Fortunately, there is a financial safety net (albeit limited) for workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own, such as a layoff or company closure. Employees pay into their state unemployment insurance (UI) fund through a payroll tax, with some help from the federal coffers. When workers lose their jobs, they may apply for weekly UI benefits representing a percentage of their former earnings. Recipients must document their job search efforts in order to continue receiving benefits, which typically last for roughly six months. FindLaw's Unemployment Benefits section includes in-depth information about UI, including how to apply for benefits and other practical tips.
Unemployment Insurance at a Glance
The first thing unemployed workers should understand is that UI benefits are not available to those who voluntary leave their job or are terminated for cause. Administrators verify the nature of the job separation (whether it was for cause) with the employer after a claimant files for UI benefits, and employers may challenge a former employee's claim. In fact, there is a system in place for resolving disputes over UI claims that includes hearings and an appeals process.
You must have enough tenure as an employee in order to be eligible for UI benefits, which means you will have paid into the UI program. The weekly amount is determined by the wages of one's former job, but is capped at anywhere between $300 and $600 per month (depending on state law).
Benefits usually end after a period of six months (or 26 weeks), but they have been legislatively extended for the long-term unemployed in times of extraordinary financial distress. For example, workers affected by the "Great Recession" following the financial crisis of 2008 had their benefits extended for up to 99 weeks, which was unprecedented. Benefits also end once the worker finds regular employment.
Unemployment Benefits After Termination
Individuals who are terminated due to a lay-off (or those who quit after a significant decrease in hours and/or benefits) generally are eligible for unemployment benefits. Those were fired for cause, such as misconduct or poor performance, usually are not eligible for UI benefits; but there are exceptions:
- An employee who was terminated in order to reduce payroll, even if it's not an official lay-off
- An employee who was fired for cause, but for minor infractions or unintentional misconduct
- Employer has violated the law (discrimination, retaliation, etc.)
Collecting UI Benefits After Quitting a Job
An employee who quits may still collect UI benefits if she is able to prove that a reasonable person in her shoes would not have stayed on the job. For instance, an employee who is sexually harassed may decide to quit; but still should be eligible for UI benefits. Quitting because you don't like the job or because it doesn't offer advancement opportunities are not considered grounds for UI eligibility. Other instances where an employee who has voluntary left a job may still be eligible for benefits include:
- Substantial reduction in hours or pay
- Threats of termination vs. voluntary resignation
- Unsafe or hazardous working conditions
- Retaliation for a whistleblower action
How to File a Claim for UI Benefits
The UI claim filing procedure varies from state to state, although they are fairly similar across state lines. Most states provide a number of ways to apply, including in person, telephone, mail, or online. Applicants will supply their name, address, Social Security number, employment history, and other pertinent information. The procedure for claims generally follows this sequence:
- Claim is filed
- State employment agency determines whether employee is eligible
- In the event of a dispute, employee and employer submit forms and documents in support of their position
- If dispute is still unresolved, UI hearing is conducted by a referee (including the option to call witnesses)
- If one or both parties disagree with referee's decision, it can be appealed to an administrative agency
- If one or both parties still disagree with the decision, it can be appealed to the state courts
Click on a link below for more detailed information about unemployment benefits.