Under the Unemployment “Benefits” Rainbow
Imagine being a woman in your 40's, 50's or beyond and unexpectedly, often without good reason, losing your income after years of working toward your professional and financial goals.
If you are one of the thousands of women approaching or over 50 in the United States who have suddenly lost their income, one available source of money may be unemployment compensation. Your (former) employer has already paid into unemployment insurance and, if circumstances qualify, this is the time to collect.
Many women don't take the time to file for their unemployment benefits. They cite feeling embarrassed or ashamed to be on unemployment, or they determine that it's not worth their time. While I admit that the process can be cumbersome up front, even fraught with useless mandatory federal programs and archaic accountability measures, my advice is to keep calm and collect. This is your right.
The Unemployment Benefits Landscape
Unemployment is federally governed, state run, employer funded and subject to mandatory federal programs and sanctions. Let's focus on that "state run" part. The business of unemployment is run independently in each state. I'm in the state of Indiana where the unemployment system is a layered mess of old school processes underneath out-of-date online services paired with manual forms and mandatory seminars that don't measure up to today's hiring formats. Maybe it's similar in your state or maybe you're fortunate to live in a state where the program is progressive, well thought out and easier to navigate. Either way, I recommend going through the process.
Another difference in the state-by-state programs is the amount of money you may collect. It varies widely. In Indiana, I'm only able to collect $390 per week max (many people collect less) regardless of how high my income was, how long I worked or how many dependents I may have. Interestingly, candidates in Colorado are able to collect well over $500 per week. Despite the difference, these sums in today's economy spread over a lengthy search for gainful employment won't prevent you from losing your home or getting your utilities shut off. If you have a family or are a caretaker, it's barely enough after taxes (yes, taxes), to cover food and gas.
So, why bother? Because a) again, you have the right to collect this money and b) always collect whatever funds you can during a time of uncertainty. As I shared in my previous column, Where the Hell is My Money, "…get control of every penny because you're going to need them."
Unemployment Benefits Navigation Notes
Here are some insights based on my experience navigating the unemployment compensation process.
According to the Department of Labor, you need to meet two criteria to qualify for unemployment. 1) You are unemployed through no fault of your own meaning you are out of a job due to reasons beyond your control, like a layoff. 2) You meet your state’s requirements for time worked or wages earned. Every state has different rules, but if you had a solid, long-term job that you lost, you probably meet your state’s minimum time and wage requirements. You can find your state’s rules here.
Unless you're ideally located, you can expect to have to drive a distance from your home to get to an unemployment office. In Indiana, a few offices are scattered around Indianapolis and in a some towns around the state. You may have to drive considerable distance to another town for the mandatory in-person meetings. Regardless of which state you are in, I recommend calling or opening a web chat (if available) to find out if there are ways to minimize the burdensome expense of travel.
When to file
When I and hundreds of other people at my previous company were let go "without cause," we were told by their HR team to file for unemployment on our last official day. That was bad advice. To avoid delays and processing issues, the time to file is on your last day of income. (see vacation pay and severance pay below)
Once you've filed for your unemployment, the feds require that you be put through a mandatory waiting period (usually 1-2 weeks) following your last day of income.
If the company you worked for is paying out vacation time, you will have to wait that much more time before you can file. For example, if you're being paid for an additional five days to cover unused vacation, you will want to add that five days beyond your last day of employment to arrive at your last day of income.
Like vacation pay, if the company you worked for provides a severance package, you will have to add the time paid to arrive at your last day of income. By example, if you receive six weeks of severance pay, then you add an additional six weeks beyond your final day of employment (and last day of vacation, if applicable) to arrive at your last day of income.
Similar to vacation and severance pay, withdrawing funds from a 401k or retirement account due to or during unemployment can delay your filing status or put your unemployment payment on hold. In Indiana, you may be contacted so that the unemployment office can perform their calculation (a formula they would not disclose to me) to determine how long you must wait before you can collect/resume unemployment after withdrawing retirement funds.
Searching for work
You are required to search for work in order to collect unemployment. They need to know that you are making an effort and not just riding the system. In Indiana, we are required to sign up for IndianaCareerConnect -- a state established job search website. As well, there's a federal requirement to sign up for cTORQ -- a government established job search website (more on that below). Personally, I signed up for these because they were required, but I don't use them. I use LinkedIn for networking and following job postings. I also used a career matching/company rating website called In Her Sight. And Indeed is a decent website for job searches. But there are literally hundreds to choose from. You can find more options on our employment resources page.
Regardless of what tools you use to search for work, track all searches that you make, company name, address, job title, and date applied/sent resume. You will also want to keep ongoing track of the result of each search. Did your application get turned down? Was your application ignored? Were you called and/or brought in for interview(s)? Did you take tests? Provide a portfolio? Fill out an application form? Did you get hired? This information will be invaluable if they decide to randomly investigate your claim.
