To collect unemployment benefits, you must be out of work through no fault of your own. Workers who are laid off for economic reasons—due to a plant closing, a reduction-in-force (RIF), or because of lack of work, for example—are eligible for unemployment benefits. But employees who are fired are not always eligible for unemployment, at least not right away. It depends on the reasons why the employee was fired. (For information on your eligibility for unemployment compensation if you've quit your job, see Nolo's article Unemployment Benefits: What If You Quit?)
If You're Fired for Refusing to Work Due to Coronavirus Concerns
Can you get unemployment benefits if you were fired for refusing to work because of concerns about exposure to the coronavirus (COVID-19)? It depends. You may have a legal right to refuse to work under conditions that a reasonable person would believe create a risk of serious harm, if there isn't enough time to get an inspection from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and you raised the problem with your employer. So if you brought up your concerns about undue exposure to COVID-19 at work, and your employer wasn't instituting reasonable precautions to protect employees, you might be eligible for unemployment benefits after being fired for refusing to work under those conditions. In most states, however, you probably won't be eligible for benefits if your employer offered the appropriate training and equipment to protect you from the virus, but you chose to stay home anyway. If you're in doubt about whether your employer's protective measures were sufficient, you can apply for unemployment and allow your state's unemployment agency to make this determination.
In January 2021, President Biden instructed the U.S. Department of Labor to consider issuing guidance to state unemployment agencies clarifying that employees have the right to refuse employment that would jeopardize their health and that they may qualify for unemployment benefits if they do so. Depending on the specifics of the guidance, employees who refuse to work under conditions that pose undue risk of exposure to COVID-19 might find it easier to get unemployment.
State law determines whether a fired employee can collect unemployment. Generally speaking, an employee who is fired for serious misconduct is ineligible for benefits, either entirely or for a certain period of time (often called a "disqualification period"). But the definition of misconduct varies from state to state.
In many states, an employee's misconduct has to be pretty bad to render the employee ineligible for unemployment benefits. An employee who is fired for being a poor fit for the job, lacking the necessary skills for the position, or failing to perform up to expected standards will likely be able to collect unemployment. But an employee who acts intentionally or recklessly against the employer's interests will likely be ineligible for unemployment benefits. Other states take a harder line, finding that employees who are fired for violating a workplace policy or rule won't be eligible for unemployment benefits, at least for a period of time.
Here are some of the types of misconduct that might render an employee ineligible to collect unemployment benefits:
Even if you are disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits because of why you were fired, that disqualification may not last forever. In some states, being fired for misconduct renders an employee ineligible for unemployment benefits, period. In those states, until the employee gets another job, works there long enough to meet the state's earnings and/or work tenure requirements, and then becomes unemployed again, that employee will not be able to collect unemployment benefits. But in other states, an employee who has been fired for misconduct is ineligible for unemployment benefits only for a set period of time, particularly if the misconduct is less egregious. In other words, a penalty is imposed on the employee, but he or she may become eligible for unemployment benefits once the disqualification period ends.
To find out more about your state's laws on eligibility for unemployment benefits, 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.