Let’s face it—losing your job sucks.
If you’ve never been fired or laid off, just know this: It will happen to you at some point in your life, and it’s worse if you think it can’t.
In the aftermath, the last thing you want to do is to face administrative tasks that need handling.
But the one thing you must handle right away is to apply for unemployment benefits.
The 'secret' of unemployment benefits
For me, the concept of “unemployment” was a foreign thing.
That is, until my very smart, very able MIT-alumni friend broke it down for me, citing his own experience. When he got laid off, the first thing he did was apply for unemployment benefits online.
That's right. Most states’ unemployment programs now allow claimants to apply for benefits online, which erases the stigma of actually going to the unemployment office.
Knowing this, I felt like I was let in on a big secret.
No one ever talks about being unemployed and the process of filing for unemployment benefits.
Those who are impacted wallow silently in shame, afraid of negative connotations, embarrassment, and judgment from others.
I never thought I’d need his advice until one day I, too, was laid off. I did exactly what he advised, and went online to apply for benefits.
Don’t throw away free money
If you’re of two minds about filing for unemployment, think of it this way: You’ve earned it, at least according to Uncle Sam.
Your benefits were already earmarked for you when your employer paid federal and state taxes. A portion of these taxes went toward a big pot of unemployment insurance, enough to cover each employee on the payroll.
Now that you need it, it’s there for you.
But many qualified people don’t apply for them. According to a study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, from 1988 to 2011, an average of 37 percent of Americans who were qualified for benefits didn’t claim them.
If you hesitate, you may miss out on weeks worth of funds, which you may not be able to receive retroactively.
Your work doesn’t stop when you’re receiving benefits
When you do apply, your benefits usually kick in soon after.
Within two weeks after applying, I began receiving benefits deposited directly into my checking account.
But there was administrative work I had to do, too, as an obligation for receiving benefits.
I was responsible for tracking all of my job applications, which I logged with a Google Sheet organized by date, position, and contact information.
This is fairly standard. In order to continue receiving benefits, many states require evidence that you are making an effort at finding new work.
In some cases, you’ll also be required to make an office visit, or take courses to build your resumé-writing and other professional skills.
I was also required to re-certify my unemployment status every week until I received my next job offer.
When answering these weekly re-certification questions (which generally take place online) you must answer honestly and thoroughly. There are plenty of systems in place to catch fraudulent activity.
Not everyone is eligible
When you apply, you must also state the reason why you’re no longer with your former employer.
If you quit, or were fired for poor performance or behavior, worked only part-time, or lacked enough time at your job, you may be ineligible to receive benefits.
Benefits may not be right for everyone, either
If you’re self-employed, you’re also likely ineligible to receive benefits.
Even if you perform any independent contract work for money, you could be categorized as self-employed, and not disclosing this fact could get you in trouble.
Also, if you’ve already been offered another job (congrats!) soon after losing one, the application process may not be worth your time.
But for everyone else, don’t dismiss your fully-deserved benefits.
No one can predict the future, and they can provide a helpful buffer until you’re back in the swing of things.
*Editor's Note: This post was updated to more precisely reflect how unemployment insurance is funded.