Unemployment Benefits – How to File and Other Frequently Asked Questions

How to file an unemployment benefits claim and other frequently asked questions, including how much and for how long.
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Update: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has expanded unemployment benefits by offering an additional $600 per week for those put out of work by the coronavirus. See below for more information..

Unemployment sucks. I know – I’ve been there before. I was unemployed for 6 months after I separated from The USAF. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work—far from it. I just had a difficult time finding work.

The fact that I relocated across the country and didn’t have a network to tap into made finding a new job an even more difficult task.

The good news is that unemployment insurance is there to help you bridge the gap between jobs. Here is what you need to know about unemployment insurance and how to claim unemployment:

Table of Contents
  1. Expanded Coronavirus Unemployment Benefits In The CARES Act
    1. When Will I Receive the Extra $600 Per Week in Unemployment Benefits?
  2. What is Unemployment Insurance?
  3. How to Qualify for Unemployment Benefits
  4. Where to File for Unemployment Benefits
  5. When You Should File for Unemployment Benefits
  6. How to File for Unemployment Benefits
  7. How Much Money Will You Receive for Unemployment Insurance?
    1. Unemployment Benefits by State
    2. Unemployment Benefits Are Taxable
  8. Receiving Unemployment Benefits
  9. How Long Can You Claim Unemployment Benefits?
  10. Can Seasonal Employees Claim Unemployment Benefits?
    1. Is it Fair to Cut Unemployment for Seasonal Workers?
  11. Other Possible Benefits
    1. Unemployment Benefit Provisions in the 2009 Economic Stimulus Plan
  12. Do You Have To Pay Taxes On Unemployment Benefits?
    1. How to Prepare for an Unemployment Income Tax Bill
    2. Start Saving Now
  13. Unemployment Benefits are There for you

Expanded Coronavirus Unemployment Benefits In The CARES Act

Unemployment benefits programs are generally run by individual states. However, in times of economic uncertainty, the federal government may step in and offer expanded benefits. We last saw this during the Great Recession in 2008-2009. The coronavirus crisis is another example of the government stepping in to expend unemployment benefits.

The CARES Act improved unemployment benefits in the following ways:

  • It provides an additional $600 per week in benefits and payments through July 31, 2020.
  • It adds an additional 13 weeks of benefits through December 31, 2020. Most states currently offer 26 weeks of unemployment benefits (see the unemployment benefits by state section below).
  • it expands benefits for part-time, seasonal, self-employed, and contract workers (such as those in the gig economy).
  • Offers to reimburse the cost for states that waive the one-week waiting period before paying benefits.

When Will I Receive the Extra $600 Per Week in Unemployment Benefits?

States are rolling this benefit out when the funding is being made available from the federal government. So far, this benefit has rolled out in waves. It will likely be staggered and there is no set timeline for all states to begin making the extra $600 weekly payments. However, most estimates are that most states will be paying the extra $600 per week by mid- to late-April.

$600 weekly payments are retroactive to April 5, 2020. The good news is that even if your state isn’t currently offering the extra $600 per week, you will be made whole, retroactive to April 5, 2020. I know this doesn’t help you now, but it will be good when it arrives.

Hopefully, you will receive your stimulus check in the meantime to help you bridge this period.

These additional payments will also not impact income-based benefits such as Medicaid.

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What is Unemployment Insurance?

Federal Unemployment Insurance is a safety net designed to assist workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own. Federal Unemployment Insurance is run by your local state government but is funded by federal and state taxes which are paid by employers.

How to Qualify for Unemployment Benefits

Each state has its own requirements regarding unemployment benefits eligibility, so be sure to check with the state in which you are filing. In general, the following rules will apply:

No fault loss of employment. Most people who become unemployed through no fault of their own are eligible to file unemployment benefits. Most people will be eligible for unemployment benefits if they were laid off for lack of work, and sometimes if you are put on a leave of absence, such as a temporary plant closing, or seasonal work. You may also be eligible for other reasons of unemployment, such as being out of work due to a natural disaster, employer went out of business, job moved overseas, you completed your military obligation or other reasons. Be sure to check with your state regarding your particular situation.

