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Claiming Unemployment Insurance
Losing a job is painful. Whether you were laid off or let go for what the employer considered a good reason, you often feel bad about yourself, and to add injury to insult your bills are going to accumulate whether you're working or not. You have to make looking for a job your full-time job, but you've got to eat, too; and that's where unemployment insurance comes into play.
Simply defined, unemployment insurance is a government program whereby funds are paid by employers to a government agency in order to cover a part of a worker's pay if the worker loses his job due to factors beyond his control. These factors may include layoffs, plant closures, and some deliberate terminations, especially when the reason cited for the termination is the worker's incompetence. Unemployment insurance is not entirely altruistic: it's intended to act as an economic stabilizer, to help maintain the unemployed person's purchasing power. This helps not just the unemployed person, but society in general.
Taken care of
You don't get unemployment insurance automatically; you have to ask for it. Usually you apply to a local branch of your state's employment office. In order to qualify, you have to have worked a specific number of hours the previous year, and you have to look consistently for a job. Most states require you to apply to at least 3-5 jobs per week, and may ask you to prove that you've applied by providing the name and number of a contact at that location. You can usually take care of this process on the phone, and sometimes on the Internet.
You don't always get unemployment insurance benefits even when you ask for them, no matter how much you need them. The state will most likely look into the circumstances than led you to lose your job. If your former employer is ungracious or fights the benefits assessment, you may get nothing at all. You can challenge that assessment, but you're not guaranteed to win.
How long am I covered, assuming I am?
Most unemployment insurance will cover you for only 26 weeks -- that is, six months. Payment is every week, and in most cases is far less that what you'd earn at all but the lowest-paying jobs. However, it helps to keep the food on the table and shoes on your feet while you're looking for work. Taxes are not withheld from unemployment checks, since the assumption is that you'd rather get all the money you can now and worry about paying taxes later.
In some circumstances, such as periods of national emergency, unemployment insurance may be extended for either 13 or 26 weeks. In some states, the first week's benefits are held back until several weeks into the process, whereupon you'll receive a payment for two weeks' benefits at once. You must contact the unemployment office by phone or Internet once every few weeks and report your attempts to find work (usually via a questionnaire) in order to authorize your next two payments. If you do not respond, the state will assume you do not need further aid; however, your unemployment insurance account will stay open, so that you can easily restart the process and get access to the benefits that remain.