Do I Qualify for Unemployment? How to Tell If You’re Eligible


It’s never easy to stare unemployment in the face, but if you qualify, unemployment benefits can make lean times a bit less stressful.

Today’s unemployment rate has leveled off after peaking to 10% in late 2009, but we still witnessed massive layoffs in 2012, and troubled companies are continuing to slash their payrolls. Nationwide, almost 128,000 workers were laid off in March 2013, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Despite the number of people out of jobs, many of those who qualify for unemployment benefits don’t cash in.

A study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank found that in the height of the recession in 2008 and 2009, only half of eligible people applied for unemployment. That figure eventually surged to 95% the following two years, but in total, about 200,000 people still missed out on unemployment benefits to which they were entitled.

So how do you know if you qualify for unemployment?

LearnVest Planning Services certified financial planner™ Rachel Sanborn gave us the scoop.

Are You Eligible for Unemployment?

According to the Department of Labor, you need to meet two criteria to qualify for unemployment:

  1. You are unemployed through no fault of your own: That means you are out of a job due to reasons beyond your control, like a layoff. So, if you quit your job or are fired for gross misconduct, you’re not eligible. “Gross misconduct” is a vague term, but generally refers to illegal or dangerous acts committed in the workplace, like stealing from your employer.
  2. You meet your state’s requirements for time worked or wages earned: Every state has different rules. For example, New York State requires you to have worked in at least two calendar quarters of your “base period” (generally that just means the year before), be paid at least $1,600 in wages in one of those quarters and during that period made a total of at least 1.5 times the amount you made in your highest-paid quarter that year. Complicated, right? Fear not: If you had a solid, long-term job that you lost, you probably meet your state’s minimum time and wage requirements. You can find your state’s rules here.

You also need to be actively looking for a new job, so those who head back to school full time won’t be able to collect because they’re no longer actively job-searching. Nonetheless, if you’re seeking training in a high-demand field, some states (like Washington and Oregon) have allowances that let you receive additional weeks of unemployment benefits without looking for work, as long as you’re enrolled and making satisfactory progress in your training program.

RELATED: How to Explain a Big Employment Gap on Your Resume

One thing to note: Contract laborers don’t qualify for unemployment because their employers didn’t pay unemployment taxes when they were working. 

What to Know When You File for Unemployment

Exact details vary by state. Some states require waiting periods, in which you need to be unemployed for a certain amount of time before you can collect benefits. Often, this is a week, so the second week you claim is the first week you’ll get paid for. The maximum benefit you can receive will also vary by state, and so will the formula for how those benefits are calculated. Keep in mind that severance pay or vacation time at the end of your job can delay when you begin receiving benefits.

Regardless, Sanborn says that newly laid-off people should file as soon as possible. “Don’t wait until you think you qualify,” she says. “It can be such a hassle and such a long, drawn-out process that the sooner you start, the better.”

  • caitlinbates

    “gross misconduct” can also stand for the employer lying to the former employee and the unemployment office, and can also stand for “you signed a piece of paper noting one minor mistake you made, vs a verbal warning when no other warnings were ever mentioned, but since you signed it you no longer qualify for unemployment”

    it’s stressful enough that people are having a hard enough time finding jobs and keeping them, as well as businesses trying to stay afloat, but some small companies will do whatever it takes to save a few bucks. it’s disgusting.

    • antz

      So if you were to get called into the office and they fired you, then ask you to sign papers don’t sign it….