What I’ve Learned About Unemployment in Massachusetts

by Dave Atkins on January 22, 2009

in Advice to Unemployed,Best Writing,Building Community,Essay,Local to Boston,Work/Life

This article provides advice and tips for residents of Massachusetts who are unemployed. It is the most popular post on my blog. Please read the related posts in the category “Navigating Unemployment” and the comments below. I closed comments and have moved on–employed for over 2 years now. This page still gets over 1000 visitors per month, and perhaps there is still some value in the story, but please consult the Mass.Gov website for improved information regarding unemployment benefits.

No legal advice. This blog post relates my experience only and the information I researched in January 2009.

Text of original post follows…

Top 7 Tips for the Unemployed in Massachusetts

My purpose here is not to tell you how to find a job. It’s just about the hoops you need to jump through to get the insurance benefits you are entitled to receive while you are looking for work. I recommend you just do these things and don’t get hung up on lots of questions or debates about why the system is the way it is. We have a pretty good deal in Massachusetts compared to other states, so check your attitude at the door and don’t let the bureaucracy and cesspool of negativity you may encounter distract you from finding a job.

1. Go stand in line. Or, more accurately, sit in your car holding a number. Do not bother with the phone; it is busy. There is no way to register online and no forms to print out. So rather than call and wait on hold for hours, what you should do it go down to your local “walk in center” in the middle of the day and ask them when the line forms, then come back the next day at 7am or so to get a number. Then go get a coffee from Dunkin Donuts and come back at the right time. Make sure you bring all the information you will need to fill out the form. When I filed my claim, the center was experimenting with a group filing approach; we all filled out our forms together and I was out of the building within half an hour. Then, later that day, I received a call from the intake person to confirm he had registered me in the system. Easy. Painless. No frustration.

It would be nice if the form were online so I could fill it out in advance, submit it online, or even just mail it in. It seems ridiculous to have to stand in line to get a form that you fill out and hand to a person, then leave.

2. File your Medical Security Program application ASAP. If you are receiving unemployment benefits, you may be eligible to participate in the Medical Security Program. Download the application form, fill it out, and send it in before you file your initial claim. If you are eligible, MSP will reimburse you 80% of your COBRA premium up to a monthly maximum of $1080 for a family plan or $440 for an individual plan. My COBRA plan would cost me $1312.92 per month for Blue Cross HMO Blue Enhanced Value.

Are you eligible? Probably, especially if you have kids. But the determination of eligibility is complicated so rather than try to figure it out, just get the application completed and filed ASAP along with any required supporting materials…like the letter you need your wife to write saying she is a stay at home mom.

Download the brochure and application form and read them carefully. The website itself does not give the details you need. But get the application in so have it ready if you need it. If you fail to submit the application right away and find you need health care, the state will not pay retroactively; a friend I know is already in for $2600+ with the state refusing to reimburse the COBRA payments he made before his application was processed. You can file an appeal–another great use of your time when you could be looking for a job.

3. Wait for your first unemployment check to arrive before you try to call MSP. I burned through 45 minutes of cell phone time (I do not have a land line) before I got to a person who said she could not help me until I had received my first check. It will probably be a month before you get a check and maybe 6 weeks before you learn anything about MSP. In the meantime, you will be hoping you don’t get sick, avoiding going to the doctor, and not electing to use your COBRA “benefits.” You have 2 months from the date you are laid off to elect COBRA and it can be retroactive. So, if you have an emergency, you go to the doctor then pay COBRA.

If you do qualify for MSP, you will have to front the money for COBRA premiums and get reimbursed. And I do not know how part time work affects your eligibility for participation in MSP, but I suspect it is not good.

Please see my more recent posts on health care

4. The Commonwealth Care program is irrelevant to you. If you are eligible for MSP + COBRA, you are not eligible for Commonwealth Care. You can use the Commonwealth Connector web site to shop for private insurance, but you will not get the low-cost or free health care that is available for people who did not just lose their jobs.

5. If you find part-time or consulting work…manage your time strategically. It is a crime to fail to report that you worked and earned money while unemployed, and you are allowed a pittance of earning (1/3 of your benefit amount, e.g. a couple hundred bucks), but what typically happens is if you make any significant money, you lose your benefit for that week. So if you do manage to find some freelance work, make sure you do it all in one week. Don’t do something foolish like work 10 hours a week for 4 weeks. Schedule your work so that if you have a 40-hour project, you can do it all in one week.

