If you're newly unemployed or have been unemployed for a while, you may have questions about your unemployment benefits that need answers. If so, you've come to the right place.
Unemployment benefits vary widely from state to state; however, there are some general rules of thumb that cut across state lines that everyone collecting unemployment benefits should know.
5 unemployment-benefit basics
1: Don't worry too much about why you got laid off. When it comes to qualifying for unemployment benefits, state unemployment offices view a plant closure similarly to a corporate reshuffling. Also, if you were fired, don't assume you won't qualify for unemployment. In some states you can still receive unemployment, depending on why you got fired.
2: When filing for unemployment benefits, it helps to remember that the unemployment system is designed to cut down on fraud, and as a result, the process for obtaining unemployment benefits can be complicated, arduous, and time-consuming.
3: Receiving a yes-or-no decision from your state's unemployment office could take far longer than you may imagine, and even if you do qualify for unemployment benefits, there may be a waiting period before unemployment benefits kick in.
4: All unemployment benefits are being paid under the assumption that you'll be actively searching for a new (and hopefully more rewarding) position. You'll need to document that search, and if you fail to live up to your end of the bargain, your unemployment benefits could be in jeopardy.
Unemployment benefits may also hinge on your attending educational meetings arranged or mandated by your state unemployment office, so make sure you follow through with all the requirements of your state.
5: If you want to keep receiving your regular unemployment benefits, make sure that you follow through on every detail for every required period during your job search.
Maintaining financial security
Although getting and keeping unemployment benefits is going to require some hard work on your part, it will also provide a valuable lifeline that can help offset your everyday costs and maintain your financial security.
Unemployment benefits can be a huge help when you consider that the average American earning between $40,000 and $50,000 annually spends $15,138 on housing per year, $5,936 on food per year, and thousands more per year on various, yet important, other things.
Moreover, the financial security your unemployment benefits provide could be critical to maintaining your health and well-being.
Government laws require that employers give former employees the option to continue their health insurance after they're let go, but that insurance, which is referred to as COBRA, comes with a sky-high price tag.
COBRA plans are designed as a short-term transitional health insurance solution that can be used in most cases for up to 18 months and in some cases for up to 36 months. However, because COBRA requires former employees to pay the full cost of their health insurance, including the portion the employer formerly paid, they can cost upwards of $500 per month for single coverage, or more, depending on the plan's coverage.
That's a steep price to pay when you've lost your employment, but additional health-insurance options have become available through the Obamacare federal health insurance marketplaces that may be cheaper. For example, the average cost of a "silver" health insurance plan bought through an Obamacare exchange is $323 per month, before subsidies, according to eHealth.
Since it's critical to keep all your costs in check while receiving unemployment, saving hundreds of dollars per month on health insurance could go a long way to protecting your financial security; however, make sure you don't delay in applying for health insurance through the marketplace. Typically, the window for applying for health insurance through Obamacare when you're unemployed closes 60 days after the job loss.
If you're already beyond that 60-day enrollment period, it may still be worth exploring your options because you may qualify for Medicaid or other programs; especially if you live in a state that expanded Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act.
How much in unemployment benefits will you get?
It's important to know that your unemployment benefits will be paid for only a certain amount of time and that they won't replace all of your previous income.
Although the federal government established unemployment benefits in 1935 in response to the Great Depression, each individual state is responsible for running its own program, and that means unemployment benefits can differ substantially from state to state.
Typically, the basic unemployment benefit program most states offer includes unemployment benefit payments for up to 26 weeks and replaces roughly half of a person's prior income, up to a maximum limit.
Because each state, not the federal government, is primarily responsible for paying unemployment benefits, eight states pay benefits for fewer than 26 weeks to save money. Two states, however, do offer unemployment benefits that can last longer than 26 weeks.
If you exhaust your regular unemployment benefits, there may be additional options that extend your payments. In states where unemployment is high or growing quickly, extended benefits may be available that provide between 13 and 20 additional weeks of unemployment benefits.
However, rules surrounding extended unemployment, and the unemployment rate itself, vary widely from state to state, so there's a good chance this extended unemployment benefit isn't available because both the federally run emergency unemployment compensation program established during the Great Recession and the federal cost sharing of extended benefits ended in 2013.
Turning a corner
Knowing you'll receive an unemployment benefit for only a specific number of weeks can be worrisome, but the unemployment situation is improving and wages are heading higher, and that may offer some encouragement.
In 2009, the national unemployment rate peaked at 10%, but since then it's marched lower to 5.1% in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS.
Falling unemployment rates are also leading employers to offer bigger paychecks and better benefits to attract workers.
In the past year, the average weekly earnings for people working in the private sector has grown by 2.5%, and according to an August survey by human resources consultancy Towers Watson, U.S. companies plan to boost employee pay by another 3% next year.
Moves to make today
The unemployment picture may be brightening, but there's still no telling how long you'll have to rely on unemployment benefits, and that suggests that it's best not to ignore your financial situation.
Compiling a comprehensive budget that offers insight into your spending patterns may not be the most fun, but it can reveal areas where you can cut costs and help you see potential financial pitfalls.
If those pitfalls include an inability to make your debt payments on time, reach out to lenders and see if they can temporarily suspend or reduce your payments during your job search. Student loans, for example, are a major expense for many people, and applying for and being granted a forbearance or deferment can go a long way toward stretching your unemployment benefits and protecting your credit score from the negative impact of missed payments.
Cutting spending so that you can live off your unemployment benefits is also a far better move than tapping into retirement savings.
Because money contributed to retirement accounts, such as 401(k) plans, is done with pre-tax dollars, withdrawing money from these plans can lead to higher income taxes. Taking money out of retirement accounts can put a big dent in your long-term retirement plans, but if you've run out of options and you need to tap into your retirement savings to supplement your unemployment benefits, consider withdrawing money that has been stashed away in a Roth IRA first. Because Roth IRA contributions are made with after-tax money, withdrawing money from them could save you money at tax time.