How to apply for Pennsylvania unemployment benefits

Young man sitting at home, filing for PA unemployment benefitsImage: Young man sitting at home, filing for PA unemployment benefits

In a Nutshell

If you're a Pennsylvania resident who's lost your job, here’s what you need to know about applying for PA unemployment benefits.
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If you’ve lost your job in Pennsylvania, you may have options to file for unemployment.

Let’s look at how unemployment works in Pennsylvania.

How do unemployment benefits work in Pennsylvania?

The Office of Unemployment Compensation, a division of the commonwealth’s Department of Labor & Industry, handles the unemployment insurance benefits program in Pennsylvania. You can file a claim online, over the phone, by mail or by video call (for people with hearing disabilities who use sign language).

You can generally receive unemployment benefits for a maximum of 26 weeks. The amount you receive is based on how much money you earned while working during what’s referred to as your “base period” — a specified period during the time you were working before you became unemployed.

How can I qualify for Pennsylvania unemployment benefits?

To be eligible for PA unemployment benefits, you must meet these requirements.

  • Lost your job through no fault of your own — This includes being laid off for lack of work. Getting fired for “willful misconduct,” including breaking employer rules, absenteeism without a valid reason, or drug and alcohol abuse are grounds for losing eligibility. If you voluntarily quit your job, you may still be eligible for unemployment compensation. You’ll have to show that you quit after repeated attempts to keep your job, and that you left for a compelling reason — such as health issues, transportation problems or a significant change in job responsibilities.
  • Been steadily employed over the previous year — This means you must have earned wages of at least $116 per week in at least 18 weeks of what the department terms your “base year.” The base year is the first four quarters of the most recent five completed quarters. For example, if you had filed your claim in March 2020, your base year would have been October 2018 through September 2019. But, if you had filed a claim in April 2020, your base year would have been the full year of 2019.

Once you’re approved for benefits and start receiving them, here’s what you’ll have to do to maintain your eligibility. 

  • Be able and willing to work
  • Be actively looking for a job
  • Keep a record of your efforts to find a job
  • While there may be some exceptions, you’ll generally have to register with the employment search organization Pennsylvania Careerlink

Self-employed workers are generally not eligible for benefits. However, states may choose to revise their benefits in times of economic crisis, and the federal government may help fund extended state benefits during such times.

If you’re not sure if you qualify, you can still file a claim. The Department of Labor & Industry can’t tell you ahead of time whether you’ll be eligible for benefits.

How much might I get?

Typically, the amount of unemployment compensation you receive is tied to how much money you made while you were working. For those making the highest quarterly base wage or less, your weekly benefit is roughly half your full-time weekly wage.

If your income fluctuated during your base period, you can calculate your weekly benefit by looking at your earnings from the base period in which you had the highest income. That quarter’s weekly earnings determine your unemployment compensation benefits.

The Department of Labor & Industry publishes financial charts detailing the weekly benefit that applies to different levels of income.

You can receive a small supplement to your weekly benefit if you have a dependent spouse and/or children. You’ll get $5 per week for a dependent spouse and $3 for one dependent child. If you don’t have a dependent spouse, you can receive $5 for the first dependent child and $3 for a second. There’s a weekly maximum of $8 for this supplement.

The minimum weekly benefit amount you can receive is $68, and the maximum is $580.

Again, the amount you receive may change if benefits are expanded during a major economic downturn.


Unemployment benefits are taxable

If you receive unemployment benefits, it’s likely you’ll have to pay federal income tax on the money. Unemployment compensation is generally taxable, with some exceptions. You can usually ask the state to withhold taxes from your benefits when they’re paid to you, which may help you avoid a large tax bill when it comes time to file your return. Learn more about how unemployment can affect your taxes.

How can I apply?

You should file a claim for unemployment compensation in the first week you’re out of work.

Pennsylvania’s online application is available 24/7. If you’d like to file online, the state offers an interactive tool to help you navigate the process.

You can also file a claim by calling 1-888-313-7284 or by mailing a paper application.

If you communicate only using American Sign Language, you can file an unemployment claim using Pennsylvania’s videophone service on Wednesdays from noon to 4 p.m. Eastern time.

No matter how you file your claim, you’ll want to have the following information handy:

  • Social Security number
  • Home address
  • Phone number
  • Email address
  • Your former employer’s name, address and phone number
  • First and last day you worked with that employer
  • Reason for leaving your job
  • Bank account information if you want to receive payments by direct deposit
  • Pension or severance package information, if you have them

Be careful that the name you use to file a claim matches the way your name appears on your Social Security card. A mismatch could delay your claim.

How will I receive my payments?

If you’re approved for benefits and file your claims as required, you should get your first payment within four weeks of filing your initial claim. It may only cover one week, though, because there’s typically a waiting week for benefits. Payments are generally issued within four days of filing your biweekly claim, although it could take up to 10 days for you to receive the payment.

You can choose to have your unemployment compensation deposited directly into your bank account. If you don’t make this election, when the state determines that you’re eligible for benefits it will automatically mail you a debit card.

Pennsylvania uses the U.S. Bank ReliaCard® debit card for benefits. You can check your balance online and withdraw money without a fee from tellers inside banks with a Visa symbol.

If you want to have your benefits deposited directly into your account, you can submit your bank details with your initial unemployment claim application. You can also add bank information later through Pennsylvania’s online portal.

When do my benefits end?

You’re eligible to claim unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks — possibly longer if they’re extended because of a major economic crisis.

Under normal circumstances, this period could be shorter if you didn’t work for at least half of your base year.

To keep receiving benefits, you’ll need to make a claim every other week. These claims will include information on any earnings you received, potential earnings you turned down and jobs you applied for.

Generally, starting with your third week of unemployment, you must apply for two jobs and participate in a work-search activity each week.

You could lose your eligibility for benefits if you work part-time and limit your hours, fail to respond to unemployment office inquiries or don’t fulfill your job search requirements.

What if my claim is rejected?

If your claim was rejected and you feel you should be eligible for benefits, you have the right to appeal. You can also appeal if you’re approved for less than you think you should receive. You can file your appeal by email or by mail, and it must be done within 15 days of receiving your determination.

An appeals “referee” will hear your appeal — usually within 30 days of filing — and you can bring documents or witnesses to help show why you believe the determination was incorrect.

If the referee rejects your appeal, you can appeal again to a board of review. Generally, the board won’t conduct a hearing, but you can submit a written request to file new evidence.

Next steps

Unemployment insurance benefits are meant to help out-of-work Americans stay afloat financially as they search for a new job. As you prepare to file for PA unemployment benefits, make sure you have all the information you need at the ready. The state of Pennsylvania allows you to do most of the work to file an unemployment claim online.

About the author: Andrew Dunn is a veteran journalist with more than a decade of experience as a reporter and editor at North Carolina news organizations, including the Charlotte Observer and the StarNews in Wilmington. In those roles,… Read more.