6. Stay positive. It is easy to get upset when you are on hold forever and then the phone hangs up on you or the person who answers refuses to help you. It is frustrating to click on website links that claim to give you information on how to apply…but then don’t link to the forms. And it is terribly frustrating to listen to repeated hold messages telling you to go to the website…when the website is telling you that you have to call the phone number. But just do what you need to do and get back on track looking for a job!

7. Don’t feel like a scumbag. I try to laugh at the movie Office Space and recall the line from one worker who is afraid of being laid off:

I’m going to be the first one they’re gonna lay off. Just the thought of having to go to the State Unemployment Office and having to stand in line with those scumbags!!!

There is no shame in collecting unemployment. We’ve been paying into the system for years–or at least our employers have been paying for us. It is social insurance, designed to cover just this situation. It’s not a government handout.

In the 1930s, perhaps our grandparents gave up their dreams to provide for their families during the Great Depression…they put their college degrees away and found jobs doing laundry or whatever it took to keep their families fed. There was no safety net and dreams were deferred out of necessity. But that generation enacted social protections to help prevent that kind of thing from happening again. For a few minutes, the lucky among us who had good jobs, stand in line with the laborers and attorneys, ironworkers and accountants, in these challenging times, and focus on building a better future with a least a few months protection from losing our homes and freezing in the cold because we were only a paycheck away from disaster. If there are some hoops we must navigate, we do it, and we move on.

If you have specific, useful tips on what people should do to make their experience with the Unemployment Insurance go more smoothly or constructive suggestions for how to improve the way these services are delivered, please comment here. Don’t post links to business opportunities. Even if they are well-intentioned, I will delete anything that is not directly relevant to the topic of navigating the unemployment bureaucracy.


Dave Atkins August 13, 2010 at 2:07 pm

My experience was that when I re-filed my claim in 2010, the benefit amount was based on only the W-2 income I earned over the previous 4 quarters. As far as I can tell, self-employment income would not reduce your qualification for future benefits, and it does not increase them because you are not paying unemployment insurance. You do pay an extra self-employment tax, but I don’t believe any of that goes to the UI system.

Sylviana Mettiany August 21, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Hi I need your help!!! Please I was working for over 6 year in a company I got lay off and I started to collecting unemployement benefits and I find a part time job. Wich I got really sick I didn’t went to work for 2 day . They thought I quit. They didn’t give more hours . I didn’t get pay for the last week to. Anyways it is being 4 weeks that I hadn’t get any unemployent check eighter. I am very confuce, I have no money I’m sick and I’m have no where to live because I have no money to pay rent can you tell me if it is anyway you can give an advice of what I can do please let me know.. I will really aprecite .. Thank you:-(

Cassandra Blout August 25, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I stumbled across your website while researching some info regarding unemployment in Massachusetts. It’s kind of funny that you mention staying positive but your first tip is rather negative; “Don’t bother calling on the phone”. I was laid off last month and called on the phone. I had to try on two diff. occasions and wait 45 minutes to speak with someone to open my claim. After all I am unemployed and not working, so I have nothing to do for the most part. What harm does it do to wait on the phone? I understand you don’t have a landline phone, most people dont. Many people have unlimited plans so they could wait on the phone. I rather do that then waste time and gas to go in person and wait in line to fill out a form. We need to understand that there are countless other individuals in the state that have been released from work, so patience is essential.

Dave Atkins August 25, 2010 at 2:14 pm

I guess it is a personal preference–I felt like going in person to file the claim was more active and positive.

Bridget O'Reilley August 26, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Does anyone know if your company closes down and violates the Warn Act and the former employees must be paid their weekly wages for 60 days, does MA consider this wages and can you collect simulaneously. I know California has an amendment that says Warn wages can’t be considered wages for unemployment claims, but what about Mass. Thanks.

Dan L August 30, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I applied for MSP but because I was told it takes six weeks for applications to be processed, I had to pay out of pocket for two months’ worth of COBRA (totalling $2K for my family) while I waited. I’m in the midst of leaving messages at COBRA to see if I can get that money back seeing I found out today that I qualified for the MSP premium-free Blue Cross, which is retroactive to before those two months that I paid for. MSP said I can request to shift to the partial reimbursement plan, but I’ll only be able to get 80% back on my most recent month’s payment. Has anyone been in this situation? Do I even have a chance of seeing most/some/all of that $2K?

SD September 20, 2010 at 2:44 pm

I think I’ve found more answers on this website in about 10 minutes of reading than I have from hours of studying the unemployment website. I have a question for some of the more recent claimers. My last day of employment was August 27, 2010. I wasn’t allowed to file my claim until August 31. I received my initial packet that simply acknowledged that I have filed, but as of today, I have yet to receive my benefits determination form or any other mailings. I’ve claimed for 3 weeks now, with the first being my waiting period, so at this point I am already owed 2 payments and am getting kind of worried. The website says I should have received a benefits determination a long time ago and my first payment within 3 to 4 weeks. This is my first time having to file for unemployment. Is this type of delay normal?