Must be physically able to work. You must be physically able to work, available for work, and actively seeking suitable work. Suitable work is generally considered employment in an occupation in line with your prior training, education, and experience. Work may not be considered suitable if the wages, hours, or working conditions are not as favorable as most jobs in your occupation in the local labor market or if you are not physically able to perform the work.

Note: If you are physically unable to perform work due to a disability, you may not be eligible for unemployment benefits. This is because unemployment benefits and disability benefits come out of different pots of money. If you are physically unable to perform work, you should look into state disability benefits.

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Where to File for Unemployment Benefits

Each state is responsible for running its unemployment office. A complete list of state unemployment offices can be found at the US Department of Labor Workforce Security site.

When You Should File for Unemployment Benefits

You should file for unemployment benefits as soon as possible because you can only receive benefits in weeks which you file a claim. Most states have a 1-2 week waiting period, but you must still file to get on the books and continue filing each week that you remain unemployed. Provided that your unemployment benefits claim is approved, you will most likely receive your first unemployment check during your second or third week of unemployment, depending on your state’s unemployment benefit rules.

How to File for Unemployment Benefits

Gather your information. You will need to provide your state labor board (or other governing agency) with your personal and work information. Be prepared to provide your SSN, employment history for the previous 2 years (employer name, location, the position held, etc.), the date you last worked, wage history, union information if applicable, DD Form 214 if recently separated from the military, education level, and possibly other information.

Apply online, by phone, or in person. Different states have different setups, but most states now offer online unemployment benefits application, as well as by telephone or in person. In some states, it is mandatory to meet with a career assistance advisor at some point.

Delay in approval? Keep filing weekly claims. If your application is not approved right away, that does not mean you are not or will not be eligible for unemployment benefits. Sometimes an extra form needs filled out of more information about your claim is needed. Keep filing for unemployment benefits because you may receive benefits in arrears. If you wait for a decision, you will not receive benefits for weeks in which you did not file a claim.

How Much Money Will You Receive for Unemployment Insurance?

The amount of money you receive for your weekly unemployment benefit will vary depending on your earning history and the limits of your state. When I filed for unemployment benefits in Texas I received $300 per week. However, however, this was almost 15 years ago. At the time, the unemployment benefits in Texas were around the national average.

Unemployment Benefits by State

Here is the state by state break down, as of 2020:

