Last December, Ellen Zebrun of Minneapolis learned she was losing her job as a recruiter at the College of St. Scholastica.
She immediately started thinking about how important unemployment insurance payments would be to her and her family until she found another job.
"It's tremendous," Zebrun said. "When I was in my exit interview, the HR representative said, 'Well, I encourage you to apply for unemployment.' I thought, 'Oh, you don't have to worry about that, I'll be doing that.'"
As welcome as unemployment insurance is, unemployed workers can collect only half their previous weekly pay. The maximum is currently $591 a week, with the average payment being about $350.
Payments normally last just six months, but there have been a series of state and federal extensions enacted as the economy has tanked. Unemployed workers can now collect for up to 72 weeks, not quite a year and a half. Another extension could be coming if the state's unemployment rate stays above 8 percent.
Eligibility for unemployment insurance is pretty straightforward, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
"Basically, people are eligible for unemployment insurance if they lose their job through no fault of their own," agency spokeswoman Kirsten Morrell said.
Morrell said they must actively be seeking work, are able to work and that they're really just trying to find that next job.
People who volunteer to take buyouts can qualify for unemployment benefits, and Morrell said even some people who quit their jobs can be eligible.
"If you quit due to a personal medical illness you might qualify for benefits," Morrell said. "If you quit because your employer adversely changes the terms of your employment, you might qualify for benefits. We encourage people to apply for benefits and let us make a determination."
Historically, about a one-third of people who lose their jobs do not apply for unemployment insurance, perhaps figuring they don't qualify or they will find a job quickly. Morrell suspects fewer people are now passing up chances to apply for unemployment insurance, though.
Most people want help fast, and they typically can get an unemployment check after just a mandatory one-week wait. People who get severance payments, though, usually have to wait for that money to run out before they'll get a check from the government.
Bill Rouleau of Oakdale lost his sales job in late January. He found the unemployment application process much smoother and than when he last collected unemployment checks, back in 1980. "I was very surprised it was all online," Rouleau said. "It was very straightforward and very easy to do. I had no surprises. The instructions they give you are very succinct."
Some apply for unemployment insurance by phone, but 80 percent of people file claims on the Internet, according to DEED.
Unemployed people qualify for a lot more than checks from the state. They're also eligible for an array of workshops, counseling and classes provided at dozens of Workforce Centers around the state.
Those who are out of work may even get the state to pick up some -- or all -- of the tab for retraining or college programs.
Rouleau visits a Workforce Center just about every weekday. Among other things, he's trying to speed up his typing, since he finds many sales jobs require applicants to type at least 40 words a minute.
Rouleau is making progress.
"I'm up to 20 words a minute now. And I gain about a word a week," he said.
The Workforce Centers help folks with everything from honing interviewing skills to mastering social networking sites like LinkedIn.
Ellen Zebrun really appreciates her unemployment checks, but values the job-hunting assistance even more.
"We don't have a year's worth of my salary banked up," Zebrun said. "We have a daughter in college. It's not like I can now sit at home and read trashy novels and eat chocolate Bonbons. I need a job."
Zebrun said Workforce Center counselors make it clear that looking for work these days is a full-time job itself. Zebrun said counselors often say it may take six months, a year or longer to find a suitable position.
Increasingly, the challenge in this economy is to find that job before the unemployment checks run out.