Unemployment Compensation

Unemployment benefits are available to those who are temporarily out of work through no fault of their own, as long as they meet all of the eligibility requirements.

Unemployment benefits pay some wage replacement to those who are temporarily out of work through no fault of their own. The unemployment compensation system is a joint federal-state program. Federal law provides a general framework and kicks in extra compensation when unemployment is high; state law determines who is eligible for benefits, how much applicants will receive, how long benefits will last, and what procedures must be followed to apply for, receive, or appeal the denial of benefits.

Eligibility for Unemployment

There are a few basic eligibility criteria for unemployment:

  • The employee must have earned a minimum amount, worked a minimum period of time, or both, prior to applying for benefits.
  • The employee must be out of work through no fault of his or her own. Employees who voluntarily quit their jobs without good cause or who are fired for serious misconduct, for example, won't qualify for benefits.
  • The employee must be able, available, and actively looking for work.

State laws define these terms differently. For example, what constitutes good cause to quit in one state might not fit another state's definition. And, each state has its own minimum earnings or work requirements. For more information on each of these requirements, see Who Is Eligible for Unemployment? To find out your state's rules, go to your state's unemployment agency; see State Unemployment Agencies for links to each state's unemployment website.

Applying for Unemployment

Most states allow applicants to file a claim for benefits online, by phone, or by mail. You will need to provide information about yourself (such as your address and Social Security number), your earnings, and why you are out of work. The agency may contact you to ask questions about your application; it may also contact your most recent employer. If the agency determines that you are eligible for benefits, it will send you an eligibility notice and begin processing your benefits.

If your application is granted, you will have to follow your state's procedures to claim benefits each week. You may have to file a claim form, call the agency at a particular time each week, or complete an online interview regarding your job search and availability to work.

Duration and Amount of Benefits

The amount you receive will depend on your prior earnings and your state's formula for calculating benefits. Some states pay you about half of what you used to make, based on your earnings in a full year, in the calendar quarter in which your earnings were highest, or in some other time period. All states have minimum and maximum weekly amounts; no matter how much you used to earn, you can't collect more than the maximum benefit amount. And, some states provide some additional compensation to applicants with dependents.

Your eligibility notice may include your weekly benefit amount. If not, you should be able to come up with a rough estimate using the information on calculating benefits available at your state unemployment agency's website. For more information, see How Much Will I Get? Calculating Unemployment Compensation.

Most states provide benefits for 26 weeks; recently, a handful of states reduced the maximum benefit period, in response to budget shortfalls. In times of high unemployment, the federal government provides additional benefits to those who are still out of work when state benefits run out. Currently, the federal government offers extended and emergency benefits, at least through the end of 2012. For more information, see How Long Do Unemployment Benefits Last?


Each state has its own procedures for appealing a denial of benefits. Once you are informed that your claim for benefits has been denied, you will have to file an appeal within the time limits your state has adopted. You may have to file a written statement explaining why you believe you should receive benefits, along with any evidence supporting your claim. Your former employer will have the same opportunity. Then, there will be a hearing, conducted in person or by phone, at which an officer asks questions and listens to your arguments. The officer may decide the case at the end of the hearing or take some time to consider the facts before reaching a decision.

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