Unemployment Benefits – How To File For Unemployment & How It Works


If you are like one of the 16 million people who have recently lost their jobs, you’re probably in need of some cash to make ends meet. Whether to afford groceries, this month’s rent, essential utilities, or any other necessary expenses you may have, filing for unemployment benefits can provide critical sources of financial support for recently out of work individuals. 

But, how do I know if I qualify for unemployment benefits? What exactly is covered by unemployment insurance? How do I file for unemployment benefits? And, how has COVID-19 impacted my state’s unemployment benefits laws? See the answers to all of these questions and more below. 

What Are Unemployment Benefits?

Unemployment benefits, which are the actual funds themselves, are provided through your state-specific unemployment insurance. 

As defined by the Department of Labor, “unemployment insurance is a joint state-federal program that provides cash benefits to eligible workers.” These cash payments can help you stay afloat and help supplement your emergency fund.

But, what does this practically mean for you as someone simply looking for help making ends meet? 

Basically, it means the specifics of unemployment insurance, such as who is eligible, the amount you will receive, and the duration for which you can collect benefits, are all governed by your individual state – so it’s essential to check your state’s policies. However, states do have to model their unemployment systems according to federal guidelines, which we will outline below.

Eligibility Requirements For Unemployment Insurance

(Note: The recently passed CARES Act has changed these requirements and given states more freedom to adjust their unemployment insurance plans. Please see our COVID-specific section below for more details about these changes and how they apply to you.)

The most common requirements for receiving unemployment benefits are some iteration of the following two criteria: 

  1. You are currently unemployed for reasons other than having been fired for gross misconduct or resigning from work without good cause (this is often referred as having lost employment “through no fault of your own.”) 

Though “good cause” lacks a consistent legal definition as it varies by state, it is generally taken to mean some form of documented issue that was brought up to your employer yet persisted. If you’re curious whether your reason for quitting constitutes having good cause, some examples of good cause would be lack of safety in the work environment, discrimination based on race or gender, and medical emergencies related to the employee or immediate family members.

2. You have met your state’s requirements for wages earned and amount of time worked during the last year’s worth of work or the first four out of five quarters (often described in documentation as the “base period”). 

To clarify the latter part of this requirement, quarters are broken up into January – March, April – June, July – September, and October – December.

Unemployment Eligibility Quarters Example

If you were to file for unemployment during May of 2020 for example, which falls into the April – June 2020 quarter, first go back five quarters to the 2019 January – March quarter. Then, include the first four quarters in your analysis, using January 2019 – March 2019 as the first quarter (which means the first four quarters ultimately include everything from January 2019 – December 2019). 

While there are occasionally a few additional requirements to meet, such as in Alaska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, which all require employees to pay taxes towards unemployment benefits (it is usually funded entirely by your employer), these can be used as a quick rule of thumb to determine whether or not you might qualify for unemployment benefits.

New York Unemployment Benefits Criteria

It’s crucial to recognize that the range of unemployment benefits, as well as the necessary steps to follow in filing for unemployment, varies on a state by state basis. Here, we will go through the unemployment laws of one of America’s most densely populated states: New York. 

If you are a New York resident and you have recently lost your job, let’s first go through the specific eligibility criteria you must meet as described by the New York State Claimant Handbook

  1. Lost employment through no fault of your own (our first criteria from the previous section).
  2. Earned wages in at least two out of four quarters in your base period.
  3. Earned a minimum wage of $2600 total within at least one quarter in your base period. 
  4. Throughout the entirety of the base period, earn a total of at least 1.5 times your highest quarterly earnings (illustrated in an example below).
  5. Be ready, willing, and able to work immediately. This means if you are offered a job that you have the necessary skills and background to perform, you must accept the offer. 
  6. Be actively seeking work and keep written documentation of your searching efforts (things such as creating a resume, contacting employers, going to interviews, etc. all fall under the guise of “searching efforts”).
  7. Attend required appointments at your local Career Center.

To help demystify the process, let’s do an example.

New York Eligibility Criteria Example

Say your base period was January 2019 – December 2019 (as it would be for anyone filing between April 1st, 2020, and June 30, 2020) and your earnings broken down by quarter were: 

$2,500 in Q1 (Jan. – Mar.) 

$5,000 in Q2 (Apr. – Jun.)

$1,500 in Q3 (Jul. – Sept.)

$1,000 in Q4 (Oct. – Dec.)

You earned wages in all four quarters, fulfilling the second requirement, and your highest quarterly earnings were over $2,600 ($5,000 in Q2), fulfilling the third. 

