If you have recently lost your job, you are probably anxious to start collecting unemployment benefits. Unemployment is available to those who are temporarily out of work, through no fault of their own. To qualify for unemployment benefits, you must file a claim with your state unemployment agency. The agency will then review your application, perhaps interview you (and your most recent employer), and make an eligibility determination. (For information on eligibility requirements for unemployment, see Who Is Eligible for Unemployment?) If the agency finds that you are eligible for benefits, it will calculate your benefit amount and begin paying your benefits.
This article explains how the process generally works. However, each state follows its own procedures for handling unemployment claims. To find out how long you should expect to wait to start receiving benefits, contact your state's unemployment agency. (For links to each state's agency, see State Unemployment Agencies.)
The first step to getting your unemployment benefits is to request them, by filing a claim. In most states, you can file a claim for benefits online, by phone, or by mail. You will need to provide some basic information about yourself (such as your address and Social Security number), your employment and earnings for the last year and a half, and the reason(s) why you are out of work. Make sure that you answer every question completely and accurately. Any mistakes or omissions (such as forgetting to answer a question) will lead to delays.
Once you've filed your claim, the state's unemployment agency will review it and gather any necessary additional information. The agency may interview you to ask questions about the information on the form and the reason for your unemployment. The agency may also contact your last employer to ask about your earnings, job tenure, and the reason why you are no longer employed there. If your employer contests your claim, the agency may hold a hearing, by phone or in person. For example, if you claim that you were laid off, but your employer claims you were fired for stealing from the company (which would make you ineligible for unemployment benefits), the agency will have to hear evidence to decide who is telling the truth.
Of course, unemployment rates have been high for several years in our current tough economic climate. Because most states are also facing budget shortfalls, staff and hours have been cut at many state agencies. More applicants for unemployment plus fewer state employees to process those applications may add up to a slightly longer wait at this point in the process.
Some states impose a waiting period, typically no longer than a week, before you can receive benefits. If your state is one of them, you will have to wait a bit longer to get paid.
If you complete your claim application correctly the first time and there are no eligibility issues for the agency to sort out, you should receive your first unemployment check within a few weeks or so after you file. If there are any glitches along the way, such as a mistake on your claim form, an argument with your employer over eligibility, or conflicting evidence about your earnings, the process could take quite a bit longer.
For state specific information on unemployment benefits, visit Nolo's Collecting Unemployment Benefits page and select your state.