Unemployment Benefits FAQ

Answers to common questions on collecting unemployment compensation.

I had to quit my job after my daughter was diagnosed with cancer; can I get unemployment benefits?

It depends on your state's eligibility rules. In every state, an employee who quits a job voluntarily, without good cause, won't be allowed to collect unemployment. But each state has its own definition of good cause for quitting. In some states, employees may collect unemployment only if they quit for reasons related to the job, such as intolerable working conditions or a medical condition caused or aggravated by the job. Other states allow employees to collect unemployment if they quit for compelling personal reasons, such as domestic violence or serious illness in the family. For more information, see Nolo's article Unemployment Benefits: What If You Quit?

After I was laid off, I took my son out of day care to save money; can I still collect unemployment even though I'm spending most of my time being a stay-at-home mom?

You must be able and available to work and actively looking for a job to qualify for unemployment benefits. This means, first of all, that you must be continuing your job search despite your childcare responsibilities. And second, you must be ready to take a job if one is offered. This doesn't mean that you have to put your son back in daycare while you are unemployed, but you may have to prove to your state's unemployment agency that you could arrange care for him quickly if you are offered a position. For more information, see Collecting Unemployment: Are You Able, Available, and Actively Seeking Work?

Must I have earned a certain amount at my last job to collect unemployment?

Yes, in most states. Some states also have work requirements (that is, you must have worked for your previous employer for a certain period of time to be eligible for unemployment). Most states require applicants for unemployment to meet a minimum earnings threshold during the "base period": a one-year period made up of the earliest four of the last five complete calendar quarters of the year before you apply for benefits. For more information on the base period, earnings requirements, and work requirements, see Nolo's article Unemployment Compensation: Understanding the Base Period.

How long will it take to get my unemployment benefits after I file?

The federal Department of Labor's website says that you can expect your first unemployment check two or three weeks after you apply, as long as you submit all of the required information, and no follow-up is necessary. In some states, there is a waiting period (one week is typical) between the time you become unemployed and when you are eligible for benefits. This means you won't receive any unemployment compensation for the first week you are out of work.

How much money will I receive if I decide to file for unemployment benefits?

Generally, your payment will be a percentage of your prior earnings, up to a cap set by state law. Although states differ in how they calculate benefits, a typical formula pays half of the employee's former weekly wages, up to a maximum amount that varies widely from state to state. To continue receiving benefits, you will have to file a claim every week or two. The claim form will ask about any amounts you've earned during the claim period, your efforts to find work, and so on. For more information, see Nolo's article Unemployment Benefits: How Much Will You Get -- and For How Long?.

For how long can I receive unemployment?

It depends on when and where you filed your initial claim. In usual times, unemployment claims last for 26 weeks (half a year) in almost every state, assuming that you don't find a new job during that time. In difficult economic times, however, the federal and state governments may extend these time frames -- and the recent recession is no exception. The Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program and the extended benefits program bring the total time period for which someone could claim benefits up to a current total of 73 weeks, depending on when the person was first unemployed and the state where the person was working. These programs are subject to change, however; currently, the extended benefits program isn't in effect in any state, because unemployment rates are no longer on the rise. You'll need to contact your state unemployment insurance agency to find out the duration of benefits when you apply. For more information, see Nolo's article Unemployment Benefits: How Much Will You Get -- and For How Long?.

Can my claim for unemployment benefits be denied?

Yes, if the state agency determines that you haven't met the requirements. For example, the state may find that you quit your previous job without good cause, as defined by state law. Even if you have already started receiving benefits, the state might later deny your claim if, for example, if decides that you aren't available for work, that you've turned down suitable work, or that you have, in fact, been working and not reported your earnings to the agency. For more information, see Nolo's article Denied Unemployment Benefits: The Appeal Process.

Is there anything I can do if my claim for unemployment benefits is denied?

Yes. You have a right to appeal the denial decision. You may be asked to submit your side of the story by phone or in writing, and you will likely have the opportunity to appear at a hearing and argue your case. Contact your state unemployment agency or labor department to find out how to appeal a denial of unemployment benefits. For more information, see Nolo's article Denied Unemployment Benefits: The Appeal Process.

Can I collect unemployment if I was fired for poor performance?

It depends on your state's eligibility requirements. To collect unemployment benefits, you must be out of work through no fault of your own. Most states consider employees who are fired for performance reasons or simply because they are a "bad fit" for the position to be eligible for benefits. On the other hand, an employee who commits serious misconduct, such as stealing from the company or violating important safety rules, probably won't be eligible. For more information, see Nolo's article Unemployment Benefits: What If You're Fired?

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