Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen

Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.

From time to time Help Wanted focuses on a single topic. Tuesday's subject is unemployment benefits.

DEAR CARRIE: I have a question regarding unemployment benefits and severance pay. I understand that I won't be eligible for benefits while I receive severance payments that are greater than the maximum weekly benefit amount. What I need to know is when to file for benefits. Do I file as soon as I become unemployed or after the severance payments end? -- Severance Factor

DEAR SEVERANCE: Whether severance payments affect your eligibility for unemployment benefits or not, you should sign up for benefits as soon as you become unemployed. If you delay, you could lose benefits when you become eligible, the state Labor Department says.

Under a regulation that took effect last year, you would be ineligible for unemployment benefits while receiving severance payments if those separation payments begin within 30 days of your last day at work and if they exceed $420 a week, the maximum unemployment benefit. If your employer pays you a lump sum, the department would compute the weekly equivalents to determine if they exceed the $420 cap.

So apply right away, and when your severance runs out, you'll already be in the system.

DEAR CARRIE: Is it true that you can collect unemployment benefits even if you worked part-time? If so, what is the minimum number of weeks part-timers have to work to be eligible for these benefits? -- Part Timer

DEAR PART TIMER: The unemployment-benefit safety net is for part-timers, too. And like full-timers you have to meet certain criteria in your base year, which is the 52 weeks preceding the date you apply for unemployment benefits. You must have worked and earned wages in at least two calendar quarters in your base year and you must have been paid at least $1,900 in wages in one of the calendar quarters in during the base year, the department says.

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Those are the basics. Even if you don't meet those, apply anyway because other criteria could come into play. You can apply by calling the Labor Departments telephone claims center at 1-888-209-8124. But the department says it's best to apply online. Go to bit.ly/libenefits or more information.

DEAR CARRIE: I work for a public company that has had two bad years. The owner is currently five months behind on payroll. He keeps promising things will get better but weeks keep rolling by with no relief. I am on the verge of looking for a new job, which I know won't be easy. What recourse do I have regarding back pay?  -- Zero Pay

 DEAR ZERO PAY: Tough business conditions aside, it's hard to fathom how the company owner expects people to work without being paid.

The state Labor Department recommends that you contact the department's labor standards division to file a complaint. That number is 516-794-8195.

You could also qualify for unemployment benefits. So file as soon as possible.

Call Carrie Mason-Draffen with workplace questions at 631-843-2791, or email her at carrie.mason-draffen@ newsday.com. Your name and number won't be published. Not all questions can be answered; some may be edited for length and clarity. Go to bit.ly/libenefits for more on severance pay and unemployment benefits.