MJ September 27, 2010 at 10:40 am

To SD,

Just call them to find out a status. That happened to me and when I called they realized they were late on sending out my checks and all of my checks were then sent to me.

Brian October 3, 2010 at 7:16 pm

I had a hearing a couple weeks ago, and on Friday received the letter saying that they awarded in my favor, does anyone know how long it should usually take for me to receive the back pay of my benefit checks?

Beth October 7, 2010 at 11:14 pm

Hey there…I have heard that working part time is a really bad idea. I am going to school full time and it’s approved through Section 30. Basically I have to exhaust all federal extensions before getting the additional 26 weeks for school. I am also doing a part time contract on the side, making roughly 1/3 of my weekly pay. What I am concerned with is that when I go to open a new claim in April (which will be the one year mark), they are going to base my new benefits on the part time work that I have done. Does that make sense? I am really concerned because I work part time to pay for school and if my benefits drop I won’t be able to afford to go to school. Any thoughts?

Heather October 12, 2010 at 8:14 am

According to the DUA website, my first check was deposited in my bank account today. My last day of work was Sept 3 and I received 2 weeks severance pay. So, there are two weeks between the end of my severance pay and the start of my first unemployment payment. I was told that pay is retroactive from the time of approval… so my question is… is there usually a delay in the retroactive pay or should I have gotten it with my first payment? I don’t want to call and bug people if this is standard procedure, but I am afraid to let it slide and then have it be too late to have it fixed.

deb October 14, 2010 at 8:18 am

I have exhausted all tiers of benefits, and I believe I should be entering the EB stage. My last payment from tier 4 was on October 2, 2010. This week would be my first week applying in the EB phase. Would anyone have information as to how long it takes for this, as although I did file on Sunday and would typically see a a payment on Tuesday or Wednesday nothing has happened. Is there a waiting period for the EB?

Thank you

R Melan October 16, 2010 at 4:55 pm

I’ve been out of work since May 2010. I understand I am allowed to work part-time and make 1/3 of what I’m collecting but how will this impact my benefits?

Bren October 18, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Dear Deb,
If you have exhausted your tier 4 benefits you have to call 1-888-998-8418 the extended benefits line. You can call the main line also and be connected. You are moving to what’s called State/Fed’l EB. You will be required to submit your Worksearch Activity Log from now on. Call them and tell them you want to claim extended benefits. There should not be a gap between checks. If you missed a week they should be sending that to you. I did this last week. You may be on hold for a while, up to an hour. It is worth it.
You may be eligible for 20 more weeks. If you do not do it already, I would suggest having the cks. sent to your bank account by direct deposit. It took 24 hours to see the check on my account. Good Luck to all.

tim October 18, 2010 at 10:32 pm

i filed a new claim on 9/3/10. since then i have been calling them and getting different stories on what the hell is goin on .i was on a claim last winter from the previous year which has now been exhausted and i am trying to open a new claim basing my wages on the last 5 quarters. they are telling me i didnt make enough money to claim which makes no sense because in these 5 quarters i have made 6 times the wages from 2 yrs ago. does anyone in that office have any clue what they are doin? i have had not a single peice of mail come from them since the new claim was filed and now the teleclaims center wont even let me call in to claim. my claim is out of state and all my wages were made in mass so they dont care or want to hear about it here where i live. I asked for a supervisor today and got a real nasty one who simply did not want to explain anything to me and politely hung up on me saying ” i am sorry there is nothing i can do sir”

Moop November 1, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Definitely agree. I went to a MA One-stop Career Center (with the documents that they told me to bring when I called the center on the phone) and got everything set up in 20 minutes.

Chris November 11, 2010 at 1:33 pm

I was receiving unemployment benefits from Mass. because I was employed by a company there but working from my house located in PA. as a remote employee, I was terminated by the Mass. company and my benefits just ran out, since then I accepted a job in PA. but it is not working out, I feel under qualified for the position, will Mass. consider an extension of unemployment benefits under these circumstances if I leave my present employment in PA, I have only been there a week? I have not yet informed Mass. unemployment of the situation. Please advise.

