Dafuq Is Unemployment Insurance and How Do I Apply for It?

As we’re living through The Plague Times, a number of topics have really jumped the writing queue for your humble Bitches. And thanks to the massive wave of job losses, one of the more urgent subjects is, by necessity, unemployment insurance.

As it happens, I’m currently a bit of an expert on unemployment insurance. I’m not just a spokesperson… I’m a member! After losing my job this spring, I applied for and received unemployment insurance from my state.

The process was tedious, long, stressful, counterintuitive, repetitive, and obnoxious. But it worked. And now I’m here to walk you through it too. Because misery fucking loves company.

But before we begin, a note: The UI I’m receiving isn’t completely replacing my lost income. Like everyone on UI, I’m applying for jobs like it’s literally my job. Yet available jobs are pretty thin on the ground until the country opens up for business again.

My bills are still getting paid, due mostly to the generosity of BGR readers. Consider donating to our Patreon if you’re so inclined. It comes with spiffy rewards and our eternal gratitude, which by itself is worth at least $2.65!

What even is unemployment?

Unemployment insurance (“unemployment” colloquially, or just “UI”) is exactly what it sounds like: insurance for when you become unemployed.

Unlike other forms of insurance, you don’t have to buy a UI plan. When you have a job, you’re automatically enrolled. You know those payroll taxes that come out of every one of your paychecks? Part of that goes to the state and federal Departments of Labor to fund unemployment insurance.

It’s designed so that if you lose your job, you’ll continue to receive a portion of your normal income while you’re searching for a new job. This way, there won’t be a major interruption to your income between jobs. And therefore, you’ll still be able to pay your bills while on the job hunt.

What’s the catch?

A couple of caveats:

  1. UI does not completely replace the income from your job. Sorry ’bout it. The amount you receive every two weeks is determined on a number of factors. These factors include how long you worked for your former employer, how much you received as severance or other compensation upon departure, and the amount of your previous salary.
  2. You have to keep requesting UI every two weeks for as long as you’re unemployed… and proving that you’re still unemployed. Most states have online systems for this nowadays, but some still expect you to go to the local Department of Labor and Employment office to check in. And you could be asked to prove you’re looking for a new job at any time. So you’d better be keeping strict records of that shit.
  3. You can only receive UI for so long before it runs out. This also relies on a number of factors, but it’s usually about six months to a year. So you better hope you’ve found a job before it runs out.
  4. Oh yeah—and it’s fucking taxed.

It’s not a permanent income replacement by design. And that design is also operating on the assumption that if we make it too easy or lucrative for people to get on UI, they’ll choose to stay on it rather than get a job. It’s a hand up, not a handout, you see! Now praise the Lord and pass the apple pie!

Of course, this assumption is bullshit. Which brings me to…

[Insert complaint about lazy good-for-nothings suckling on the guv’mint’s teat here]

There are a lot of political dog whistles about the social safety net in general and UI in particular. I have a theory about this, and that theory is that it’s politically useful to hate on poor people. Because as long as we’re hatin’ on the poors, we’re not so much worried about what the wealthy and powerful are doing. The current system works really well for them. They have no interest in seeing it changed. So really, it’s just awfully convenient to ascribe systemic inequalities to individual moral failings.

Ain’t capitalism grand? Why hate the game, when it’s so much easier and more fun to hate the players!

The stereotype remains: people who go on UI are lazy, manipulative takers who are living the high life at the expense of hardworking taxpayers like you. How dare they shamelessly loaf about all day while you, a true patriot and hard-working citizen, break your back to feed the carefree, indulgent lifestyle you imagine they must have? Don’t they know that leisure is sinful and that productivity is the highest calling of a human soul? They’re probably brown people too!

In addition to being an ugly, classist, racist stereotype, it also isn’t true. But it is politically expedient.

Now more than ever, when the coronavirus pandemic has forced millions out of work and onto UI, we need to dispel this myth.

There is no shame in applying for and collecting UI. There need be no guilt associated with getting help when you’re in need. If you find yourself needing to collect UI, remember that it is insurance for which you have paid with your own blood, sweat, and tears. It is your money and you deserve it. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it.

And if basic compassion for others doesn’t inspire the haters to shut the fuck up, how about this fact: it’s good for the economy and our overall prosperity for the unemployed to be able to pay their goddamn bills.

Now erase the phrase “As a taxpayer…” from your lexicon and stop shitting on those less fortunate.

Do I qualify for unemployment?

