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Out of work due to coronavirus shutdowns? How to file for unemployment benefits

With 3 million people filing for unemployment last week, “There is absolutely no reason to delay" setting up a claim, said one economist.
Image: Unemployment
Visitors are unable to gain access to the Department of Labor due to closures over coronavirus concerns, on March 18, 2020, in New York.John Minchillo / AP

The record-shattering spike in unemployment filings this week means a surge in Americans seeking assistance as the coronavirus pandemic triggers businesses to initiate layoffs and put expansion plans on ice.

Households should act right away to make sure they get the help they need to financially protect their family and provide economic security, experts say. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, some states have waived the traditional waiting period required after receiving notice and before an employee can file.

“There is absolutely no reason to delay” filing for unemployment benefits, said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank focusing on issues affecting low and middle income workers.

“People are pulling back spending appropriately to save lives ... the things we can’t let slip, like necessities, like rent, it’s essential that those things remain in the economy,” Shierholz said.

The steps to file for unemployment vary by state. To find your state’s unemployment enrollment information, go to, a site sponsored by the Department of Labor. Hover over “COVID-19 unemployment insurance info,” click “File for unemployment benefits,” scroll down, and select your state from the drop-down menu. Then you’ll get the links to follow to start your claim.

First you’ll be asked whether you qualify. If you’re unemployed through no fault of your own, such as lack of work, you likely do. You may not if you were fired for breaking a company policy or quit a job without good cause. You must also meet your state’s work and wage requirements.

Be sure to have a few pieces of information handy. You’ll need the addresses and dates of your former employment, and the reason you’re no longer employed.

You will also need some personal information such as your Social Security number or Alien Registration Number, date of birth, mailing address, phone number, email address, your driver’s license or state-issued ID, and proof of income. If you have dependents you may need their birth dates and Social Security numbers as well.

You may also be asked to create a username and login and answer several questions, including other sources of income. You should start receiving benefits within 3-6 weeks, depending on the state. Payments may be issued by direct deposit to your bank account or via a debit card.

Once you file, you will need to check in weekly and file a weekly claim in order to keep receiving the check. The good news is you don’t have to stand in line to do it, you can do it online (or by mail).

Due to the rush of filers, some state unemployment websites have reportedly crashed or given errors. New York State assigns a day of the week to file based on the first letter of the worker’s last name.

If the government websites have delays or errors, workers should come back later and try again.

“If you’re frustrated, just take a break and come back to it. It’s just really important,” said Shierholz. “This is a crisis.”