If you've recently lost your job, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits. To get benefits, you must meet your state's eligibility requirements. Although each state has its own rules, every state requires applicants to have had some recent connection to the workforce before they were unemployed, either by earning a minimum amount, working a minimum amount of time, or both. These rules are intended to prevent those who have been out of the job market -- raising children or attending school, for example -- from collecting unemployment, until they've rejoined the workforce for a while.
Understanding the Base Period
To make sure applicants have done enough recent work to qualify for benefits, states look at their earnings, time worked, or both during the "base period." In almost every state, the base period is one year: The earlier four of the five complete calendar quarters before the applicant filed for unemployment. For example, if someone files a claim for unemployment benefits in August of 2011, the base period would be April 1, 2010 through March 31, 2011.
Because the base period doesn't include the quarter in which the applicant files for benefits or the quarter immediately preceding it, it doesn't count the applicant's most recent employment. In fact, it might exclude almost six months of work. Many states allow workers to count this more recent work if they wouldn't qualify for benefits using the regular base period. In these states, applicants can use an alternative base period consisting of the last four complete calendar quarters before filing for benefits. If an applicant filed for benefits in August of 2011, the alternative base period would be from July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2011. The alternative base period isn't any longer than the standard base period; it just allows applicants to include more of their recent work in determining their eligibility for benefits.
An applicant who has been out of work for a while (due to a work-related injury, for example) before claiming benefits may not meet the earnings or hours requirements to qualify for unemployment. Some states allow these applicants to use an extended base period, which considers the workers hours and earnings before the injury, even if that work falls outside of the regular base period.
Some states require applicants to have worked a certain amount of time during the base period in order to qualify for benefits. In these states, the typical rule is that the applicant must have done some work in at least two of the calendar quarters in the base period.
Most states require applicants to have earned at least a minimum amount during the base period, either instead of or in addition to the work requirements explained above. The most common earnings requirements are:
- Total wages in the base period. Some states require only that applicants earn at least a minimum amount ($3,000, for example) during the entire base period.
- High quarter wages. Some states require applicants to earn at least a minimum amount during their highest paid quarter of the base period. This requirement might stand alone or it might be combined with an additional earnings minimum for the entire base period. For example, some states require not only that applicants earn a minimum amount during the highest paid quarter, but also that applicants earn a multiple of that amount during the entire base period. This ensures that the employee worked at least two quarters of the base period. For example, a state might require applicants to earn at least $1,500 during their highest paid quarter and at least one-and-a-half times that amount ($2,250) during the entire base period.
- Weekly benefit amount. Some states require applicants to have earned at least a set multiple of the weekly benefit they would receive to qualify for unemployment. The multiple is typically between 30 and 40. For example, a state might require applicants to earn at least 35 times the weekly benefit they would receive in the base period in order to qualify for benefits.
Some states use different methods of calculating earnings. To find out your state's rules, contact your state's unemployment agency. For links to each state's agency, see State Unemployment Agencies.