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Collecting unemployment

Gerri Willis explains what to do when you've lost your job.

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By Gerri Willis, CNN

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Job losses are the worst in five years. If you've found yourself with a pink slip, or you're worried you might get one, here's what you need to know about your unemployment check.

1: Get the basics

First, these checks provide temporary financial assistance to people who have lost their jobs. Benefits can be paid for up to 26 weeks in most States - that's a little more than six months. The amount in that check is based on a percentage of what you were earning over the past year - up to limits set by your state.

About fifteen states have additional benefits that will kick in after you've exhausted the federal money. To find out if your state provides this, go to your state unemployment insurance agency. Also, your unemployment check will not affect Medicaid.

2: Do you qualify?

First, you must be unemployed through no fault of your own. So, your job has to be downsized or you must have been laid off. You won't qualify for unemployment if you quit your job. And, you must have worked at that job for a certain amount of time, that's at least a year in most states.

You can check in with your state unemployment insurance agency to get all the eligibility rules, since the rules can vary by state. To find one in your area, go to servicelocator.org.

3: Don't Delay

Job number one here is to do it quickly. As soon as you get laid off, contact your state unemployment insurance agency. Again, that Web site is servicelocator.org. It can take 2 to 4 weeks to have your claim processed, so the faster you file, the sooner you'll get your money.

In some states you don't even have to go to the unemployment office, you can file a claim by telephone or over the Internet. Keep in mind you will be asked about the addresses and dates you worked with your former employer, so make sure you have that info handy.

4: Get free counseling

Your town may have a one-stop career counseling center set up to help unemployed people find jobs. This employment service can refer you to training programs and labor market information.

You may also be referred to job openings in your area or be offered testing and counseling to determine other jobs you might like. Here's a number to call if you want to find a one-stop career center near you: 877-US2JOBS. To top of page

Gerri's Mailbox: Got questions about your money? We want to hear them! Send e-mails to toptips@cnn.com or click here - each week, we'll answer questions on CNN, Headline News and CNNMoney.com.
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