StateMax BenefitsEmployment AgencyPhone Number
Alabama26 weeks
$275/wk max
Alabama Department of Labor334-242-8025
Alaska26 weeks
$370/wk max
Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development907-269-4700
Arizona26 weeks
$240/wk max
Arizona Department of Economic Security1-877-600-2722
Arkansas26 weeks
$451/wk max
Arkansas Department of Workforce Services501-682-2121
California26 weeks
$450/wk max
California Employment Development Department1-800-300-5616
Colorado26 weeks
$618/wk max
Colorado Department of Labor and Employment303-318-9000
Connecticut26 weeks
$649/wk max
$749 with dependents
Connecticut Department of Labor860-263-6000
Delaware26 weeks
$400/wk max
Delaware Department of LaborNew Castle County: 302-761-6576
Other Areas: 1-800-794-3032
District of Columbia26 weeks
$444/wk max
District of Columbia Department of Employment Services202-724-7000
Florida12 weeks
$275/wk max
Florida Department of Economic Opportunity1-800-204-2418
Georgia16 weeks
$365/wk max
Georgia Department of Labor1-877-709-8185
Hawaii26 weeks
$648/wk max
Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial RelationsOahu: 808-586-8970
Hilo: 808-974-4086
Kona: 808-322-4822
Maui: 808-984-8400
Kauai: 808-274-3043
Idaho20 weeks
$448/wk max
Idaho Department of Labor208-332-8942
Illinois26 weeks
$484/wk max
$667 with dependents
Illinois Department of Employment Security1-800-244-5631
Indiana26 weeks
$390/wk max
Indiana Department of Workforce Development1-800-891-6499
Iowa26 weeks
$447/wk max
Iowa Workforce Development1-866-239-0843
Kansas16 weeks
$488/wk max
Kansas Department of Labor1-800-292-6333
Kentucky26 weeks
$552/wk max
Kentucky Career Center Office of Unemployment Insurance502-564-2900
Louisiana26 weeks
$247/wk max
Louisiana Workforce Commission1-866-783-5567
Maine26 weeks
$445/wk max
Maine Department of Labor1-800-593-7660
Maryland26 weeks
$430/wk max
Maryland Department of Labor410-949-0022
Massachusetts26 weeks
$823/wk max
$1,234 with dependents
Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance617-626-6338
Michigan20 weeks
$362/wk max
Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity1-866-500-0017
Minnesota26 weeks
$740/wk max
Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic DevelopmentTwin Cities Area: 651-296-3644
Greater Minnesota: 1-877-898-9090
Mississippi26 weeks
$235/wk max
Mississippi Department of Employment Security1-888-844-3577
Missouri20 weeks
$320/wk max
Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations1-800-320-2519
Montana26 weeks
$552/wk max
Montana Department of Labor and Industry406-444-2545
Nebraska26 weeks
$440/wk max
Nebraska Department of Labor1-855-995-8863
Nevada26 weeks
$469/wk max
Nevada Department of Employment Training and RehabilitationNorthern Nevada: 775-684-0350
Southern Nevada: 702-486-0350
Rural Areas and Out of State Callers: 1-888-890-8211
New Hampshire26 weeks
$427/wk max
New Hampshire Department of Employment Security1-800-852-3400
New Jersey26 weeks
$713/wk max
New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce DevelopmentNorth New Jersey: 201-601-4100
Central New Jersey: 732-761-2020
South New Jersey: 856-507-2340
Out-of-state claims: 1-888-795-6672
New Mexico26 weeks
$511/wk max
New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions1-877-664-6984
New York26 weeks
$504/wk max
New York Department of Labor1-888-209-8124
North Carolina12 weeks
$350/wk max
North Carolina Department of Commerce1-888-737-0259
North Dakota26 weeks
$633/wk max
North Dakota Job Service701-328-4995
Ohio26 weeks
$480/wk max
$647 with dependents
Ohio Department of Job and Family Services1-877-644-6562
Oklahoma26 weeks
$539/wk max
Oklahoma Employment Security Commission1-800-555-1554
Oregon26 weeks
$648/wk max
Oregon Employment Department1-877-345-3484
Pennsylvania26 weeks
$572/wk max
$580 with dependents.
Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry1-888-313-7284
Puerto Rico26 weeks
$190/wk max
Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources787-625-7900
Rhode Island26 weeks
$586/wk max
$867 with dependents.
Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training401-243-9100
South Carolina20 weeks
$326/wk max
South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce1-866-831-1724
South Dakota26 weeks
$414/wk max
South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation605-626-3179
Tennessee26 weeks
$275/wk max
Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development1-877-813-0950
Texas26 weeks
$521/wk max
Texas Workforce Commission1-800-939-6631
U.S. Virgin Islands26 weeks
$552/wk max
U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Labor340-773-1994
Utah26 weeks
$580/wk max
Utah Department of Workforce ServicesSalt Lake and South Davis Counties: 801-526-4400
Weber and North Davis Counties: 801-612-0877
Utah County: 801-375-4067
Other Counties and Out of State: 1-888-848-0688
Vermont26 weeks
$513/wk max
Vermont Department of Labor1-888-807-7072
Virginia26 weeks
$378/wk max
Virginia Employment Commission1-866-832-2363
Washington26 weeks
$790/wk max
Washington Employment Security Department1-800-318-6022
West Virginia26 weeks
$424/wk max
Workforce West Virginia1-800-379-1032
Wisconsin26 weeks
$370/wk max
Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development1-844-910-3661
Wyoming26 weeks
$508/wk max
Wyoming Department of Workforce Services307-473-3789

Unemployment Benefits Are Taxable

Pay attention to the income tax question! Unemployment benefits are considered taxable income for federal income taxes. Taxes are not automatically taken out of your check, so if you want to avoid an unexpected surprise when you file taxes the following year, it may be a good idea to have taxes taken out when you receive your benefits. If you choose to have taxes withdrawn, the IRS will automatically withdraw 10% of your unemployment benefits.

