Labor and Employment

Can I Collect Unemployment if I Quit My Job?

By Serena Lipski, ​J.D., University of Toledo College of Law
Employees who have good cause to quit their jobs can still receive unemployment benefits.

Many people assume that unemployment benefits are available only for workers who were laid off from their jobs. But even workers who quit their jobs can receive benefits under certain circumstances. In general, workers who quit for “good cause” will still be eligible for unemployment. This article discusses what qualifies as good cause and how workers with such claims should apply for benefits.

Good Cause

In almost all states, workers who voluntarily leave their jobs cannot get unemployment benefits unless they had good cause to quit. Every state has its own definition of what qualifies as good cause. In many states, including California, good cause means that the worker had a compelling reason to quit that would have led a reasonable person to quit under similar circumstances.

In some states, the employee’s reason for quitting must be job-related in order for there to be good cause. The following job-related reasons typically qualify as good cause:

  • your employer failed to correct unsafe working conditions
  • your employer refused to pay you the wages you earned
  • your employer failed to protect you from sexual harassment (after you complained), or
  • a work-related illness or injury.

In many states, but not all, good cause does not necessarily have to be connected to your job. Compelling personal reasons will also qualify. For example, in New York, good cause includes quitting to escape domestic violence, to care for a disabled relative, or to move out of the area for your spouse’s job.

Applying for Benefits When You’ve Quit

Some employers are more likely to challenge a claim for unemployment when the worker quit voluntarily. To improve your chances of success, you should carefully document your good cause before leaving your job.

For example, if you left due to safety concerns, most states will only pay unemployment benefits if you gave your employer notice and an opportunity to correct the problem. To show this, you should have a written description of the safety issue and evidence that you notified your employer. If you notified a safety agency, such as OSHA, you should also have a record of that notice. When gathering your evidence, be careful of taking photographs inside the workplace or taking any employer-owned documents home with you: Many employers have policies prohibiting such actions. Violating these policies would give your employer cause to fire you, which might disqualify you from receiving unemployment benefits.

If the reason is related to your personal life, such as having to care for a disabled family member, you should also collect documents to back up your claim. For example, you should get a statement from the relative’s medical provider describing the extent of the care needed. It’s also helpful to include a copy of your employer’s leave policies to show that you were not otherwise eligible for a leave of absence to care for your relative. (You might be entitled to unpaid time off to care for a family member with a serious health condition under federal or state law; for more information see State Family and Medical Leave Laws.)

When you file your initial claim for benefits, you will be asked a series of questions about the reason for leaving your job. You should respond that you quit with good cause and give a detailed explanation of the circumstances that led you to leave. Depending on your state’s application process, you may need to be extremely thorough and provide documents backing up your statements. In some states, the claim form may only ask for a short description of what happened, and your unemployment agency will follow up with you for more information. If you do receive a request for more information, respond in a timely manner and provide any requested documentation.

When to Contact a Lawyer

In many cases, workers are capable of handling their own unemployment claims without the assistance of a lawyer. If your benefits are denied and you need to appeal, though, you may want to consider hiring a lawyer. However, because the amount you stand to receive in benefits is relatively small, it may not be cost-effective to hire a lawyer in all cases. For more information, see Do I Need a Lawyer for My Unemployment Claim?

If you believe that your employer has violated employment laws, such as safety codes or employee leave laws, you may also want consult a lawyer before filing your unemployment claim to explore all of your legal options.

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