How to file for unemployment benefits in 3 steps if you’re laid off

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Getting unexpectedly laid off can be enormously challenging and even traumatic. Even if your company complies with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires notifying employees of an approaching workforce reduction, the actual news can still leave you scrambling. 

Finding yourself in this position means you have many decisions to consider, but filing for unemployment should be one of the first moves you make. Unemployment insurance, which provides cash benefits to qualified workers, can help supplement emergency savings and cover bills and essentials while you look for work.

Unfortunately, unemployment benefits are “typically not very generous,” Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate, tells Fortune. That means individuals and households that have prioritized emergency savings are better able to manage until a new job materializes. But some money is better than no money—just know that how much you get depends on what state you live in.

“States have varying requirements determining who may file or qualify for benefits,” Hamrick adds. “Applicants need to be sure they’re filing with the appropriate government entity, particularly if they’re working remotely.”

They also need to be prepared to expect substantial delays in receiving benefits after applying. “Some of the painful lessons learned during the surge in joblessness during the pandemic [are that] many of the state systems set up to process unemployment applications and to pay out benefits are antiquated and underfunded,” Hamrick tells Fortune.

Since some states’ approval processes can lag for several weeks, it’s best to jump start the application process as soon as you’re able. Here’s how to get started.

First: See if you’re eligible

Each state has its own eligibility requirements and timelines. But typically, you can expect to be eligible if you are unemployed through no fault of your own. (That means if you were part of a mass layoff or workforce reduction rather than individually fired.) 

Filing workers will also be required to have worked for a minimum period of time—or brought in a minimum amount of income while at the job—to qualify for benefits. 

The Department of Labor refers to this as a “base period,” and it’s usually based on the first four out of the last five completed calendar quarters before the time that your claim is filed. Your state is likely to use this information to calculate how much you qualify for in unemployment benefits, which max out at various thresholds depending on the state 

You can find your state’s specific eligibility requirements here.

Second: Hit apply

To receive unemployment, you have to file a claim with the insurance program in the state where you worked, not necessarily where you reside. (To sort out any issues, you should contact your state’s unemployment insurance program as soon as you can—it can advise you on next steps, even if you worked in a different state). 

During that conversation and when you file a claim, you’ll be asked for certain clerical information, like addresses, driver’s license ID numbers, social security numbers, routing numbers, start and end dates at that job, and income. To keep the process running on a timely basis, you’ll want to have all this in front of you when you call. 

Third: Wait it out

According to the Department of Labor, it generally takes between two and three weeks to receive your first benefit check after you file your initial claim. (Though the tangle of bureaucracy during high-layoff periods can slow the process considerably.) 

The process doesn’t end, however, once you start receiving checks. Most states will dole out unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks, but they require recipients to file a claim each week to continue receiving them. Plus, many states require recipients to prove they are actively looking for new employment to continue receiving benefits. 

The Department of Labor hosts a call center for the express purpose of fielding workers’ and employers’ questions about job loss, layoffs, unemployment benefits and job training at the number 1-877-US-2JOBS.

But be careful not to get lost in the shuffle of secondhand information and tax details. Hamrick, the Bankrate analyst, says filers often fail to remember that unemployment benefits, as with other forms of income, are taxable (that also varies based on state and type of benefit). He encourages filers to keep close track of their benefits long before next year’s tax season sneaks around the corner.

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