You need to meet three separate criteria to be eligible for unemployment insurance:

You lost a job through no fault of your own

This means you were laid off, your position was eliminated, or your company closed. Some people might also be eligible if they had their hours severely cut or if they went on furlough. If you were fired, you’re not eligible for UI. If you quit, you’re not eligible for UI. So if you’ve ever been tempted to quit right before a round of lay-offs… think carefully about your financial needs.

There are some exceptions, however! If you can demonstrate that you willingly left your job because of a hostile workplace or other form of discrimination, you might still be eligible for UI.

You are “able to work, available to work, and actively seeking work” while unemployed

I quote those words exactly because every time you request a UI check, you’ll be asked three questions: Are you able to work? Are you available to work? Have you actively sought employment? In other words, if you turn down a job offer, you’re no longer allowed to be on UI. Likewise, if you fuck off to the Azores for a month, you can’t get your UI unless you’re able to work remotely from a Mediterranean paradise.

You’ve earned at least a certain amount of money during a “base period” prior to becoming unemployed 

If you were employed for long enough before becoming unemployed, then you qualify. But if you’ve never held a job before, or you didn’t have a job for very long, you’re shit outta luck.

Most people who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus shut-down will be eligible for unemployment. I say “most,” because there are always extenuating circumstances for some unlucky souls.

How do I apply for unemployment?

During normal times, these are the steps you must take to apply for UI:

Start an application

You can do this by going to the website for your state’s Department of Labor and Employment (Washington D.C. and the American territories also have their own). If you received severance, you won’t be able to even start the application until after you’ve received your last severance check in some states. So contact the unemployment office as soon as you can after losing your job just in case. To complete your application, you’ll need the following:

  • Your identifying information, including SSN or TIN, home address, birth date, and full legal name.
  • Your employer’s identifying information.
  • The date you began and ended your last job.
  • Your total compensation, whether it be hourly or salaried, as well as the amount of your last paycheck and any severance checks you’ve received.
  • Your retirement account or HSA information if applicable.

Answer everything honestly

Lying on an unemployment application is a crime punishable by law. As tedious as the application is, don’t make a guesstimate about anything, especially the numbers. Be exact and accurate.

There will be a lot of redundant and weird questions on the application. It’ll ask if you’re a member of the military, a farmer, or a recipient of something called a “Railroad Retirement Subsidy” at least thirty-seven times. Don’t skip any questions, painfully bored as you might be.

Roll over your retirement plan

If you have a retirement plan through your former employer, you’ll be required to either a) cash it out so you can live on the money, or b) roll it over into an IRA. And, well, you can also c) roll it over into a new employer-sponsored 401(k). But if you have a new employer, why are you reading this??

If you choose option A, you’ll be subject to money-sucking penalties for prematurely withdrawing from a retirement plan. So if at all possible, option B is better. Either way, you’ll need to provide the unemployment office with proof.

Send proof

The unemployment office is going to need proof that you’re eligible.

They’ll contact your former employer to confirm your salary, severance, and dates of employment.

They will need proof that you rolled over or cashed out your retirement fund. I emailed them a picture of my rollover paperwork and check, which sufficed.

Register at their job placement program

In my state, you can do this online. It’s basically a website full of job searching advice and resources. But in some states, it’ll be a literal building you have to visit… where you will wait in line for all eternity.

Choose how you want to get your unemployment payments

You’ll have the option to be paid via direct deposit into a bank account, through a mailed check, or through a refillable debit card. Some states only offer two out of those three options.

If you want payment through direct deposit, you’ll need to have a checking account and to provide the unemployment office with the account and routing numbers. Once you’ve submitted your application, you’ll be able to supply this information

Choose how you’d like to handle the taxes

Because of course unemployment insurance is taxed! It’s income! “But you just said it was insurance—” STOP DERAILING THE DISCUSSION, KYLE.

At any rate, you can choose to receive the full amount of your UI payments, and then pay back some of it in taxes later on, or to have the state and federal taxes automatically deducted from your UI payments.

I chose to automatically deduct the taxes, but if you need as much money as possible up-front, you might prefer to pay taxes later.

Confirm that your application was approved

The unemployment office will contact you by phone, email, or mail (or even all three, in the case of my state) every time you jump another hurdle. They might follow up with questions, or to confirm something in your application. But by the end of the process, you should have the following:

  • Written confirmation that your unemployment insurance claim has been approved.
  • A claim number identifying your case.
  • The exact amount of money for which you are eligible every two weeks.
  • The total amount of money for which you are eligible over the course of your unemployment claim.
  • The total length of time for which you’re eligible for UI.
  • A gaping hole where your soul used to be.

