Have you had to quit your job because you are facing domestic violence? If so, you may be able to collect unemployment benefits. These benefits are part of a nationwide insurance program and are intended to provide some wage replacement to those who are temporarily out of work through no fault of their own. Many states have passed laws that explicitly make unemployment benefits available to people who’ve had to leave their jobs because of domestic violence.
Unemployment benefits are available through a partnership between the federal government and each state. Although the overall structure of the program and basic rules are similar everywhere, there are important legal differences from state to state that determine who is eligible for benefits, how long you can collect benefits, and how much you will receive, among other things. Below, we provide some general information on collecting unemployment when you are out of work due to domestic violence; you’ll need to check with your state’s unemployment insurance department to find out the rules where you live. (Select your state from the list at Nolo's page on collecting unemployment benefits to find a link to your state's department and information on your state's rules.)
Many people, women in particular, are forced out of their jobs due to domestic violence. For example, you might have had to quit because your abuser was stalking you on your way to and from work, harassing you at work (in person or electronically), or threatening to hurt you at work. Perhaps your safety plan included moving immediately into a shelter or safe house, where your abuser won’t be able to find you. If your abuser still knows where you work, your safety could be compromised if you don’t quit.
Unemployment benefits are available only if you are out of work without fault. If you quit your job voluntarily, without good cause (as your state defines it), you won’t be eligible for benefits. In every state, you will qualify for benefits if you left for good cause related to your work, such as dangerous working conditions. In most states, you will also qualify for benefits if you had to leave your job for compelling personal reasons. Some of these state laws say that you won’t be disqualified from receiving benefits if you quit for reasons relating to domestic violence; others don’t.
California, for instance, says that victims of domestic violence who quit their jobs to protect themselves or their families may have good cause for leaving the job, as long as they took all reasonable steps to keep the job, such as requesting time off, a transfer, or another workplace accommodation.
If you are no longer working because of domestic violence, you should file a claim for unemployment benefits. Even if your state doesn’t have a law specifying that benefits are available to those escaping violence, you may be able to show that you had no other choice but to leave your job. If you can show that a reasonable person in your position, who wanted to keep her job, would have had to quit for reasons relating to domestic violence, you stand a good chance of getting benefits.
In virtually every state, you can apply for unemployment online, through a secure portal on the state unemployment department’s website. You will have to provide basic information about yourself, your employer, your earnings, and the reasons why you are no longer working. Be as specific as you can about the connection between domestic violence and your unemployed status. For example, you might say, “I worked as a receptionist, greeting visitors to our office building. My ex-husband threatened to come to work and shoot me. I informed my manager of this threat, but she told me she could not lock the door, nor could the company afford a security guard. And no other positions were available in our company. So I had to quit for my own safety.”
Your state’s law may spell out what you have to prove. In Illinois, for example, you must show that you gave your employer notice that you are leaving your job because you reasonably believed that continuing to work would jeopardize your safety or your family member’s safety. You must also provide some proof to the state’s unemployment department that you are a victim of domestic violence, such as a police report, protective order, or statement from a counselor or clergy member.
States follow different procedures for determining who qualifies for benefits. For example, you may have to schedule a telephone interview eith your state's employment department to discuss your claim. If your employer disputes your claim for benefits, you may have to attend a hearing—either in person or by phone—to make your case that you should get benefits. In all of your communications with your employer and your state’s unemployment department, emphasize that your personal information (such as your address) needs to be kept confidential, for your safety. The law typically requires confidentiality, but it doesn’t hurt to stress that you are facing violence if your abuser finds out where you are.
If your unemployment claim is granted, you will have to file weekly or biweekly claims for benefits, stating that you are looking for work, able and available to work should you find a job, and otherwise meeting the state’s requirements. If your claim is denied, you can file an appeal. The timelines for appealing are typically very short (sometimes just a week or two), so you’ll want to do this right away. (Learn your state's rules and timelines by selecting it from our page on appealing a denial of unemployment).