To check the fourth requirement, let’s take Q2, the quarter with our highest earnings of $5,000, and multiply it by 1.5 (1.5 * 5,000 = 7,500). This means, over the course of all four quarters, you would need to have earned at least $7,500 if your highest quarterly earnings were $5,000. So, by summing up our four quarters of earnings, we find that this requirement is also fulfilled (2,500 + 5,000 + 1,500 + 1,000 = $10,000)!

(Note: This last requirement maxes out when your highest quarterly earnings reach $11,088. At and beyond this point, you simply need to have earned at least $5,544 through the remaining three quarters in your base period in order to fulfill this requirement.)

Now that we’ve verified you meet the eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance, let’s go through how to file and claim benefits.

How & When to File For Unemployment Benefits In New York

It’s recommended that you file for benefits as soon as you have become unemployed, preferably within the first week, because there will be a one-week period after you have filed a claim where you will not receive any benefits. So, the sooner you can file and get the one week waiting period over, the better. 

You can file an unemployment claim either online using an NY.gov ID or via phone at 1-888-209-8124. Again, remember that this is for New York only, so make sure you find the right number for your state.

What Do I Need To Have When I File?

Here is the complete list of the necessary materials you will need in order to fill out a claim provided by the New York State Department of Labor: 

  • Driver’s license and Social Security number 
  • Contact info including a current phone number and mailing address
  • Alien Registration card number (if you are not a U.S. Citizen and have a card)
  • Names and addresses of all employers through the last 18 months
  • Employer Registration number or Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) of your most recent employer (this information can be found on your W-2)
  • SF8 and SF50 forms for federal employees
  • Your most recent separation form (DD 214) for ex-military service members

How Do I Receive Benefits?

After following the prompted directions either online or via telephone, most of which simply consist of providing information from the aforementioned materials, you will choose to either receive benefits via direct deposit or debit card.

It’s worth noting that benefits paid via direct deposit do take a few days to transfer over. For that reason, it’s likely faster to use a debit card. 

If you choose to take payments via debit card, you will receive a debit card in the mail after your claim is approved. This card will allow you to withdraw your benefits as cash via ATMs. You will be prompted to set up a PIN in order to activate it. This can be done by calling 866-295-2955 (KeyBank Customer Service).

How Much Will I Receive In Unemployment Benefits?

With eligibility fulfilled and payment set up, you are set to start receiving unemployment benefits. But, how much will you get?

The exact amount will depend on your highest quarterly earnings and how many quarters you earned wages within during your base period, but there is currently a state-wide limit of $504 per week in NY. 

The breakdowns for wages and weekly benefits in New York are as follows: 

With four quarters of wages and highest quarterly earnings (also called “high quarter wages”) of more than $3,718, your weekly benefit is equal to your high quarter wages divided by 26.

With four quarters of wages and high quarter wages of between $3,576 to $3,718, your weekly benefit is a flat $143. 

With four quarters of wages and high quarter wages of between $2,501 to $3,575, your weekly benefit is equal to your high quarter wages divided by 25.

With four quarters of wages and high quarter wages less than or equal to $2,500, your weekly benefit is a flat $100. 

Going back to the previous example, our individual earned wages in all four quarters and had a quarterly high of $5,000. This would put him in the first category, as his high quarter wages were more than $3,718, so we can calculate his weekly benefit by dividing his high quarter wages by 26 (5,000 / 26 = $192.30). So, our original person would receive $192.30 per week. 

What If I Worked Fewer Than Four Quarters?

If instead, our individual had only worked three quarters and earned quarterly earnings of $2,500 in Q1, $4,100 in Q2, $1,400 in Q3, and $0 in Q4 (because he didn’t work), let’s see how this would affect his unemployment benefits. 

The breakdowns for wages and weekly benefits in New York change slightly if you only worked for two or three quarters in your base period, but they are still based on high quarter wages: 

With two or three quarters of wages and high quarter wages of more than $4,000, your weekly benefit is the average wages of your two highest quarters, divided by 26, or a flat $143 (you are given whichever number is higher). 

With two or three quarters of wages and high quarter wages of between $3,719 to $4,000, your weekly benefit is equal to your high quarter wages divided by 26.

With two or three quarters of wages and high quarter wages of between $3,576 to $3,718, your weekly benefit is a flat rate of $143. 

With two or three quarters of wages and high quarter wages of between $2,501 to $3,575, your weekly benefit is equal to your high quarter wages divided by 25.

With two or three quarters of wages and high quarter wages of $2500 or less, your weekly benefit is a flat rate of $100.

