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Unemployment insurance: A guide

Our primer can help you avoid pointless hours on hold and delays in getting the benefits you're entitled to.

February 22, 2009|David Colker

Two bright-red phones at the Verdugo Jobs Center in Glendale are direct lines to the state offices that manage unemployment insurance, the benefit that can be a lifesaver after a layoff.

But because of record unemployment levels in the state, picking one up doesn't mean you'll get through any time soon.

"Sometimes people call all day," said Carolyn Anderson, manager of the center.

Calling from home is as bad if not worse, and don't even think of applying in person -- the unemployment insurance offices were closed to the public years ago.

The deputy director of the program, Deborah Bronow, admits that the state's booklet on unemployment benefits doesn't help applicants much.

"We know they don't read it," Bronow said. "It's big, and we're the government."

Even the table of contents is confusing.

So consider this Unemployment 101, a consumer guide to the basics of the labyrinthine program that can be key to keeping you in your home and putting food on the table.

It's your personal red phone. Keep it for emergencies.


The basic rule: Unemployment insurance benefits -- which are funded mostly by employer payroll taxes and federal dollars -- are for people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. And in this sorry economy, that's a lot of people.

If you are fired for cause or just plain quit, the benefits could be denied.

Also, an applicant usually has to have been a staff employee.

"Independent contractors are not eligible," said Matthew Goldberg, an attorney at the Employment Law Center of the Legal Aid Society in San Francisco.

There is a minimum earnings requirement as well. To collect benefits, you would have had to earn at least $900 in wages during a fiscal quarter in what the program calls the base period.

Here's one of the points where it gets confusing -- that base period is a year long, but it skips the most recent full quarter. In other words, if you filed for unemployment benefits in January 2009, your base period would run from October 2007 through September 2008.

When in doubt, it's probably easier to apply for the benefits and let the Employment Development Department, which oversees the program in California, figure out whether you made the grade.

If you're turned down for any reason, you have the right to file an appeal within 20 days to ask for a hearing.

Moving out of state after a layoff doesn't disqualify you -- the program is based on wages and payroll taxes, not geography. If you move after starting to get benefits in California, simply continue to follow the rules of the program and send in your biweekly claim forms to the same office as always. If you apply after moving, the process might get a bit tricky but is usually doable.

Bottom line: It's important to remember that these benefits are not just for the poor. If you are laid off and meet the requirements, you're eligible for them, even if you happen to have a gazillion dollars in the bank.

When to apply

In the vast majority of cases, the time to apply is right after losing your job, even if you get severance pay. That's because severance pay is usually not considered wages. An exception is if your company continues paying you regular wages for a while, even though you don't have to show up, and then starts paying your severance. In that case, it's usually better to wait until the regular wages stop. You probably wouldn't get unemployment benefits for those paid weeks anyway.

How to apply

One word: online.

You can apply on the phone, but those lines are so tied up these days that it would be easier to get through to a radio contest.

What if you never had a computer at home or sold yours on EBay to get some needed cash?

"There are free computers at libraries and at the local jobs centers," Bronow said, referring to the community centers throughout the state that usually have computers available for use at no charge. "I can't emphasize enough that the place to file is online."

Even if the applicant has never previously used a computer.

"I'll bet there is a loving son or someone else in the family to help," she said. "There are also faith-based organizations willing to help."

Only a small percentage of laid-off workers aren't eligible to apply online, including those who worked in more than one state during their base periods.

Bronow frowned upon commercial operations that charge a fee to file an application.

"They say they can help you get benefits faster, but they can't," Bronow said. "There's no reason to pay an intermediary."

The online address for starting the application process is .gov.

The benefit check

The weekly amount you get in benefits depends mostly on how much you got paid when you were working.

If you made just the minimum amount of earnings required to qualify for unemployment -- $900 during a three-month, fiscal quarter -- you'd get $40 a week in benefits.

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