To collect unemployment benefits, employees must be out of work through no fault of their own. Workers who lose their jobs in a layoff are clearly eligible for benefits, as are most employees who are fired for reasons other than serious misconduct. (See Nolo's article Unemployment Benefits: What If You're Fired? for more information on this requirement.)
Even employees who quit their jobs may be able to collect unemployment, but that depends on their reasons for leaving. In every state, an employee who voluntarily quits a job without good cause is not eligible for unemployment. But state laws vary as to how they define "good cause."
Even if you think you had a good reason to leave a job, that doesn't necessarily mean you had good cause in the eyes of the law. For example, it might make sense to leave a job that doesn't offer opportunities for advancement, but a worker who makes this choice won't be eligible for unemployment benefits. Similarly, some people quit their jobs because they find the work unfulfilling or they want to pursue an entirely different career path. These decisions may lead to a better qualify of life and higher job satisfaction -- but what they won't lead to is an unemployment check.
In some states, former employees are eligible for benefits if they leave a job for compelling personal reasons -- for example, to relocate when a spouse gets a distant job or because a family emergency requires the worker to be home. In other states, benefits are available only if the employee's reasons for quitting are related to the job
Here are some reasons for quitting that might entitle you to collect unemployment.
Constructive discharge. Most states allow employees to collect unemployment if their work situation had grown so difficult that they were essentially forced to quit (for example, if you feel that quitting is the only option because of constant sexual harassment, dangerous working conditions that your employer refuses to remedy, or a manager's demands that you commit an illegal act). If a reasonable person in that situation would have found the working conditions intolerable, quitting most likely won't make you ineligible for benefits. Legally, constructive discharge is considered a form of wrongful termination, not a voluntary quit.
Medical reasons. In many states, an employee who quits because of an illness, injury, or disability may remain eligible for unemployment. Some states require that the medical condition be linked to the job. In other words, the employee is covered only if the work caused or aggravated the medical condition.
Another job. If an employee leaves a job for other employment, most states don't consider that a disqualification for unemployment. Generally, however, the other employment must be fairly certain: An employee who quits to look for another job typically won't be covered. If you're wondering why an employee who has a new job is collecting unemployment, it's almost always because the new job didn't pan out as expected. For example, an employee might quit to take a better job, based on a firm offer, only to find that the new job never materializes.
Domestic violence. If an employee quits work for reasons relating to domestic violence, many states allow the employee to collect unemployment.
To care for a family member. In some states, an employee who quits work to care for a seriously ill family member is still eligible to collect unemployment. State laws vary as to which family members are covered and how serious the family member's condition must be.
Your state may recognize additional covered reasons for leaving a job, such as moving to be with a spouse who has taken a distant job or been reposted by the military. In some cases, the employee may be subject to a disqualification period -- a stretch of time during which benefits are not available -- before becoming eligible for unemployment.
To find out more about your state's laws, 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.