In California -- as in every other state -- employees who are temporarily out of work through no fault of their own may qualify to collect unemployment benefits. The eligibility rules, prior earnings requirements, benefit amounts, and other details vary from state to state, however. Here are the basic rules for collecting unemployment compensation in California. In California, the agency that handles unemployment benefits is called the Employment Development Department.
Eligibility for Unemployment in California
There are three eligibility requirements to collect unemployment benefits in California:
- Your past earnings must meet certain minimum thresholds.
- You must be unemployed through no fault of your own, as defined by California law.
- You must be able, available, and actively seeking work.
Virtually all states look at your recent work history and earnings during a one-year "base period" to determine your eligibility for unemployment. (See Nolo's article Unemployment Compensation: Understanding the Base Period for more information). In California, as in most states, the base period is the earliest four of the five complete calendar quarters before you filed your claim for benefits. For example, if you filed your claim in October of 2012, the base period would be from June 1, 2011, through May 31, 2012.
During the base period, your earnings must meet one of these two requirements:
- You must have earned at least $1,300 in your highest paid quarter of the base period.
- You must have earned at least $900 in your highest paid quarter of the base period and at least 1.25 times your earnings in the highest paid quarter during the entire base period.
Reasons for Unemployment
You must be out of work through no fault of your own to qualify for unemployment benefits.
Layoffs. If you are laid off, lose your job in a reduction-in-force (RIF), or get "downsized" for economic reasons, you will meet this requirement.
Firing. If you are fired because you lacked the skills to perform the job or simply weren't a good fit, you should be able to collect benefits. If you are fired for misconduct, however, you will not be eligible for unemployment benefits. In California, misconduct makes you ineligible for unemployment benefits only if all four of these statements are true:
- You owed a "material" duty to the employer. This means a duty that is properly part of the job (this can be, for example, showing up for work and performing your job duties).
- You substantially breached that duty (in other words, you didn't perform the duty). A minor or one-time transgression isn't enough to disqualify you from receiving benefits.
- Your breach of the duty showed a wanton or willful disregard for that duty. In other words, you weren't just careless or thoughtless but, instead, intentionally violated the duty or showed a reckless disregard for the consequences of your breach of the duty. Inefficiency, inability to perform the job, or good faith errors in judgment don't meet this standard and won't render you ineligible for unemployment benefits in California.
- Your breach of the duty must tend to harm the employer's business interests.
Quitting. If you quit your job, you won't be eligible for unemployment benefits unless you had a good reason for quitting, meaning that a reasonable person who truly wanted a job would have left under the same circumstances. If you had good cause related to your job (such as illegal discrimination, harassment, unsafe working conditions, or fraud by your employer), you will be eligible for unemployment benefits. In this situation, you must have taken reasonable steps to resolve the situation before quitting, which means you must have discussed the problem with your employer and allowed a reasonable amount of time for the employer to fix the situation before you left the job.
If you left the job for compelling family or health reasons -- because you are facing domestic violence, need to relocate to follow your spouse, or need to care for a seriously ill family member, for example -- you likely will be found to have good cause to quit, and you will be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Availability to Work
To maintain your eligibility for unemployment benefits, you must be able to work, available to accept a job, and looking for work. (See Nolo's article Collecting Unemployment: Are You Able, Available, and Actively Seeking Work? for more information on these requirements generally.) If you are offered a suitable position, you must accept it.
You must conduct a reasonable search for work, and certify (on your claim for benefits) that you have done so. You should keep records of the employers you have contacted, the dates you made contact, and the outcome. The Employment Development Department may ask you to provide this information.
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