Eligibility for Unemployment Benefits in the U.S.

Unemployment benefits are granted by the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

They are granted to qualifying individuals who are without work through no fault of their own. Through taxes paid by their former employers, these eligible workers receive payments that replace their regular earnings.

While the DOL has general guidelines regarding who is eligible for unemployment compensation, every state sets its own eligibility requirements. Each state’s UI agency clearly defines the amount of earnings and the duration of work required for an applicant to qualify for cash benefits.

If you recently became unemployed, you must ensure that you meet all qualifications before applying for unemployment benefits. If you were rightfully terminated or quit voluntarily for no good reason, you will most likely be ineligible for benefits.

However, there are instances where you may qualify for UI benefits if you were fired or quit. Understanding your rights as an employee can help you determine whether or not you qualify for benefits. Additionally, you must familiarize yourself with your state’s requirements for maintaining eligibility. 

If you receive Social Security benefits, it should not affect your eligibility to receive unemployment benefits.

Find out if you qualify for unemployment insurance benefits in your state by exploring the following sections:

  • Who qualifies for unemployment benefits in the U.S.?
  • Eligibility Requirements for Unemployment Benefits in the U.S.
  • Special Circumstances for Unemployment Eligibility
  • Maintaining Eligibility for Unemployment Benefits

Who qualifies for unemployment benefits in the U.S.?

Generally, any worker who has lost their job through no fault of their own is eligible to receive unemployment compensation. This typically includes workers who were laid off due to reasons out of their control. For example, if a company goes out of business or lays off an entire department for economic reasons. 

There are some instances where a company eliminates a position or lays off a worker after his or her assignment has ended. The difference between a worker getting fired and being laid off is dependent on whether or not the employer is looking for a replacement.

Those who are let go and replaced are considered fired. Fired workers may still be eligible for UI benefits, as long they were not fired due to misconduct. Other eligible workers include military members who were discharged under certain circumstances and workers involved in a labor dispute or strike.

While the U.S. Department of Labor established broad guidelines for determining eligibility, each state interprets these guidelines differently, setting specific eligibility requirements for residents to obtain benefits. These requirements typically include minimum earnings and job tenure, reason for loss of work and whether a worker is able and available to work. 

Eligibility Requirements for Unemployment Benefits in the U.S.

In order to receive unemployment benefits in the U.S., you must meet your state’s unemployment insurance eligibility requirements. General requirements include:

  • Being unemployed or having your work hours significantly reduced through no fault of your own.
  • Being physically able to work and available to work immediately.
  • Being a U.S citizen or being able to prove you are legally authorized to work in the country.
  • Having earned a certain amount in gross wages during an established period of time, commonly referred to as your base period.
  • Actively participating in work search requirements and accepting suitable work offers.
  • Not being convicted or incarcerated.
  • Registering with a local workforce program.
  • Making weekly or biweekly claims that prove you are seeking employment.

Keep in mind that in addition to meeting initial eligibility requirements, you must meet the requirements for continued eligibility. If you fail to fulfill your state’s work search requirements, you risk losing UI benefits.

Furthermore, if you take a trip during unemployment, you will not receive compensation during this duration. The only instance where expenses for a trip may be covered by UI benefits is if the trip is taken with the intention to obtain work.

You will not be eligible to receive unemployment compensation if you have not worked in your state for the required minimum period of time. The only exceptions to this rule are federal government employees and members of the military on active duty who were temporarily away for work.

Other reasons for denied eligibility includes not having sufficient earnings during your base period, voluntarily quitting your job or being fired due to misconduct. However, there are cases where you may receive UI benefits if you were terminated or quit for an excusable reason. If you find that you are eligible, then you can begin to learn the application process for UI benefits.

Note: The amount of unemployment benefits you will be eligible to receive is dependent on the amount of gross wages you received during your base period, in addition to any overtime, bonuses, commissions and vacation pay. Working periods vary by state, but typically are a one-year period.

Special Circumstances for Unemployment Eligibility

Generally, you will not qualify for unemployment benefits if you were fired or voluntarily quit your job. However, there are special circumstances that make you eligible to receive benefits. For example, you may be able to prove eligibility if you believe you were fired for an unjust reason.

Some states are more lenient and only refuse benefits to employees who were terminated for serious misconduct. This means you may still be eligible for benefits if your performance was not up to par or you were deemed a poor fit for the job. Other states allow for individuals fired from serious misconduct to apply for benefits after a set period of time.

If you quit your job, then you must have “good cause” as defined by your state to be eligible to receive benefits. In some states, it may be excusable to quit your job to care for an ill family member. However, other states may not accept this reason as a good cause.

If you are a victim of sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace, you will most likely qualify for unemployment benefits if you quit your job. In some states, you may qualify for UI benefits if you quit your job because the company relocated to an unreasonable location for commute.

Typically, you will not be eligible for unemployment compensation if you quit your job because you are dissatisfied or there are no opportunities for advancement.