Unemployment benefits are provided only to those who are out of work through no fault of their own. That means if you left your job voluntarily, you usually won't qualify for unemployment. A major exception is that you can still collect unemployment if you "good cause" to quit. What constitutes "good cause" depends on your state's rules.
If you've quit your job and want to apply for unemployment benefits, there are a few things to remember:
These points are all discussed in more detail below.
If you left your job to pursue other opportunities, change careers, start your own business, or go back to school, you didn't have "good cause" to quit. These are all very good reasons to leave a job, but they don't entitle you to collect unemployment benefits. Good cause means you really didn't have another choice.
In some states, benefits will be paid only to those who had job-related reasons for quitting, such as unsafe working conditions. In other states, an employee who has compelling personal reasons to quit (such as a seriously ill family member who needs constant care or a spouse who has been relocated by the military) will also be eligible for benefits.
Here are some situations in which you might have good cause to quit—and be eligible for unemployment benefits:
Your state may define good cause more generously. For example, some states provide benefits to an employee who quit to move with a spouse who has accepted a job in another state or has been reposted by the military.
To find out what your state considers good cause for quitting, contact your state's unemployment insurance agency.
If you claim that you were forced to quit, you'll probably have to go through a hearing process to qualify for unemployment benefits. When an employee is laid off or fired for reasons other than serious misconduct, most employers don't contest the employee's claim. Even though unemployment claims cost employers money, there's no good reason to fight an eligible employee's claim for benefits—and little hope of succeeding.
If an employee claims he or she was forced to quit, however, the employer might have more incentive to contest the claim. The employee won't be eligible for benefits if the employer convinces the hearing officer that he or she quit voluntarily.
And, no employer wants to admit that an employee was constructively discharged (forced to quit because of dangerous working conditions or sexual harassment, for example). Many employers will choose to fight this type of claim, hoping that they can win and avoid setting the employee up for a wrongful termination lawsuit.
To prepare for the hearing, think about how you can prove that you had to quit. If you quit for medical reasons, ask your doctor to document your condition and why you could no longer do your job. If you quit to relocate with your spouse, get a copy of your spouse's offer letter (for a distant job) or official paperwork from the military (if your spouse is transferred to another base), as well as any documents showing when you moved.
If you were constructively discharged, you will need evidence that your working conditions were intolerable and you had no choice but to quit. If you were sent harassing email messages, get copies of those. If you filed a complaint of unsafe working conditions or discrimination, get a copy of the paperwork. If coworkers are willing to provide statements about your situation, those may be helpful as well. Anything you can present to show that your situation was untenable and you gave the company an opportunity to correct it will help your case.
The hearing may be held in person or by phone. If the hearing won't be in person, find out how you can submit your documents. Prepare to explain why you had to quit. If the employer claims that you quit voluntarily, be ready to explain why that's not true. You may find it helpful to make notes of all the points you want to cover at the hearing, so you can make sure you don't leave anything out.
Especially if you were constructively discharged, you should consider consulting with an experienced employment lawyer before your hearing. If you were forced out of your job, you may have legal grounds for a lawsuit. In this situation, the outcome of the hearing won't only determine whether you get unemployment benefits; it could also make or break your case.
An attorney can help you make the strongest arguments—and avoid making any mistakes that could come back to haunt you later. An attorney can also use the unemployment hearing to gather information and evidence that might prove useful if you decide to file a lawsuit.
Need a lawyer? Start here.