Not every person who is out of work is eligible for unemployment benefits. Unemployment benefits are intended as a temporary wage replacement for those who are out of work, through no fault of their own, until they find a new job.
Unemployment insurance is a joint program of the federal and state governments. State law determines who is eligible for benefits, how much they will receive, and for how long. Generally speaking, applicants must meet these three requirements to qualify for benefits:
Each state defines these terms a bit differently. This article provides general information on these requirements. To find out your state's rules, visit its website; for links to each state's agency, see State Unemployment Agencies.
Unemployment benefits are available only to applicants who are out of work through no fault of their own. If you are laid off or lose your job for economic reasons (cost cutting or plant closure, for example), you will meet this requirement. If you are fired or you quit, however, it might be tougher to qualify.
Your eligibility for unemployment benefits if you are fired depends on the reasons for your termination. Although states define the term differently, most states don't pay benefits to employees who were fired for serious misconduct. If, for example, you were fired for stealing from the company, committing a crime, or willfully breaking a serious safety rule, you most likely won't be eligible for benefits. However, if you were fired for failing to meet expectations or substandard performance, you probably will be eligible for benefits. In many states, an employee who fails or refuses to take a drug test is not eligible for unemployment.
Even if you are not eligible for unemployment because you were fired for misconduct, this might be only a temporary disqualification. Some states consider an employee who was fired for serious misconduct to be ineligible for benefits, period. In other states, however, the employee becomes eligible after a set period of time. These states impose a penalty on fired employees, but don't render them completely ineligible for benefits.
If you voluntarily quit your job without good cause, you won't be eligible for unemployment benefits. If you had good cause to quit, as defined by your state's law, you will be eligible. State definitions of "good cause" vary significantly. For example, an employee who quits work to care for a seriously ill family member will be eligible for benefits in some states but not in others. Most states allow employees to collect benefits if their work situation was so difficult that they had no choice but to quit. (This is called a "constructive discharge.") For example, an employee who quits to escape unsafe working conditions or egregious sexual harassment will likely still be eligible for benefits.
To collect unemployment benefits, you must have some connection to the workforce. Benefits aren't available to those who have been out of work for a long time or have only held very limited jobs (occasional or seasonal work, for example). In other words, your unemployment must be temporary.
States determine whether you've met this requirement by looking at your earnings, hours worked, or both, during the "base period." In almost every state, the base period is a one-year period, consisting of the earlier four of the last five complete calendar quarters before you applied for unemployment. If, for example, you apply for unemployment benefits in August of 2011, the base period would be April 1, 2010, through March 31, 2011.
Some states require applicants to have worked at least a minimum amount of time during the base period to collect benefits. Most states require applicants to have earned a minimum amount during the base period to qualify. States measure this earnings requirement in different ways: Some look at an applicant's total wages during the base period; others look at the applicant's earnings during the highest paid quarter of the base period, and other require applicants to have earned at least a certain multiple of the weekly unemployment benefit to qualify.
Find out How Unemployment Works.
To get benefits, applicants must show that they are able to work and looking for a new job. If, for example, you are temporarily disabled or injured and unable to work, some states will not allow you to collect benefits for that period of time. You must also be available to work: able to accept a new job if one is offered. If, for example, you have gone back to school or taken on childcare responsibilities for your family, you will not be eligible for benefits unless you can show that you could change your schedule quickly to take a new job.
In every state, you must be looking for work to collect benefits. What qualifies as an adequate job search depends on how things work in your field. For retail positions, you might go to stores, ask about openings, and complete job applications. For professional positions, you might network, send out cover letters and resumes, and apply for posted jobs.
States go to different lengths to verify applicant's job searches. In some states, you will simply have to check a box on a form to confirm that you are looking for work. Other states will ask for detailed information on your search, including the names of companies you've contacted.
Learn more about the Hiring Process.