Unemployment benefits are meant to act as a temporary safety net for employees who are out of work through no fault of their own -- to tide them over until they can find a new job. These days, of course, many out-of-work employees have found new work hard to come by, no matter how hard they pound the pavement. But the unemployment system requires workers to look for work -- and to be able and available to work, should a job turn up.
So, what does it mean to be "able to work," "available to work," and "actively seeking work"? Let's take a look.
To qualify as "able" to work, an employee must be physically and mentally capable of work. If you are suffering from an illness or injury, you may not be eligible for unemployment benefits until you are once again able to work. However, an employee who has a disability and could work if provided a reasonable accommodation generally will be considered able to work. (For more on disabilities and reasonable accommodation, see Nolo's article Disability Discrimination in the Workplace: An Overview of the ADA.)
State laws vary in how they measure whether an employee is able to work. In some states, for example, an employee who is unable to work because of a period of illness or disability will still be able to collect benefits as long as the employee didn't turn down work during that time period.
To collect unemployment benefits, an employee must also be available to work. "Available to work" means there is nothing preventing the employee from accepting a new job, should one come along. Here are some examples of situations that might lead a state unemployment agency to find that an employee is unavailable for work -- and, therefore, ineligible for benefits:
It isn't enough to be unemployed. You must also be looking for work in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits, and you must undertake an active job search. What constitutes an adequate job search depends on your field. If you were laid off from a minimum wage job at a fast-food franchise, for example, an active job search might consist of going to similar establishments, asking about job openings, and completing job applications. If you were laid off from a professional position, you might respond to job postings, send out cover letters and resumes, and attend any interviews you land for potential positions.
States verify your job search in different ways. Some may simply ask you to confirm, in your weekly benefits claim, that you are seeking work. Others may ask you to provide more detailed information about what you are doing to look for work, and may even ask you to list three companies you applied to recently.
You also may not turn down suitable work, if it's offered. What types of work are suitable depend on your prior position, earnings, training, experience, and so on. Generally speaking, the more similar an offered job is to work you've previously done, the more likely you may be penalized for turning it down. And, the longer you've been collecting unemployment benefits, the more you will be expected to accept some compromises in pay, commute, and job duties to get back into the work force.
To find out more about your state's definitions of "able," "available," and "looking for work," contact your state unemployment insurance agency. You can find links and contact information for every state's unemployment agency at www.servicelocator.org/OWSLinks.asp, the Career One Stop site sponsored by the federal Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration. You can also use our helpful state guide to learn more about collecting unemployment benefits in your state.