There are a lot of emotions and questions surrounding unemployment compensation, and so even though more Americans are finding themselves unemployed than ever before, you may not feel comfortable asking others for information.
Here is a guide to help you apply for unemployment, understand the 2010 unemployment extension, and continue your health insurance.
What You Can Expect When You File for Unemployment
First of all, it is unlikely that you will need to stand in line or even leave your home to apply for unemployment benefits. In order to begin receiving benefits, you must first apply to ensure that you are eligible. Most, if not all states, now have an unemployment phone number to call, or an internet site to visit in order to first apply for your benefits. Many states have a waiting period before you can begin to receive benefits from when you first called to apply, so be sure to apply as soon as possible. A common waiting period is two weeks before you can call for your first check, which means that you will go two weeks without pay. After your application has been successfully received, you will find out how much each two-week check will be for. The amount of earnings and the number of quarters you worked are used to determine how much your unemployment benefit will be.
After you are accepted, then you will need to call every two weeks to apply for your benefits. You will have to answer a series of questions each time you call, which typically includes whether or not you have actively looked for work, if you are able and willing to work, and whether or not you earned any income in the previous two weeks that you are applying for. Be aware that because so many people are unemployed right now, you can have a waiting time on the phone of up to two hours or even more.
Some states allow you to collect unemployment compensation even if you have received a severance package, while others will not give you unemployment compensation until your severance runs out. It is still a good idea to apply for unemployment when you first become unemployed, even if you do not know if you will collect any unemployment. This will minimize the potential weeks you will go without pay due to state rules and waiting periods, and also make you aware of the rules.
What to do about Health Insurance
One of the worst things you can do is to let your health insurance lapse; what if your appendix decides to burst? What if you break a leg? Any unexpected accident could send your finances into a further tailspin.
If you lost your job between Sept. 1, 2008, and Feb. 28, 2010, you may qualify for a 65% subsidy towards your COBRA health benefits for up to 15 months thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the Temporary Extension Act of 2010. You will need to pay 35% of your COBRA premiums to your former employer.
If you would rather not go through COBRA, then you can purchase a catastrophic health insurance plan with a high deductible  (typically between $2,500-$5,000). This plan will not cover your routine doctor’s visits, such as to your general practitioner, eye doctor, or dentist, but it will cover you in case of an accident (minus the deductible that will come out of your pocket first). The premiums are much lower for this than for more permanent and benefit-rich plans, but this will cover you for the unexpected. Call large insurance providers to inquire about these plans, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, and also sit down and discuss with an insurance agent to get a range of quotes.
Who to Contact
Unemployment benefits vary from state to state. The best thing to do is to contact your state unemployment office  in order to find out what you are eligible for when you file for unemployment benefits, the length of your benefits, and how much will unemployment pay.
Length of Unemployment Benefits
The standard length of unemployment benefits used to be 26 weeks. However with the recession, this 26 weeks has been extended several times, and the unemployment extension depends largely on when you became unemployed (and first applied for benefits). So far Congress has passed multiple federal extensions in the last two years for people who have exhausted their initial 26 weeks, which could give you unemployment benefits that last up to 99 weeks if you are eligible.
And just last week, another unemployment extension bill was introduced. If passed, the Americans Want to Work Act, extends unemployment benefits for 20 more weeks. Individuals will be eligible for the “tier 5 unemployment extension’ benefits if their state has an unemployment rate of 7.5% or higher. The additional benefits under the unemployment extension 2010 would extend unemployment past the 2-year mark.
Don’t forget to keep track of your expenses during your unemployment to use for your unemployed tax deductions  at tax time next year.
Good luck! I’ll be back next week to share my unemployment story!