If you are fired from your job, you might still be entitled to collect unemployment benefits through your state. These benefits replace a portion of your wages while you are actively looking for a new job. Unemployment benefits are available only to those who are temporarily out of work through no fault of their own. This includes certain types of terminations, depending on your state’s law.
How Unemployment Works
Unemployment benefits are a type of insurance. Typically, employers pay money into a state fund, which then pays benefits out to employees who lose their jobs.
Although the overall system is quite similar from state to state, each state has its own rules regarding who is eligible for benefits, how much you can receive, how long benefits will last, and what job search efforts you must make while receiving benefits. (For eligibility rules and benefit amounts in your state, select it from the list at our Collecting Unemployment Benefits page.)
In every state, an employee who is fired for misconduct will be denied benefits or disqualified from receiving benefits for a period of time. However, each state has its own definition of misconduct.
Definitions of Misconduct
Some states are more lenient that others in granting unemployment benefits to employees who are fired. In California, for example, it’s not enough for your employer to show that you broke a rule or violated a workplace policy. Rather, your employer must show that you knowingly or intentionally violated a company rule or policy and that your actions could harm the employer’s business interests.
Other states are stricter and adopt a broader definition of misconduct. Oklahoma, for example, includes dishonesty, violation of a rule or policy, and unexplained absences in its definition of misconduct.
In most states, however, you will be eligible for benefits if you were fired simply because you were a poor fit, because you weren’t able to perform the job to your employer’s satisfaction, or because you lacked the skills necessary to do the job. On the other hand, you will almost certainly be ineligible for benefits if you were fired for failing a drug test, threats or violence, harassing coworkers, intentionally violating important safety rules, stealing from the company, or repeated and unexplained absences.
If Your Benefits Are Denied
When you apply for benefits, you will have to state why you are unemployed. Your employer will also have an opportunity to explain why you were terminated. If either of you say that you were fired, the state’s unemployment agency might ask you for more information, in writing or in a telephone interview. If the agency decides that you were fired for misconduct as the state defines it, you will receive a written notice that your application for benefits has been denied.
You can appeal this decision. The notice of denial will include information on how and when to file your appeal; act fast, as you will likely have only a very short time (a few weeks at most) to appeal. Once you file your appeal, the state agency will schedule a hearing, to be held by phone or in person, before an administrative law judge.
At the hearing, you can present evidence to show that your actions did not rise to the level of misconduct. Your employer will have an opportunity to present evidence as well. After the hearing, the administrative law judge will issue a written decision either upholding or overturning the original determination that you are ineligible for benefits. In most states, you can appeal this decision as well.
Speak to a Lawyer
If you believe you were improperly denied benefits, it might be a good idea to consult with an employment lawyer. This is especially true if you believe you were wrongfully terminated for exercising your legal rights—for example, for complaining of sexual harassment or for requesting a reasonable accommodation for a disability. If you have wrongful termination claims, a lawyer can make sure you preserve your legal options while getting the benefits to which you are entitled. (For more information, see Can I Sue My Employer for Wrongful Termination?)