Unemployment Insurance Basics

Disclaimer: This information is intended to help people who are out of work. As with all other content on this site, these suggestions are not to be taken as legal advice, and the author is not liable for any damages or losses you may incur from utilizing these suggestions and/or any resources listed here.

Note: Unemployment Insurance rules are based on legislation enacted by Congress and individual states. The legislation, and therefore the rules, can change at any time. Confirm any and all information by contacting your state’s UI Department before taking any action that might affect your benefits or eligibility.

Information from the U.S. Department of Labor:

  • Unemployment Insurance Fact Sheet: Think of it as a “quick-start” guide. Important point #1: UI was never intended to provide income to anyone out of work for any reason, so there are many complicated rules for initial and continuing eligibility, and there are lots of “gotchas” along the way.
  • Find your state’s Unemployment Insurance department: important point #2: UI is a federal program administered by the states, which have their own laws too, so each state program is slightly different.
  • Other Unemployment Insurance Fact Sheets: important point #3: Different categories of workers might be treated differently under UI regulations, such as federal workers, workers just out of military service, and workers laid off due to natural disasters or “trade dislocations” (as when companies move factories overseas). There are also special rules for school employees, rules that are very hard to find (and thus one of the “gotchas”); what I have found is general regulations including rules that are optional for states, so check with your state’s UI office.
  • Unemployment Insurance Extension Benefits Fact Sheet: important point #4: UI extensions are not automatic, and each state handles them a little differently, depending on the local unemployment rates and other factors. The table on this California UI department site shows the current extension deadlines established by federal law as of December 2010. The longest any eligible worker anywhere can receive UI benefits on any one claim, including all extensions, is 99 weeks; however, there are many reasons you might not be eligible for all 99 weeks, per the UI regulations at the federal or state level.
    Caution: The rest of the above-mentioned table might apply only to California UI claimants; contact your state’s UI department for information that applies to you.
  • “Self-employment Assistance” in Selected States: important point #5: In general, self-employed people are not eligible for UI benefits, and if an unemployed worker starts his or her own business, he or she risks losing UI benefits on the grounds of no longer being “available” for suitable full-time work, or actively seeking full-time work. However, in Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania (as of June 2011), workers about to run out of their UI benefits can apply to continue receiving those benefits under the Self-employment Assistance program while they start their own business. This program is very new and very sensible; hopefully more states will adopt this model (especially if citizens lobby for it).
Information from Nolo Press, a Reliable Publisher of Legal Self-help Books:
  • Collecting Unemployment Benefits: links to articles on unemployment insurance benefits and rules, including FAQs addressing quitting and being fired.
  • Unemployment Insurance: Understanding the Base Period: important point #6: Your benefit amount is based on income earned during a period of time that ends three to six months before you applied for unemployment. If you didn’t make enough money during this “base period,” or if you didn’t make as much money as you did on your most recent job, you might not qualify for benefits at all, or your benefits might be much lower than you had hoped.
  • Collecting Unemployment: Are You Able, Available, and Actively Seeking Work? UI rules “require workers to look for work — and to be able and available to work, should a job turn up.” Important point #7: You can lose a week or more of your UI benefits if your state’s UI department determines that you did not meet one or more of these requirements that week. So, if you are considering any activity that might be perceived as making you no longer able, available, and/or actively seeking work, contact your state’s UI department before you commit to this activity.
  • You have just lost your job and want to apply for Unemployment Insurance. If you quit or were fired, please read the Nolo Press articles first, especially the FAQs.
  • You don’t have your state’s information brochure or booklet on UI rules, to request that brochure or booklet (everyone should have a copy on hand).
  • You have been denied UI benefits, to ask how you can appeal the decision.
  • Some or all of your income has been excluded from the benefit determination, to ask why and if necessary to ask how you can appeal the decision.
  • A month or so before your benefits expire, to ask if you are eligible for an extension, and if so, how to apply for the extension.
  • You are considering any of the following actions before you act, to find out how it might impact your UI benefits:
    • Going to college, either full-time or part-time
    • Taking a freelance job
    • Taking a contract job
    • Taking a commission-only job
    • Starting a business
    • Becoming self-employed providing a service (tutoring, house cleaning, writing, consulting, etc.)
    • Taking a job in education (teacher, aide, secretary, bus driver, etc.)
    • Taking a paid or unpaid internship
    • Committing to a volunteer position
    • Having elective surgery that can be safely postponed
  • Any time your circumstances change.
  • Any time you have read or heard information about UI benefits and/or rules, to confirm that information.
Good luck!
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