[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] Welcome to the ranks of the unemployed. You join 20,000 other Northern Virginians now on the jobless rolls. And one of your first questions is how to collect unemployment benefits.

If you live in Virginia and last worked in Virginia or Maryland, one of the local offices of the Virginia Employment Commission can handle your claim. If your home is in Virginia but you worked most recently in the District, in most cases you need to report to a city unemployment office to apply for benefits.

Here is a brief guide to the unemployment system for Virginia residents:

Where to Go

The Virginia Employment Commission operates unemployment offices at:

728 S. Washington St., Alexandria

6320 Castle Place, Falls Church (at Seven Corners)

600 Hanover St. in Fredericksburg.

You may apply for benefits at the most convenient branch.

Doors open at 7:30 a.m. at the Alexandria and Falls Church offices, but business does not begin until 8:15 a.m. The Fredericksburg office opens at 8:15 a.m. Each center closes at 4 p.m., but supervisors in Alexandria said individuals who arrive after 2 p.m. probably won't be taken care of that day. In Falls Church, officials suggest that claimants arrive before noon to be seen the same day. Bring a good book or your knitting and expect to wait two to five hours.

In the District, claims no longer are accepted at the central office at 500 C St. NW. To apply for benefits in the District, go to one of five outlying centers, which are open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The locations of the offices:

Cardozo-Shaw Center, 1000 U St. NW

Petworth Center, 4120 Kansas Ave. NW

Northeast Center, 1319 H St. NE

Anacostia Center, 1217 Good Hope Rd. SE

Washington Highland Center, Eighth and Xenia streets SE.

Virginia residents may file a claim at any District office. However, present plans call for tranferring records of all Virginia claims to Cardozo-Shaw, according to city officials.

When you apply for benefits bring your Social Security card and a list of your employers for the past two years. Federal workers should bring Standard Form 8 and Standard Form 50, or proof of wages. Ex-servicemen should bring Copy No. 4 of DD Form 214 (Release or Discharge from Active Duty).

Filing a Claim

In Virginia, you will fill out a set of applications on your first visit and receive a follow-up appointment for two weeks later. On the second visit, you meet with an interviewer who explains if you are eligible for benefits and how much you can receive. You also put in your first claim for payment during the second visit.

After that, claims are handled by mail. Shortly after receiving your first check, you will be mailed computer cards and envelopes that should be sent to Richmond every two weeks to request benefits.

The District recently switched to a mail system, so only one visit to an unemployment office is necessary to file a claim. However, if there is a problem with your claim, you probably will need to make a return visit.

Getting a Check

In Virginia, if unemployment workers determine you are eligible for benefits, your first check should arrive in the mail three to four weeks after your first visit to the unemployment office, said Robert Grisar, unemployment insurance supervisor in Alexandria. After that, if you mail your computer cards every other Sunday, your check should arrive by the middle of the next week, he said.

If you are applying for Maryland payments through a Virginia office, it could take at least two weeks for your check to arrive each time you file your claim because of extra paperwork, Grisar said.

In the District, if you mail your computer cards on Monday, your check should arrive in the mail on Saturday or the following Monday, said Matthew Shannon, deputy director of the Employment Services Department.

Because of problems with the new decentralized, computerized system in the District, unemployment supervisors said, lengthy delays can be expected. Some checks are arriving as much as six weeks late, they said. Shannon said such long waits "would be an exception rather than a rule."

How Much?

The minimum weekly benefit paid in Virginia is $44 and the maximum is $138, Grisar said.

Your weekly benefit is based on the highest amount you earned during a period designated by law. If you file a claim after Oct. 4, for instance, your check will be based on the highest total wages you earned during any two calendar quarters between July 1, 1980, and June 30, 1981.

The minimum $44 benefit goes to a person who earned at least $2,200 during the designated six months. Persons who received at least $6,900.01 during their top two quarters can receive the maximum benefit of $138 a week.

You are eligible to receive unemployment benefits in Virginia for 12 to 26 weeks, depending on your earnings during a designated 12-month period, Grisar said.

In Maryland, the minimum weekly benefit is $25 and the maximum is $140. All claimants are eligible for 26 weeks, officials said.

The minimum weekly benefit paid in the District is $14 and the maximum is $196, said Jerry Blount, the city's unemployment insurance director.

In the District, as in Virginia, your weekly benefit is based on the highest amount you earned during a period designated by law. If you file a claim after Oct. 4, for instance, your check will be based on the highest total wages you earned during any calendar quarter between July 1, 1980 and June 30, 1981.

The minimum $14 benefit goes to a person who earned between $300 and $322 during the designated three months. Persons who received at least $4,485 during their top quarter can receive the maximum benefit of $196 a week.

You are eligible to receive unemployment benefits for 34 weeks, Blount said. The first week after you lose a job does not count because it is considered a waiting period. If you interrupt your claim period by accepting a job for several weeks, you still are eligible to collect benefits for 34 out of the 52 weeks after you entered your claim, Blount said.