Filing your vouchers is not difficult if you have an internet connection and keep track of your job searches. In most states, you simply bring up the online voucher, answer the questions honestly and provide the information from your work search. If you don't have an internet connection, you can either go to your nearest unemployment office to fill out your vouchers or call to find out if they any other filing alternatives.
Filling out logs
The logs, as near as I can tell, are just a paper (archaic) replication of the voucher. I have never gotten a straight answer about why this duplication of effort is necessary. The best I can tell you is that the state requires the online voucher for their part of the programs and the feds require the paper logs for their part of the programs. So, track your work search information and fill out the form. It takes 2-3 minutes if you've got your search info handy.
Visa debit card
First, you need to be aware that receiving a card is not an automatic condition of signing up for unemployment. While unemployment agencies are using this convenience for distributing funds, many (maybe most) don't automatically arrange for your card to be provided to you. You will have to request an unemployment compensation Visa debit card or at the very least follow-up to be sure one is being sent to you.
If you've had a Visa card through the unemployment program in the past and it has expired, you MUST contact cardholder services (Visa Global Customer Care +1 800-847-2911) and have a new card issued. As well, if you've had a card previously and have moved since, it is your responsibility to update your address with card holder services (this phone number can be found on the back of your old card usually at the top). Doing this is VERY IMPORTANT because otherwise your new card, with its activation instructions, will be sent to your old address. A tasty temptation if new residents are less than virtuous.
When you receive your card, you will receive instructions on how to use the card and how to withdraw money from the card. There are specific banks at which you may use their ATM. You can also provide your ID and ask a teller to deduct the funds from the card, however, they won't be able to read the balance on the card for you. You will have to know the card balance and tell them how much of that balance you want to withdraw. If using the ATM machine, keep in mind that this is not a bank card. There may be special instructions for using the ATM that you'll have to get from the bank tellers or fiddle around with the ATM until you figure it out. (I actually had to have the teller go outside to the ATM with me. We fumbled around with the options until we figured it out.) With the ATM withdrawal, it will also deduct a nominal service fee, so keep your ATM receipt which will show your new balance.
Mandatory meetings/meeting requirements
The unemployment agencies in each state have a set of standards that they have to meet in order to maintain their federal support. As well, they have federally mandated programs that recipients are required to go through. In Indiana, meeting with your case worker every other week is mandatory. In my case, I negotiated meeting only when necessary due to the long drive and using email to communicate.
For the mandatory meetings, you are required to have certain paperwork completed and be able to address any questions about your job search. It's best to comply with these requests, to avoid getting your compensation put on hold or revoked.
Websites and FAQs
I can only recommend that you steel yourself to committing the time it takes to review all of the provided materials online and read through the packets, guidelines, FAQs, etc. While you may not get all of the answers that you need, a thorough review of these materials will help you piece together an understanding of the unemployment compensation system in your region. The websites can sometimes be confusing to navigate, so I suggest that you choose a good starting page (I chose the "site map") and save that page to your favorites. This way, if you get lost in the piles of information posted on the website, you can click back to your starting page and retrace.
It's possible that your payment account will be put on hold by an unemployment officer or even a state investigator. Based on articles and comments that I've read, the unemployment agencies seem to be notorious for wielding their power in this way. The only response is to work through it with them. In my experience, if you're doing everything that's required of you, it's typically because they've made a mistake or aren't communicating among themselves. Take a breath, provide what they are asking for, but don't tolerate being bullied. If you're doing everything you can and everything they've required, you deserve to be treated with respect.
According to the employees I've talked to in the Indiana offices, the unemployment agencies in each state have a set of standards to meet and mandated programs to execute in order to maintain some government funding. In conflict with that are the state-driven standards and state run programs that often duplicate what the fed requires. This obvious disconnect between the creation of federal requirements and the creation of state requirements makes for loads of confusion for everyone. Add to that the inconsistently run offices scattered around each state and experiences can vary widely, if not wildly, from one person to the next. Issues are inevitable for recipients -- some will have more than others. It's bureaucracy at its best. My advice is to work through whatever comes up, collect what you can and stay focused on allocating every penny wisely while you search for work.
At the End of the Rainbow
Everyone's experience is different. My best friend's compensation journey went relatively smoothly while mine has been a proverbial roller coaster. I sincerely hope that none of you have a problem-laden experience like mine. If you do, and you find yourself excessively annoyed, keep in mind that the employees at the unemployment offices don't create these chaotic programs. They are just trying their best to administer them. In my experience, they will do what they can for you if you can exercise some patience and give them a chance.
(For those of you in other countries that have been through your own unemployment compensation process, please join the Leaping the Chasm conversation to share your stories of the programs and processes you've dealt with. We're all in this together!)
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