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 or furloughs.

Unemployment Eligibility Guidelines

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.

Unemployed workers meet the state requirements for wages earned or time worked during a set period of time referred to as a "base period." Your benefits will be calculated on your earnings during that time. The guidelines vary based on location.

State Unemployment Rules

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

Not Have Been Terminated For Cause

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 you quit—but not always. For example, sometimes workers are fired because they're not a good fit, not because they were terminated for cause.

Have Quit for a Good Reason

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 bad boss, hating your job, and/or being bored at work do not qualify as good cause under the law.)

Meet State Work Requirements

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. Those requirements vary, so check with your state unemployment office for details.

CARES Act Eligibility Requirements

In addition, if you lost your job due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, you are likely eligible for unemployment benefits through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

These benefits are available to workers who wouldn’t be covered under traditional unemployment insurance, including self-employed workers, independent contractors, gig workers, and those with a limited work history.

NBC News reports that these benefits are available even to workers who were scheduled to start a job and were unable to do so due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Even if you wouldn’t normally qualify for unemployment due to your limited tenure with an employer, it’s worth applying if your termination is related to COVID-19.

For example, if your employer revoked a job offer or went out of business, or if you were unable to work because you became ill or had to care for a relative with COVID-19-related illness, you may be eligible for benefits. Contact your state unemployment office for details.

State Eligibility Requirements

That last point is where it gets tricky because each state determines its own rules for unemployment eligibility. For example, these are New York's rules for unemployment eligibility, as of early 2020:

You must have worked and been paid wages for work in at least two calendar quarters in your base period,

    AND

For claims filed in 2019, you must have been paid at least $2,400 in wages in one of the calendar quarters (this amount increases to $2,600 for claims filed in 2020) in your base period,

    AND

The total wages paid to you in your base period must be one and one-half times your high quarter wages.

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 Ineligible for Benefits

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 you're excluded from getting help, even if you’ve only worked for your last employer for a brief period of time.

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.

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 about paying your bills.

What You Need to File for Unemployment Benefits

To expedite your claim, it’s best to have all the relevant information and documents at hand before you file. While requirements vary by state, you may need some or all of the following in order to apply:

  • Your Social Security number.
  • Your driver's license, state ID, or motor vehicle ID card number.
  •  Your mailing address.
  • Your telephone number.
  • The full company names and addresses of all employers that you worked for in the last two years.
  • The Employer Registration number or Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) of your most recent employer. (check your W2 or 1099).
  • If you were a federal employee, copies of forms SF8 and SF50 if you had federal employment within the last 18 months.
  • If you’re a service or ex-service member claiming benefits based on your military service, a copy of your most recent separation form DD 214.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Labor. "State Unemployment Insurance Benefits." Accessed May 7, 2020.

  2. U.S. Department of Labor. "How Do I File for Unemployment Insurance?" Accessed April 7, 2020.

  3. SHRM. "The Coronavirus Aid, Response, and Economic Security Act, CARES Act." Accessed April 7, 2020.

  4. NBC News. "Coronavirus Unemployment Benefits." Accessed April 7, 2020.

  5. New York State Department of Labor. "Before You Apply For Unemployment: Frequently Asked Questions." Accessed April 7, 2020.