Request UI every two weeks

Once you’ve gotten through the gauntlet of your UI claim, you’ll need to request your UI payment every two weeks. Depending on where you live, you can do this online or in person. You’ll have to answer the questions from the eligibility section every time, and you’ll have to keep doing it for as long as you need UI.

Unemployment in the time of coronavirus

Alas, these are not normal times. The United States has seen a rise in unemployment claims from about 4% to about 13% since the states ordered we shelter in place. This is the highest rise in unemployment since the Great Depression. While it’s comforting to know we’re not alone, it also means the unemployment offices are fucking swamped.

Many people are waiting days and weeks for their applications to be processed. Others simply can’t get through by phone or email, or are showing up multiple days in a row to wait in line.

I’ll be honest: I don’t have much to offer these people except my sympathy and solidarity. But they must keep trying.

It’s very important to note that federal assistance is retroactive, and most states are following suit. Meaning: if you’re one of the millions of people unable to get through to your unemployment office, you are not missing out on that money. You’ll be back-paid for your entire duration of unemployment, from the day you were let go; it might just take longer to get to you. Just double-check your state’s guidelines to confirm that benefits are retroactive before you give yourself a break from sitting on hold for hours upon hours.

Here’s more on other forms of welfare and preparing ahead for an emergency:


That said, if you can get on UI any time soon, you’ll benefit from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, passed by Congress a few weeks ago.

Besides providing a $1,200 stimulus check to most Americans, it’s also boosting everyone’s UI check by an extra $600 every week until July 31st. And on top of that, it’s allowed for UI benefits to be extended by an extra thirteen weeks.

All of these measures are easing the blow of getting laid off or furloughed. It’s by no means a perfect system, and you gd well know we have something to say about how this fucking virus is shining a light on our broken social infrastructure, but it’s something.

And again: you are worthy of these welfare methods. Banish any shame and guilt you may have.

What if you’re self-employed, a contractor, or working part-time?

The CARES Act has also loosened the requirements of eligibility. So even if you don’t think you can apply… there’s no harm in double checking!

Under normal circumstances, self-employed people (including independent contractors, freelancers, and anyone working in the “gig economy”) and part-time workers aren’t eligible for UI. But under the CARES Act, now they may be!

So check if you’re now eligible and go through the application process just in case.

I got a new job! Now what?

Condragulations! While you’re no longer eligible for UI, you also no longer need it. Take pride in your work and bring in them DOLLARS.

At this point, you simply need to stop requesting your biweekly check. Your claim will automatically close after a month of inactivity, and you’ll need to reapply for UI if you find yourself unemployed again. That’s it! That’s all you have to do! It’s much easier to go off unemployment than it is to go on it.

The UI process is a little different for every state. If you have any pro-tips for the unemployed in your area, please share them with the whole class in the comments section.

And hey—we believe in you. Keep fighting.


To receive unemployment insurance, here are the requirements:

– You lost a job through no fault of your own

– You are “able to work, available to work, and actively seeking work” while unemployed

– You’ve earned at least a certain amount of money during a “base period” prior to becoming unemployed 

Start an application and fill it out honestly

– Roll over your retirement plan

– Send proof of unemployment to the state Department of Labor

– Register at their job placement program

Choose how you want to get your unemployment payments

Confirm that your application was approved

– Request UI every two weeks

14 thoughts to “Dafuq Is Unemployment Insurance and How Do I Apply for It?”

  1. Also, if you take a temporary/part-time/lower-paying job, you *may* still be eligible for unemployment benefits. You should always double-check the fine print on these things as it varies greatly depending on your state’s policies, but as an example: you’re eligible to receive $400/week in unemployment benefits and you get an offer for a job that pays $300/week. In most states, you’d claim the $300/week as part of your biweekly filings and would still get the remaining $100/week in unemployment benefits. I did this a couple years ago when I lost a full-time gig and was able to pick up a lower-paying temp job. At least in Pennsylvania’s online system, it was fairly straightforward.

    Caveat – I have NO CLUE how this works with the additional $600 pandemic assistance and, of course, do your own research!

  2. Thank you for the information! Do you happen to know if someone in this situation would qualify- half of income is from regular W2 employment (still have this job), but the other half is from 1099 income (impacted by COVID)? I have searched online but can’t find the answer, and I can’t get through at the unemployment office. Thanks in advance if you happen to know, or can point me in the right direction (:

    1. In NY it’s also weekly. And if you don’t request every week you will lose that money so definitely make sure you’re doing it right!

