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How to Get Unemployment Benefits

For millions of Americans, unemployment benefits provide a lifeline that lets them keep the wolf from the door. But collecting those benefits isn’t always simple. Unemployment claims are often denied, and sometimes for avoidable reasons.

I spoke recently with Spencer Cohn, national employee representative and founder of BeatTheBoss. He specializes in helping workers collect rightful unemployment benefits. I asked him to share tips for collecting unemployment benefits, and he gave me a lot of them. Here are the highlights:

Tip #1: File

Cohn told me the most common reason people aren’t able to collect unemployment is because they don’t file for benefits. One reason they don’t file is that they think they will go back to work soon. “That’s the biggest mistake because that’s another week that you don’t get unemployment,” he says.

Another reason they don’t file is that they assume they aren’t entitled to benefits.  “People think that if I quit my job I can’t collect unemployment. That’s not true. If you have good cause and you tried to preserve your job before you quit, then you are entitled to your unemployment,” says Cohn.  For example, an employee may refuse to work because he thinks his working conditions aren’t safe. If he documents the problem with his supervisor and the employer refuses to correct it, he may still be able to quit and be eligible for unemployment benefits.

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Tip #2: Read and Respond

Once you file for unemployment compensation, your case will be reviewed by an adjudicator. That person decides whether you are entitled to your unemployment benefits or not. You will be sent a Notice of Determination explaining whether you are eligible for benefits or your claim has been denied.

Sounds simple enough, right? Just try reading one of these notices. Cohn read a Notice of Determination to me and my first response was,”huh?” He had to walk me through it another time before it started to make sense. My reaction apparently is not uncommon. But unfortunately, many people just throw it in the pile to figure out later. Big mistake, as I’ll discuss in a minute.

The Notice of Determination will typically state whether the employer is chargeable for your claim or not chargeable. If the adjudicator determined the employer was not chargeable (which essentially means you aren’t getting an unemployment check) you will have to request an appeal within a very specific period of time – 20 calendar days in Florida for example. If you appeal, then a hearing will be held to determine your eligibility.

When you get your Notice of Determination, read it carefully. If you aren’t absolutely certain you understand it, then get help. Don’t assume that you aren’t eligible for benefits. If you don’t file an appeal by the deadline, warns Cohn, your benefits will be denied and it’s usually difficult to reopen it.

Unemployment claims are denied for many, many reasons but the most common are that the employee:

  1. Commits misconduct, or
  2. Quits a job without good cause

But even then, it’s not always clear cut.

Say you were fired for violating a company policy. The employer may not give you any strikes and may fire you on the spot. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits. The unemployment appeals office may find there is good

cause to separate from unemployment, but it’s not sufficient to deny unemployment benefits. In addition, these policy violations typically have to occur at the workplace. If they are not directly related to work, they generally can’t be a reason to deny benefits.

Or perhaps you were fired for absenteeism. If you were late or couldn’t get to work for a compelling reason (traffic, illness, or a major snowstorm, for example), you could still collect unemployment provided you called and let your employer know about the problem and explained that it was beyond your control.

If your employer does write you up for a violation, “Don’t refuse to sign it, or you can be fired for insubordination,” advises Cohn. “What you should do is sign it, explain on that document why you disagree, and then indicate that you are not finished or that your explanation is not complete.” Insist on a copy for your records.

Tip #3: Fight

If your unemployment claim does go to a hearing, your case will be assigned to a Referee/administrative law judge. And it can get ugly. Your employer has plenty of incentive to challenge your claim. If you are successful, the employer’s unemployment insurance tax rate will go up – often significantly. And don’t forget that state unemployment funds are strained, which may result in state workers looking for reasons to deny claims.

Cohn recommends claimants get help preparing for their appeal. “The employer comes in with witnesses (who likely still work for the employer), an HR person, maybe even an attorney,” he cautions. You’ll be outgunned.

The most surprising advice I heard from Cohn? File for unemployment while you are still working. The reason he suggests this is that many people don’t actually know who they work for.  Many employers use employee leasing or staffing companies, and they may not realize they work for another company. “If they separate from employment, they have to notify the staffing company within 48 hours or they lose their unemployment benefits,” warns Cohen, who also added:

“The deck is stacked against the employee, no question about it.”

If you’re concerned about how your credit while you’re unemployed, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. If you’d like to monitor your credit more regularly,’s free Credit Report Card provides you with an easy to understand breakdown of the information in your credit report using letter grades, along with two free credit scores that are updated monthly.

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Gerri Detweiler is's Director of Consumer Education. She focuses on helping people understand their credit and debt, and writes about those issues, as well as financial legislation, budgeting, debt recovery and savings strategies. She is also the co-author of Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights . and Reduce Stress: Real-Life Solutions for Solving Your Credit Crisis as well as host of More by Gerri Detweiler

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