Are you thinking about quitting? Do you believe you might be getting the axe at work? If so, you are probably wondering about unemployment benefits. Unemployment insurance is a program originating out of the New Deal era in the United States to give workers a life line of cash to ride out the spans of time between paychecks. While the intentions of the program are quite noble, trying to navigate the bureaucracies of state unemployment agencies is nothing short of a nightmare. Here are a few tips and trick I learned about as a former employee of Wisconsin's unemployment program which I hope will demystify UI slightly as well as clear up a few misconceptions.
1. Unemployment Insurance is run at the state level
When you go to apply for UI (an acronym for Unemployment Insurance) benefits, you will be doing so through your state's unemployment program. To take Wisconsin, for example, UI is under the auspices of the Department of Workforce Development. This means the rules and regulations pertaining to how and if you can collect benefits will be specific to your state. It behooves you to learn as much as possible about your state's unemployment program. Most states have a "claimant's handbook" which is available as a brochure and/or as a pdf on their website.
2. You earn wages to qualify, but you do not pay into it.
This might seem like a paradox so I will clarify: UI programs are normally funded through a tax on employers (ie your boss). They are required to report your wages quarterly to the state UI department. Their rate of taxation is based on factors such as how many people they employ and how often the lay people off. The more people they lay off the higher the tax rate on the employer. This taxation directly funds the benefits for which you apply.
3. Benefit calculations are based on when, where and how much you earned.
The standard UI benefit calculation in Wisconsin is as follows: your weekly benefit rate is based on a percentage of your highest quarterly wage in the first four of the last five completed fiscal quarters. Broken down, that means that the amount of your weekly check (the weekly benefit rate) is calculated by finding the fiscal quarter (a 3 month timeframe going from January 1st to March 31st, April 1st to June 30th, July 1st to September 30th or October 1st to December 31st) where you earned the most. The first four quarters of the last 5 completed quarters are used to ensure that the employer has reported the wages (which they are required to do at the end of each quarter.) There are usually minimum amounts to earn (for example, if your calculated rate falls below $51 you will not be eligible.)
Where you earned your wage matters just as much as when and how much. As each state runs their own program, each state has different requirements and calculations. They mostly follow the above formula while also calculating things like how many weeks of benefits you receive (up to 26 weeks in Wisconsin) using that same quarter information. You can use wages from two states doing what is called a "combined wage claim", where wages from one state are "transferred" to another so they can calculate that into your benefits.
4. You can claim in one state and collect it in another.
Thanks to the Full Faith and Credit Clause to the US Constitution, you can collect benefits from one state while living in another as long as you earned wages in the state you wish to collect from. This can be great if you are planning to move to (hopefully) greener pastures in search of employment opportunities.
5. The only surefire way of collecting benefits is if you are laid off
Unemployment benefits are meant mostly for people who get laid off. Sometimes this involves a plant closing but usually this pertains to people who get laid of seasonally such as loggers, farmhands and truck drivers. Teachers, though they are unemployed for the summer and for holidays, are normally subject to different restrictions depending on your state.
6. If you quit or are fired, you will need to go through adjudication
What is adjudication? Adjudication is a legal process, and in regard to UI it is a process to determine if you are eligible for benefits. While you would think this is cut and dry, over the last 50 years lobbyists have been bloating state unemployment programs with loopholes to try and save employers money. Your case will be put in the queue of an adjudicator who most likely has 100s of other cases to work through before they get to you, and the adjudication process is not easy. They will have to contact you, your former employer, and verify everything to get the facts so they can make their decision on your benefits. The best thing you can do in this situation is be patient and proactive. Keep records of all your pay stubs, contracts, and any correspondence with your employer and be prepared to mail or fax it (faxing services can be found at a local library or a "job center" if your state provides them) as UI departments around the country are very underfunded and use incredibly outdated technology.
7. You can work part time and continue collect benefits.
In Wisconsin, if you are working less than 32 hours a week you can collect UI benefits as well as your wage. The only stipulation on this is the amount you receive from UI will be reduced based on how much you earned. If you earn too much you will be ineligible for benefits that week. This calculation can vary significantly from state to state so it is important to get to know your state's unemployment program.
8. You need to apply for your benefits weekly
Back in the day, you would have to go down to the Unemployment Office, wait in line, and once you answer a few questions they would give you a check. Now this is done almost exclusively over the phone or online, but you will still have to answer a series of questions, such as "did you work this last week" or "were you able and available for work?" Keep in mind that this week runs from Sunday to Saturday usually, and if you earned any wages at a part time job you may have to calculate exactly how much you earned for that week if your employer pays you on a different schedule (ie biweekly.) You need to report wages the week you worked to earn them, not when you received the paycheck. Be careful when answering the questions and entering wages as even doing slightly incorrectly can but your claim in adjudication for a month.
9. If you work for a temp agency while collecting, they will try to screw you out of your claim.
People run into trouble with temp agencies will collecting UI benefits when they leave one "job" and go to another one. The reason I put quotes around "job" is because when you work for a temp agency, that temp agency is your employer. They are the one paying UI taxes on you, not the company for which you did the work for. What temp agencies try to do (by no means all but it is very common in the industry) is try and claim that as a "quit" or as a "fired." Even if you quit or were fired from that assignment, as long as you are signed up with the temp agency, you are the temp agency's employee. In a situation where you quit, you may not be eligible for that week (this is called a Work Available issue, as in "there was work available and the claimant did not accept it"), but this is very much preferable to a "quit" or "fired" issue, which may deny you benefits for a month or permanently.
10. To stop your claim, just stop filing your weekly claims
When you finally get a job and can leave the purgatory that is unemployment, you may be confused about how to end your claim. All you have to do is stop filing your weekly claims. That's all. The only time you may want to keep claiming is if your claim is under adjudication when you get hired. Do not just forget about your claim; you may get a denial decision by default and when you go to collect in the future you will have to deal with the headache of reopening or appealing the decision. Continue claiming and report your wages. You won't get any money from the department if you are working full time, but your claim will stay "alive" until you can sort out the adjudication issue.
Bonus: watch out for "waiting weeks".
Many states have instituted a "waiting week", which basically means you are not due benefits for the first week you are eligible for benefits. What does that mean? Basically for the first week you are unemployed and have all your paperwork in place, you will not be getting a check. These policies have been instituted mostly due to the fact that a significant chunk of people who claim end up only claiming one or two weeks, so this is really just a way of "cheating" people out of their benefits and save the UI program a great deal of money. It does not reduce your benefit amount in any way, but if your state does have such a policy it will put another week in between you and your first check from UI.
These 10 tips are by no means an exhaustive list of everything you need to know to collect unemployment benefits. It is crucial that you understand your state's unemployment division and their policies pertaining to collecting benefits. Hopefully these tips will help you navigate your state's bureaucracy and get you the benefits you have earned.