Qualifying for Unemployment: Can I Get Unemployment Benefits?

Unemployment benefits are paid to covered workers who have been laid off or terminated from their jobs. They are paid out of federal and state taxes collected from employers who have at least one employee or who pay wages equal to or greater than $1,500 in a single quarter. 

Workers may generally collect these benefits as long as they are actively looking for work; have earned enough money or worked long enough to become eligible; and were not terminated for cause.

Qualifying for Unemployment Benefits

Although the Federal Unemployment Tax Act effectively makes unemployment a partnership between the states and the federal government, ultimately unemployment is largely a state-run program. This means that the rules and requirements for qualifying for unemployment benefits vary by state. 

To find a detailed listing of the specific requirements for a particular state, applicants can visit the website of the state agency responsible for administering the unemployment program. In many states, this agency is called the Department of Labor, although other names are used as well. For instance, in Texas, the Workforce Commission handles unemployment issues. An experienced employment law attorney may also be able to provide advice on specific eligibility.

While the rules can vary somewhat by state, there are many common requirements that exist. A general overview of qualification requirements can offer an indication of whether a person may qualify. Typically, the four main issues that determine eligibility relate to:

1. How Long the Employee Worked/How Much Money Earned

It is not possible to take a job, work just a day or two, and then collect unemployment benefits. Instead, there are minimum requirements in every state that must be fulfilled before one can qualify for benefits. In some states, this takes the form of a minimum amount of money earned before meeting eligibility. In some states, the amount of time worked is key. In most cases, both the time worked and the money earned are relevant.

When considering time worked, the relevant question is how many of the most recent months were dedicated to that employment. In most states, the months of the year are broken up into calendar quarters. There are four calendar quarters: January through March; April through June; July through September and October through December. When determining eligibility for unemployment benefits, states often specify a set number of calendar quarters that will be looked at to determine if work history qualifies a person for benefits. These calendar quarters are referred to as a "base period."

In Ohio, for instance, the base period is defined as the first four of the previous five completed calendar quarters prior to the time the claim is filed. For instance, if a person is starting the claims process on January 1, 2012, the base period would start on October 1, 2010.

In New York, there are two different base periods used. The first is the basic base period, which uses the same requirement as Ohio and looks at employment in the first four of the last five calendar quarters. However, an alternate base period can also be used if the person does not qualify. The alternative base period allows use of the last four completed calendar quarters prior to making a claim.

There are also income requirements for how much must have been earned per quarter. For instance, in New York, one requirement related to income is that the claimant must have earned at least $1600 in one of the calendar quarters during the base period. Other states also impose different income restrictions and requirements.

2. The Reason for Leaving the Position

The reason for leaving a job is also relevant in determining unemployment benefits. Many people wrongly believe they can never get benefits if they quit their job. This is not always the case. If the reason a person quit was because of a problem at work (i.e. quitting was attributable to the employer) or because of a medical or family situation that forced them to leave their job, it may be possible to get benefits despite voluntary departure.

When fired from a job, an employee may also be able to get unemployment benefits. Typically, however, they cannot get these benefits if they were fired for misconduct related to the job. Being fired for other reasons: merely not getting along with a boss, the job wasn't a good fit, or because the employee performed the job poorly, may likely not produce  unemployment benefits. Typical examples of misconduct that disqualify a person from unemployment include failing a drug test, lying or falsifying records or information, violating company policy deliberately, or stealing.

3. Whether the Person Is Actively Seeking Work

In order to be eligible for unemployment, one must be willing and able to work and must be actively looking for a job. The rules of unemployment say those receiving benefits must be using what time they would have been putting into a full-time job, to find new work. So if someone goes on vacation for a week, technically they should not be receiving benefits for that time. It is important that claimants keep careful and detailed records of jobs they are applying for and contacts they make as it may be asked of them to produce evidence that they are looking for work in order to receive benefits. 

In many states, claimants must register for work with a specific organization or agency. For instance, in the state of Texas, they have to register as a job seeker on WorkInTexas.com or with a local Workforce Solutions office within three days of filing a claim for benefits.  

4. Whether They Are Currently Earning Income

If an individual is working part time or in a temporary position, unemployment benefits may be reduced depending on the number of days worked and on the amount of wages or income earned. In Oregon, for example, benefits will be reduced by earnings paid that exceed the greater of ten times the minimum wage or 1/3 of benefit amounts. If a claimant earns more in a week than their benefit amount, they receive no unemployment benefits for that week.

Getting Legal Help

If you have been denied a claim for benefits or had your claim for benefits stopped inappropriately, you may be able to appeal in order to prove your eligibility and get the benefits you need. An attorney who specializes in unemployment law can provide you with assistance in appealing or understanding your rights and obligations for receiving unemployment benefits.