MDS November 11, 2010 at 4:09 pm

I’m beyond confused about the system at this point. I’m a first timer with unemployment. I also know several others who’ve “collected” without issue. I applied on Aug 23, 2010. I’ve tried contacting the individual directly who is adjudicating my application for benefits. I’ve attmpted contact 3 different times. Car paymnent is coming, mortgage is already past due now and other bills are going to go unpaid. Am I being unreasonable by being frustrated when others who are “playing’ the system time after time are getting their checks? I have NEVER been unemployed which means I’ve done what I’m supposed to ahve done by putting into the system. This is how the system treats you when you finally need the help? Awesome, good to know…..any advice I’d greatly appreciate it..Ive never missed a payment on any of my debts…shockingly ever collector will be calling soon, I’m sure
Thanks everyone, and good luck to all…

Dave Atkins November 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm

@Chris – Mass will call your current employer to verify you did not quit. If you were a contractor/freelancer and there is no work for you now…no problem. If you quit a job…generally speaking, you are not eligible for unemployment. I think, since benefits expired, you would be opening a new claim, I’m not sure what you’d get. Don’t quit.
@MDS – go in person to a one stop career center and talk to someone there; that’s the best I can think of

Annie November 11, 2010 at 11:15 pm

I have a question about starting a claim while you’re working less than full time. I was on unemployment for 8 months when I took a full time contract job. I worked 40 hours/week for 5 months of the contract and then approx 8-25 hours a week for a month and a half before my contract ended. My last day of the contract I filed a new claim for unemployment benefits. When I started receiving my benefit checks they were for a lot less than I expected…it appears they averaged the time I worked so it looks like I’m only getting benefits for approx 30 hrs/week. Is it possible to go back and try to retro the claim from when I started working part time? I didn’t realize you could file a claim when you began working part time so I waited until the contract ended instead of claiming after the 5 months of full time employment.

Stacey November 14, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Hi, I opened my first claim ever in my life in July this year. My benefit credit was approx 5600 and my weekly payments are 375 with the dependent credits. I am getting close to a zero balance and my last check should come around the 2 week of December. Will I be eligible for any of those extended benefits I’ve been hearing all about? From what Ive read, it looks like only those who exhaust their benefits before November 27th are able to apply for an extension. Is that correct? That will be so unfair if it is, because that means if I had ran out 2 weeks prior to when I will, I would be able to get about 20 more weeks, but as it stands, it looks like this last check is going to put me past the deadline. Can you pls clarify this for me and let me know if there is anything I can do once they run out?

Crow November 14, 2010 at 10:26 pm

The last time I filed for unemployment, my claim was being “processed” for over a year, during which time I received no benefits, became temporarily homeless, and finally found work. I called the DUA repeatedly during this time, only to be told they couldn’t help me until my claim was completed. A year later someone was finally able to tell me I was denied, though they couldn’t tell me why. I was given the phone number of the person handling my case, who did not return my call.

I was laid off earlier this year, and for the first time ever got benefits, though I have applied a few other times. The website is normally down, and phone calls to the DUA office usually involve waiting for an hour or more before being disconnected. I don’t bother with the phone anymore, and when the website is down for a few days, I take a trip to the local office. While I’m glad to see not everyone has to deal with the same difficulties, I don’t see why it’s so hard to collect. I am a disabled veteran, and I’m getting too old for periodic homelessness. I am intelligent, capable, a skilled pilot, and experienced in designing and building machinery – but I don’t have a degree, making it very difficult to find a decent job. When did ambition cease to be an asset in this country?

Cindy November 20, 2010 at 7:16 am

@Beth-I know someone in exactly the same predicament. Have you had any luck finding answers?

Eric November 27, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Hi, Quick question for anyone. I have a job starting on the 5th of Dec. I get paid every 2 weeks from the job so my first check will be on the 22nd of Dec. Can I still collect unemployment until I receive my first pay check?

Daryl November 28, 2010 at 5:28 pm

I received notice when filing today that my initial 26 weeks benefits have been exhausted, although my check stub shows a balance of $2500. I was given a tel number to call for “possible” extended benefits. What is going on here? I plan on going to my local office tomorrow. Meanwhile I am having a melt-down.

Daryl November 29, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Answer to my own question: I went to Unemployment today. I was cut off at 26 weeks. There will be no more unemployment for me UNLESS Congress passes a 20 wk extension. They had you a tear sheet on fuel assistance and food stamps and send you out the door! I will be homeless in February.

Karen November 30, 2010 at 10:06 am

Okay, made a mistake…. I thought the cut off was 11/30 but it’s 11/20. Did you just miss it? Don’t give up hope. I have been reading everything on another extension and watching every news report on it. They say there will be another extension, it’s just a matter of how long it takes for dems and reps to fight it out and pass it. It’s so unfair that some people collected for 99 weeks and some people get cut off at 26.

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