Receiving Unemployment Benefits

File weekly claims. Most states require people receiving unemployment benefits to file a weekly claim with their state. This means you need to call in and verify that your status has not changed. You can expect to go through an automated phone system that asks whether you are still physically able to perform work, if you are actively seeking work, if you earned any income in the previous week, and if anything about your situation has changed.

Get paid weekly or biweekly. Each state determines how often they pay unemployment benefit recipients, but its payment is usually weekly or biweekly. Be sure to check with your state’s unemployment board.

Keep accurate records! States require that you maintain a job search while receiving unemployment benefits, and you need to keep records verifying that you are searching for work – you must generally make 3 job searches per week, by either contacting employers, submitting resumes or going to interviews. Tracking your job search efforts includes maintaining a list of jobs applied for or applications submitted. Many states give you a Job Search Log to make tracking easier. Make sure you keep accurate records because they can audit you later and you can lose your benefits if they discover you are not actively seeking new work.

Report any earnings. You can still take on work while receiving unemployment benefits, but you must report it and your earnings will reduce the number of benefits you receive. Still, it is better to earn some money through part-time work than to do nothing at all. If you fail to report any earnings, you will have to pay back any benefits you received, plus interest. If you knowingly fail to report earnings, you may be charged with fraud, which can result in a denial of benefits and additional penalties.

Receive benefits by check or direct deposit. Most states offer both options for receiving unemployment benefits. I recommend receiving your unemployment benefits by direct deposit if you have a bank account – that way you do not have to pay check cashing fees or wait for the mail, which can be unpredictable. Direct deposit means you will receive your benefits more quickly. If you need access to a good online bank, I recommend Capital One 360 or another free high-interest savings account that offers easy access.

How Long Can You Claim Unemployment Benefits?

Time limits of unemployment benefits. The length of time that benefits are available is determined by the State in which you file an unemployment insurance claim. Benefits can be paid for a maximum of 26 weeks in most states, however, due to the current global economic crisis and mass layoffs in the United States, the US government and many states recently approved emergency unemployment compensation (EUC), which extended unemployment benefits for certain individuals.

Unemployment Insurance Extended Benefits. The basic Extended Benefits program provides up to 13 additional weeks of benefits when a State is experiencing high unemployment (usually over 6%, but check with your state). Some States have also enacted a voluntary program to pay up to 7 additional weeks (20 weeks maximum) of Extended Benefits during periods of extremely high unemployment. Not everyone who qualified for regular benefits qualifies for Extended Benefits. The State agency will advise you of your eligibility for Extended Benefits.

Can Seasonal Employees Claim Unemployment Benefits?

Seasonal employees can collect unemployment benefits, with some exclusions or limitations. It varies by state, and you should research the laws and rules in your state to verify the current status and your ability to file for unemployment benefits.

Exclusions: Federal law already prohibits professional athletes from collecting unemployment benefits between seasons, and teachers from collecting unemployment benefits during the summer. After that, the federal law leaves most eligibility rules up to the states.

Some states are moving away from allowing seasonal unemployment benefits. Several years ago, CNN Money reported that some states are limiting the unemployment benefits they pay to seasonal workers.

Until recently, most states allowed seasonal employees to collect unemployment benefits during the months when they were unemployed. For example, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, and many other school employees know they will be unemployed during the summer months. This extends into the arts as well; many actors, stagehands, musicians, and similar entertainment professions are routinely out of work between seasons. Other examples of seasonal workers include construction, hospitality and tourism industries, etc.

There are currently 15 states that limit unemployment benefits to seasonal workers, and several more states have legislation in work to limit benefits or have commissioned studies to determine the impact this would have.

Is it Fair to Cut Unemployment for Seasonal Workers?

Before we answer this question, it will be helpful to take a look at what unemployment insurance is, what it is designed to do, and who pays for it. Then we can better answer the question. Let’s start at the source:

Contrary to popular belief, individuals don’t pay unemployment insurance taxes. Employers and the federal government pay into the unemployment system, and the states handle the distributions (which is why they often have a little more say on who is eligible).

