benefits … While their services may be legal, the same service can be obtained at no cost and at no risk of their personal information being compromised by utilizing (the official state site).”

Once a jobless worker requests benefits, the information is sent to his or her former employer. The employer then has a chance to contest the worker’s stated reasons for why he or she lost the job.  

The state eventually rules for or against the worker receiving benefits.

If you’re denied a claim, you can appeal the decision. You can seek legal counsel for help, but many states have a tight deadline for appeal, and workers may not have time to get legal help and meet the deadline, says Brantner.

Making ends meet

For many jobless without savings or other resources, unemployment benefits are the only means of meeting the bills.

Each state places a maximum limit on the amount the jobless can receive. Amounts are based on a percentage — usually between 50 percent and 70 percent — of the average weekly wages in the state. In Illinois, for instance, the maximum weekly unemployment benefit is $385 for an individual, $459 for an individual with a dependent spouse and $534 for a worker with a dependent child or children.

“There’s a dramatic change in (a newly unemployed person’s) budget, because you’re dealing with a lot less money than you had before,” says Mechel Glass, director of education at the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Greater Atlanta. The organization teaches classes for the Georgia Department of Labor on how to cope with reduced income after being laid off. She says the number of people taking their classes has almost tripled since the current recession began.

“You need to re-evaluate your budget immediately and look at the dollars you now have coming in and start prioritizing your expenses and paying the most important items first and addressing those so you’re not in a situation where you’re beginning to lose things like your home or your car.”

Dolores Sherman, director of Helping Others Progress Economically, a credit counseling service in Stone Mountain, Ga., says nonprofit organizations can help close budget gaps for unemployed workers.

“The first call should be to the United Way,” says Sherman. “They are a wonderful resource for information on nonprofit agencies that may be able to meet a consumer’s needs.”

Also, unemployed people who are supporting families should not ashamed to look into other forms of public assistance, says Sherman. “Programs like WIC or food stamps … are a bridge designed to help you get over this troubled water that you’re facing.”

Better benefits

This past summer, benefits were extended for 13 additional weeks for unemployed workers who were still jobless after their initial benefits ran out, typically after 26 weeks in most states. As a result, out-of-work recipients can get extended benefits until March, says Stettner.

Benefits may be extended again, and there have also been proposals for eliminating federal income tax on benefits.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1980s, says Stettner, that unemployment benefits began to be taxed. Now, he adds, the climate is right for legislating more relief for the jobless.

Claes Bell contributed to this report.

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