How Long You Have to Work to Collect Unemployment

unemployed woman carrying a box of her things out of her former office.

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No one wants to find themselves on the unemployment line, even if that line is now mostly virtual. It's especially painful to wind up unemployed shortly after starting a new job, whether you left your last gig voluntarily or have been the victim of multiple layoffs.

The emotional fallout can take some time to process, but your first priority, as a newly unemployed person, is to make a plan to survive financially until you secure your next position. Among other things, that means figuring out if you're eligible for unemployment insurance.

How Long You Have to Work to Collect Unemployment

Every state has its own rules on unemployment, including how long you can receive unemployment compensation and how much money you'll get. Generally speaking, though, to be eligible for unemployment, you need:

  • To have lost your job through no fault of your own. It usually means that you won't be eligible if you're fired or quit – but not always. For example, sometimes workers are fired because they're not a good fit, not because they were terminated for cause. If that's the case for you, you might still be eligible for unemployment. The same goes for some workers who quit because of reasons that make it nearly impossible not to quit, such as unsafe work conditions or lack of payment. (Note that a lot of very good reasons for quitting, such as having a sort of lousy boss, hating your job, and/or being bored at work do not qualify as good cause here.)
  • To have been employed for the minimum amount of time required by your state, and worked the required number of hours per week and/or earned the minimum required compensation.

State Rules for Unemployment Eligibility

That last point is where it gets tricky because each state determines its own rules for unemployment eligibility. For example, these are Alabama's rules for unemployment eligibility, as of late 2015: 

You must have wages in at least two quarters of your qualifying period (base period). The base period is the first four quarters (12 months) of the last five completed quarters from the date your claim is filed. For example, if your claim was filed effective October 5, 2002 your base period would the 12 month period beginning July 1, 2001 and ending June 30, 2002. The total of your base period earnings must equal or exceed one and one-half times your highest quarter earnings. The average of your two highest quarters must equal or exceed $1157.01.

Most other states have similar formulas to determine eligibility. To find out what your state requires, contact your state unemployment office.

Don't Assume You're Not Eligible for Benefits

The good news is that the requirements generally aren't set up to exclude people who joined a company shortly before a mass layoff or lost their job because it was a bad fit. In many states, if you've worked at some point during the last year, over the required number of quarters, you'll be eligible for unemployment assistance.

So, don't assume that because you barely had time to warm up your office chair and figure out where the coffee was made, that you're automatically excluded from getting help. In fact, that's a good takeaway for all things related to unemployment: it never hurts to try for unemployment compensation.

You might be surprised to discover that you qualify. Furthermore, while the Unemployment Office has a reputation for being a typically faceless government bureaucracy, there are (at least some) people there who want to help.

The bottom line is that when you're unemployed, you owe it to yourself to explore every avenue to give yourself some financial security while you make your next move. You'll feel more secure if you're less worried about money, and it's easier to make good career decisions when you're not obsessing over paying your bills.