Unemployment benefits are more or less a safety net – they exist to help people through tough times when they lose their job. Workers are usually eligible to receive unemployment benefits when they lose their job through no fault of their own (there are some rules regarding eligibility, such as those listed for teachers, professional athletes, and some other cases).

These benefits aren’t designed to replace full-time income (most benefits are capped at a few hundred dollars per week, depending on your income going into unemployment). Instead, they are designed to help people get by until they can find another source of income. There is also a time limit – usually 26 weeks, depending on the state (some states have extensions depending on how high their unemployment rate is).

To continue receiving unemployment insurance benefits, recipients must be able to prove they are actively seeking employment. This is usually done by sending in a list of jobs they have applied to, or places where they have submitted their resume.

Other Possible Benefits

One of the major concerns many people have when they become unemployed is losing their health insurance. Along with unemployment benefits, you may be eligible to claim COBRA insurance coverage through your former employer. Be sure to contact your former employer or health insurance provider for more details.

This article covers health insurance options for unemployed individuals.

Unemployment Benefit Provisions in the 2009 Economic Stimulus Plan

Update: The 2009 economic stimulus plan calls for an increase in unemployment and COBRA benefits. Be sure to visit this article for more information about increases in benefits you may be eligible to receive. Also keep in mind that some of these updates are temporary, and may not be permanently written into law. Be sure to verify how long you will be eligible to receive benefits with your state jobs board.

Do You Have To Pay Taxes On Unemployment Benefits?

It may not seem very logical, but did you know if you are out of work and receiving unemployment benefits, you have to pay taxes on the money you are receiving while out of work? Sadly, it’s true. But many unemployed have no idea they are responsible for taxes on unemployment benefits and as a result, they get socked with a large tax bill in the new year. It almost goes without saying that if you are out of work, you probably won’t have the extra cash to give to the IRS.

As with most forms of income, the IRS is ready to collect on the revenue you are receiving even if you are out of work. The same is true on the amount of money you receive as part of a severance package or from accumulated vacation/sick pay once you leave a job.

How to Prepare for an Unemployment Income Tax Bill

The only way to avoid a hefty tax bill is to get prepared for the upcoming tax season. Many people do not realize that taxes on unemployment checks are not withheld and it is the responsibility of the recipient to account for these taxes. Last year the IRS recommended to all taxpayers to start withholding tax amounts from unemployment checks should they lose their jobs.

Much like those who are employed, those receiving unemployment could opt to have 10% of their income withheld by completing Voluntary Withholding Request, Form W-4V. The request to withhold money should take into consideration of the $2,400 tax exemption.

Form 1099-G will be sent out from organizations or governmental entities that issued unemployment benefits to recipients. The 1099-G will show the number of benefits that should be reported for the purpose of income taxes on the taxpayer’s 1040 return.

Start Saving Now

If you have not been withholding your own funds or have not requested monies be withheld, start saving now. Contact a licensed tax preparation professional to discuss the estimate of taxes owed. Once you know about how much you’ll have to owe, you can implement a savings plan to ensure you have enough money to cover the tax bill if you don’t believe you are covered, especially if you have been out of work and receiving benefits for an extended period of time.

If you anticipate a future layoff, then it is a good idea to have taxes withheld if you begin receiving unemployment benefits. It is also good to have an unemployment plan in place if you believe you may be in danger of facing a layoff.

Unemployment Benefits are There for you

Losing your job is a difficult experience, but thankfully we have unemployment insurance to fall back on. With a positive attitude and a little luck, hopefully, you won’t need to claim unemployment very long.

