Labor and Employment

Unemployment Compensation: Surviving Your Job Loss

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For the average worker, losing a job is a financial crisis. How will you pay the mortgage or rent or buy groceries? Fortunately, most employees can get some temporary financial help by filing a claim for unemployment compensation, or unemployment insurance benefits. But you have to qualify for it and know how to get it.

Unemployment Compensation: Some Basics

Each state runs its own unemployment compensation program, and each state has rules on who's eligible, the claims process and how much benefits workers may receive and for how long. The US Department of Labor oversees the whole process and helps pay each state's costs of running their programs.

Eligibility Requirements

To qualify for unemployment compensation, you must have a record of a minimum amount of earnings over a set period of time. It's usually the 12 months before you lost your job. You also have to be ready, willing and able to work.

In most states, you won't be eligible for unemployment compensation if you:

  • Quit without "good cause," such as because you hated the commute to work
  • Were fired for serious misconduct, like stealing from your employer or physically hurting a co-worker
  • Are self-employed, like an independent contractor
  • Are on strike from your job

What Is "Good Cause?"

You should check the laws in your area, but generally "good cause" reasons focus on illegal job conditions rather than simple job dissatisfaction. Examples of "good cause" include:

In some states, "good cause" includes personal circumstances that force you to leave the job. Following a spouse who's been transferred to a job out-of-state or in the military, or taking care of seriously ill family members are good examples.

Misconduct May Bar Benefits

What type of job misconduct is serious enough to disqualify you for unemployment compensation? It must be something that goes beyond simple poor judgment or personality conflicts. Examples of serious misconduct include:

  • Frequent unexcused absences or lateness
  • Insubordinate behavior such as cursing at your supervisor or refusing to do assigned work
  • Stealing or dishonesty
  • Drinking or drug use in the workplace

Unemployment Compensation Filing Process

It's best to file an unemployment compensation claim with your state agency as soon as you've lost your job. It sometimes takes several weeks after filing to start receiving payments.

Your state's unemployment compensation department will first decide whether you're eligible for benefits based on information provided by you and your former employer.

Referee Hearings

An informal hearing will be held if you or your former employer disagree with the state agency's decision on your eligibility. A government hearing officer, usually called a referee or hearing administrator, runs the hearing. This is your one and only chance to make a record as to why you should get benefits.

Make your case. Types of information you should have at the hearing include:

  • Written records, such as your personnel file, letters to and from your employer, timecards and timesheets, written warnings, written evaluations and pay stubs
  • Testimony from witnesses, such as fellow employees, and friends and family with whom you may have discussed your work situation
  • Your own testimony about inappropriate workplace conditions or demands
  • Any federal and state laws about workplace safety and health standards that may apply to your case

It's a good idea to have a lawyer represent you if you can afford one. A lawyer familiar with your state's law can help you present your best evidence. In some areas, there are free or sliding-fee-scale volunteer lawyers who can help you.

Administrative and Court Appeals

You or your former employer can appeal to your state's unemployment agency if either of you disagree with the referee's decision. Usually an administrative hearings board or commission handles these appeals. In most states, the board only looks at the evidence given at the referee's hearing. In other words, you may not be allowed to bring up new evidence or arguments.

It's possible to appeal the decision to your state's court system in extreme cases. The legal standard for winning at court is usually quite high. You'll have to prove that the administrative appeal board ignored the law or that there wasn't enough evidence to support the decision.


Regular unemployment benefits are paid for 26 weeks in most states. Extra federal benefits are available in areas where the unemployment rates are high. The federal government decides when and where the extra benefits are available.

Benefits might also include training programs and other assistance in finding a job.

Don't Lose Your Benefits

You may lose your benefits if you don't follow the rules set out by your state agency. For example, while receiving unemployment benefits, you must:

  • Be capable of and available to work
  • Actively look for a job each week
  • Report to your state agency any job offers you receive, any job offers you decline and any wages you make each week

Unemployment compensation may be the lifeline you and your family need to make it through tough times. It's up to you to act, though.

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