Going back to our new individual, we can see he would fall into the first category (his high wages are $4,100 in Q2), and so we take the average of his highest two quarters ($4,100 in Q2 and $2500 in Q1) and divide by 26. (4,100 + 2,500 / 2 = 3,300; 3,300 / 26 = $126.92) Here, this calculation results in benefits less than $143, so he would instead receive a flat rate of $143 per week. 

How Long Do Unemployment Benefits Last For?

After filing for unemployment and waiting for the one-week period, you will begin receiving unemployment benefits (though sometimes this wait can be closer to two or three weeks, in which case you’ll receive back pay for the additional weeks with your first payment). 

If you follow the steps below on how to claim unemployment benefits and keep up with the regular re-certification, you will be able to collect benefits for the duration of your unemployment, up to 26 weeks.

Most states will require you to file claims via telephone or online, either weekly or every other week. During this process, you’ll be asked to re-certify your unemployment eligibility, including reporting any earnings or job offers received during the week. 

Most of the time, you’ll also be required to request payment each week in order to receive benefits, which can also be done either online or via telephone and must be done within one week (i.e. you must claim your unemployment benefits for the week of 4/13 – 4/19 between 4/19 – 4/25). 

How Do I Re-Certify Eligibility?

Using our example New York resident, he would have to claim benefits each week either online using his NY.gov ID or via telephone at 888-581-5812 (NY State Department of Labor). Regardless of how he chooses to claim benefits, he will then be asked the following series of questions, which may vary slightly state-to-state but are generally similar: 

  • Did you refuse any job offers or referrals during the past week? 
  • Did you perform any services for a business or person (paid or unpaid) during the past week? 
  • If you worked this past week, did you earn more than $504 in wages?
  • Were there any days in which you were not ready, willing, and able to work, and if so, how many?
  • Did you receive any vacation pay (not including pay from unused vacation days)?
  • Did you receive any holiday pay (not including pay from unused holiday credits)?
  • Have you returned to work?

If, based on the answers to these questions, our individual still qualifies for unemployment benefits, he will then receive them either via debit card or as a direct deposit. 

One other important note: At any point during your unemployment, the state department of labor can request your presence for an interview in which you could be asked to bring written documentation of your job search. If you fail to appear for this interview, you can be denied future unemployment benefits. 

For this reason, it is crucial to always keep written records of any job search efforts undertaken (information such as completed job applications, addresses and contact info of any businesses applied to, dates and locations of interviews or job fairs, etc. are all useful here). States also vary on how often you must search for work or engage in such activities (New York requires a minimum of 3 per week), so check your state’s policies online.

Coronavirus’ Effects On Unemployment Benefits

The recently passed CARES Act has largely increased the amount one receives from unemployment benefits amid the Coronavirus pandemic. First, in addition to the changes made to unemployment insurance, every individual who has filed as an independent in last year’s tax forms and who earns less than $75,000 per year will receive $1,200 cash (or $2,400 cash for joint-filers earning a combined income less than $150,000 per year), as well as an additional $500 per household dependent (read: child or someone under your primary care).

As for changes to unemployment benefits, the CARES Act provides $600 per week through July 31st in addition to your state-determined benefits, and it extends the duration one can claim benefits for by 13 weeks, up to a total of 39 weeks. This means in states like New York and California, whose unemployment benefits normally only last for up to 26 weeks, residents will be able to claim the full 13 extra weeks.

Who Else Is Eligible For Benefits?

The CARES Act also waives the one-week waiting period and extends eligibility to the following individuals: 

  1. Workers who are self-employed or work as contractors
  2. Workers whose places of employment are currently closed or has ceased operations due to Coronavirus
  3. Workers whose hours have been cut and are now working part-time due to Coronavirus
  4. Individuals unable to work because they are temporarily quarantined
  5. Individuals who have left work in order to limit a high risk of exposure or to care for a family member

With new decisions regularly coming out from federal and state governments in response to COVID-19, it’s important to stay up to date on any new developments that may affect your unemployment benefits. In light of such a rapidly-changing system, we recommend consulting an attorney for more detailed specifics about your state’s unemployment laws.

Should I Apply For Unemployment If I Can Afford Not To?

This may be your first time in such a situation where you are collecting unemployment benefits. But, do not worry: millions of people across the country are in the same boat. Some people may feel a sense of shame or disappointment in collecting such benefits; however, it’s important to remember that unforeseeable circumstances happen to everyone – what’s most important now is to try to find stability during these difficult times.

In an ideal world, everyone would have enough money saved up in a high yield savings account to weather a stint of unemployment. Remember that you might have been contributing to unemployment insurance when you were working. If you qualify for benefits, it would be financially prudent to apply for them. Resorting to draining your 401(K) retirement account or Roth IRA in a time of hardship could end up haunting you later in life. Unemployment benefits exist for a reason.