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  1. Samuel A Mathews says

    Hello Ryan Guina my name is Samuel Mathews… I’m a composer out of Seattle Washington. I was reading your article about weather the states should allow seasonal workers to recieve unemployment benefits? Well I think they should. Remember Boeing? In the mid 80s to the 90s Boeing would consistently layoff there workers according to the needs of the company. People in Seasonal work positions are more at risk than someone who is not. Most Seasonal workers are not provided the protection that an full time worker would have. Also the myth that workers don’t pay into unemployment insurance… is a lye! If you work for a bus company part-time you pay unemployment under the labor and industry guide lines… most musicians if they are full time musicians half to also pay into unemployment benefits as well. They also pay BNO taxes to the State. Don’t negate that musicians are considered to be self employed… they pay a lot more tax than the average “Jo” … something to consider…

    • Ryan Guina says

      Hi Samuel, Unemployment benefits are paid by employers, so if you are self-employed and pay yourself a salary, you pay unemployment taxes (I am self-employed and pay unemployment taxes for myself, along with a host of other taxes, so I’m familiar with paying a lot of taxes). When I was an employee for a large corporation, they paid unemployment taxes on my behalf.

      The Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA), with state unemployment systems, provides for payments of unemployment compensation to workers who have lost their jobs. Most employers pay both a Federal and a state unemployment tax. A list of state unemployment tax agencies, including addresses and phone numbers, is available in Publication 926, Household Employer’s Tax Guide. Only the employer pays FUTA tax; it is not deducted from the employee’s wages. For more information, refer to the Instructions for Form 940 (PDF). (source: IRS)

      The above quote is from the IRS, and represents federal taxes. I’m not sure what the requirements are for each state, so I can’t speak specificaly about Washington, or any other state.

      The situation about Boeing is not what I am referring to when I talk about seasonal employment – they were being laid off at the behest of the company, it wasn’t a set schedule the employees could plan around each year. The issue many states are taking up is seasonal employees who use unemployment benefits as part of their regular income each year, even when they know they will have a period of unemployment at the same time each year. The example of people who work for school districts, the tourism industry, ot other forms of employment which have defined “seasons” is what they are trying to cut out.

      Is it fair that someone can work 9 months out of the year, then have the state support them the other 3 months of the year, and do this year in and year out? At that point, it becomes part of their income plan and they have no incentive to look for another source of income because they know they will be back to work in a few months. That is the issue states are taking up with these changes.

      I’m not trying to be argumentative; I see both sides to this. It’s a complicated topic, and one with no easy answers. On the one hand you don’t want people to suffer when they need assistance, but on the other hand, you don’t want to have a built in benefits system that allows people to work 9 months every year, then take 3 months off, and repeat the process for decades.

  2. Lorri says

    Here is my dilemma- My husband was unemployed in April of 2008 for a job in May 2008. He was suppose to start his new job on May 27th which was Memorial Day. His new place of employers realized this and when we got home on Friday (after mailing in his ui paperwork saying he DID not work the week prior) they asked him to come in on the Saturday before Memorial so that he could start training and have Memorial day off since they were closed! He did go in to work the Saturday prior to Memorial. We received a bill from UI stating that he worked during the time he said he did not so we paid back the money, and also a fine.

    Now he again was laid off by the above mentioned job April 2009, He filed for UI May 1, 2009 by internet and heard nothing. He has called numerous times and gets no one on the phone so we started corresponding through e-mail with them. He asked where our check was and they said that because in 2008 even though he paid his fines, and penalties that he also needed to appeal it. (which we do no remember any such paperwork) but we have been DISQUALIFIED for an additional 5 weeks due to his Fraudulent activity, even though he paid everything back.

    My question is how can this be legal? If he did something fradulently shouldnt he be criminally charged? He actually did nothing worng besides going back to work 1 day earlier then he should have. (Sounds criminal to me, someone just going back to work and not taking money from ui)

    • Ryan says

      Lorri, I don’t have an answer for you. Your best bet is to contact an attorney who specializes in labor law or works with these types of cases.

  3. Michele says

    I applied for unemployment in October in 2008. I found a new job 9 (0ff the books) within a few weeks and never received a check for the weeks I didn’t work. Now I am unemployed again due to no fault of mine. I work in construction and the building the company was working on, failed inspections and we do not know when we will go back to work. I called and the unemployment file from 08 was still open. I called to claim benefits. The information was taken and I was told to file again the following Sunday. Done. Will I get benefits under the old claim?

    • Ryan says

      Michele: You will need to contact your state unemployment bureau for specific information. Best of luck.

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