Each state has its own unemployment insurance system to provide support for people who are out of work and looking for a new job. Some of the eligibility criteria are objective measures, such as the amount of your prior earnings. Others, such as the reason you left your job, are more subjective, giving applicants for unemployment benefits an opportunity to advocate for themselves—or to hire an attorney to present their case.
As a general rule, a person is only eligible for unemployment if they aren't responsible for their unemployed state. That means someone who was fired because of misconduct, or who quit without having a new job lined up, usually won't qualify for benefits—but there are exceptions.
The specific eligibility criteria for unemployment benefits vary from state to state. Most states, however, require the following:
In addition, applicants must have worked at their previous job long enough to meet their state’s minimum hours worked or earnings requirements.
All states require you to be ready, willing, and able to work to qualify for unemployment. "Ready and willing to work" means you'd accept a job if one was offered to you. You don't have family commitments, transportation issues, or other personal reasons why you can't work. "Able to work" means you're physically and mentally capable of working; in other words, you don't have a disability or other condition that prevents you from holding a job. That means if you're receiving disability benefits, you probably won't qualify for unemployment, and vice versa.
To qualify and remain eligible for unemployment benefits, you must be actively seeking work. States have different rules as to what the job search must involve. In some states, you only need to affirm in your weekly benefits claim that you're searching for a job. In others, you must provide detailed information about your job hunt, including where you've applied. It's not uncommon for states to require you to make two or three job contacts per week to continue receiving unemployment.
Not all firings are created equal. A person who loses their job as part of layoffs or a reduction in force by their employer is likely to qualify for unemployment. Someone who is fired for misconduct, such as stealing from their employer or their coworkers, intentionally violating workplace safety rules, or failing a mandatory drug test, probably will not qualify.
A middle ground exists between “laid off” and “fired for misconduct.” For example, consider a person who is terminated for performance-related issues despite making their best efforts at the job. In most cases, such an individual will probably qualify for unemployment. But a person fired due to excessive absences might not qualify, depending on the laws of the state. It's often useful in these sorts of situations to hire an attorney to argue your case.
If someone is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits because of termination for cause, this is rarely a permanent disqualification. They might be able to qualify in the future after finding work and meeting the eligibility criteria at their new job.
Quitting a job certainly seems like a purposeful, intentional action. You might think it would be difficult to argue that someone who quit is unemployed through no fault of their own. But it's possible for someone to qualify for unemployment after quitting if they can show that they had compelling reasons to quit.
Let's begin with an example of what would not constitute quitting for good cause. Leaving a job to pursue other interests is not resigning for good cause. If you quit your job to continue your education, or even to start a charity that serves a noble cause, you are unlikely to qualify for unemployment.
Resignation for good cause occurs when circumstances demand that you quit. This situation, known as constructive discharge, occurs when an employer makes continued employment unbearable, such as by falling to prevent sexual harassment or refusing to improve dangerous working conditions. An employee who is constructively terminated probably does not want to quit their job, but feels like they have no other choice.
Personal circumstances could also lead to resignation for good cause. If you quit your job because you have to devote yourself to caring for a sick or injured family member, you might still be able to qualify for unemployment.
Laws passed by Congress and many state legislatures during the COVID-19 pandemic include eligibility for unemployment benefits for people who must care for family or household members who have been diagnosed with the illness.
Applications for unemployment benefits often go through multiple levels of review. If your initial application is denied—as often happens when applicants quit or were fired from their most recent job— you have the chance to appeal.
To present the best case possible, you should collect as much documentation as possible in support of your arguments for why you are eligible for benefits. Depending on how your state conducts unemployment hearings, you might be able to have witnesses testify on your behalf. Since employers have to pay more in unemployment taxes after a former employee receives benefits, they are entitled to notice of new claims, and they may have an opportunity to present their own version of events—and cross-examine your witnesses.
The type of evidence you need depends on how your job ended. If you quit, you must show that you had good cause for leaving your job. If you were fired, you must demonstrate that you weren't fired as a result of misconduct.
To learn more about whether you can qualify for unemployment benefits, you should contact the agency that administers your state’s unemployment insurance system. You can also contact an employment attorney with knowledge of the requirements in your area.