    2. Last I checked, it’s also weekly in Arkansas. I’m lucky enough to be in an “essential” business (banking), so I was spared the nightmare of unemployment.

      Oh, and I remember reading an article a few weeks ago that the federal government has temporarily released the withdrawal limits on savings accounts. Generally speaking, it’s not a good habit to get into (oh, the stories I could tell about service charges from that habit are insane; some people treat their savings accounts like a checking account and rack up TONS of fees that come out at the end of the statement cycle), but at least if you need the money, you won’t have to worry about fees from withdrawals for the time being.

  3. I’m a small business owner who thankfully has retained some of my clients thru the crisis. I think it’s great that the CARES Act accounts for independent contractors as there are so many workers in the gig economy. I would definitely encourage people to check out what benefits are offered b/c the stimulus acts were huge — might as well get your fair share.

  4. I’m moving back to the US after working 2 years internationally, and I don’t have a job lined up. Do you know if I qualify for UI?

  5. I’m moving back to the US after working 2 years internationally, and I don’t have a job lined up. Do you know if I qualify for UI? Thank you for providing top-notch no-bullshit info!

  6. In NY, you have to claim every week. Apply right away. I got furloughed Friday, I applied the next day Saturday to get the ball rolling. Nothing happened after a week and a half. When they finally reached out to me by email, they say, someone will call to confirm my info. On my 2nd week of furlough, I made it my business to call the 1-866 number everyday, eventho no one picks up, the vmail records that you called. I called early, around 9am, finally got thru. Make sure you have all your info in front of you, dates you stopped working, etc. Direct deposit is the fastest way to get your UI checks.

  7. Hey, so I have a close family member who worked for UI for many years, and I work for a different state agency that lent some people (me included!) to help people get signed up.

    Stuff I can tell you about UI and how it works in New York:

    – New York cares about how many DAYS a week (not hours) you worked as well as whether you earned more than your weekly benefit rate. So if you’re working part time it’s better to work 6 hours for two days than 3 hours for four days. Also, if your schedule gets cut so you are working less than four days a week you should file and you may receive a partial benefit.
    – There also used to be an issue about “activities that may bring in income” and I don’t know if there still is, but for example my family member once heard a case where a guy lost his entire claim because he was in a band that got its first paying gig, and the band practiced 6 days a week. They may have fixed this? I’m not sure? But read the fine print if you’ve got something like that going on.
    – Conversely, SOMETIMES you can get UI if you quit or were fired, IF you can demonstrate that you “quit with good cause” or were fired for something that wasn’t considered misconduct (or for theoretical misconduct that is a completely unreasonable standard on the part of the employer). So file anyway, be honest about your situation but you might be eligible.
    – For example of “good cause”, if you quit your job because you are fleeing domestic violence and you have reason to fear your abuser will show up at work to stalk you, that is legally “good cause” to quit that job. Conversely, if you quit to move with your spouse, in most circumstances that is also legally good cause. My family member also heard a series of cases where multiple women quit because they couldn’t tolerate their boss verbally abusing his wife in front of them every day, and those claims were paid because of the unreasonable, offensive working conditions.
    – For example of being eligible despite being “fired”, there was a certain company in our area back in the 1990s that “didn’t do layoffs” but instead made up really trivial reasons to fire people. A bunch of the fired people filed anyway, that company contested their claims, and the local hearing officer basically said “actually this is a layoff, you’re not fooling me, pay the claims.” If you didn’t do anything that is considered misconduct but were just a bad fit for the position and lose your job because of it, you might be eligible, it really depends on the specifics.
    – Usually you need to have worked (not self-employed) in at least 2 of the last 5 calendar quarters and earned a certain amount of money in that time that changes every year. That rule is temporarily suspended because of the pandemic.
    – As others have mentioned, you need to certify every week, and you may lose benefits if you refuse a job offer. In NY, the job offer has to be “reasonable” which means a few things about the wage paid, working conditions, and whether you are “by training or experience” considered a suitable person for the offered job. The longer you’ve been getting UI, the more jobs can be considered “reasonable” for you to do.

    I hope this is helpful for someone – but again, this is VERY much New York-specific, every state is different.

  8. Great post, each state will probably be a little different and for your Canadian readers (yes there’s a few of us) it will be different as well but the general concept is the same. In Canada, We have to submit for every week but we’re paid on a bi-weekly basis, though we have a 3-week window to get it in.

    That’s how it worked in the past, I guess I’ll find out in a week or so because I’m on UI too!

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