Labor and Employment

How to Appeal a Denial of Unemployment Benefits

By Serena Lipski, ​J.D., University of Toledo College of Law
If your unemployment claim was denied, you can challenge the decision.

You’ve lost your job, and you don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills while you search for a new one. You have applied for unemployment benefits but you were denied. What do you do next? Fortunately, employees can appeal unemployment denials. This article discusses some of the common reasons claim are denied and how to file your appeal.

Why Was My Claim Denied?

You should have received a determination letter from your state’s unemployment agency explaining why your claim was denied. Claims are usually denied because you either don’t meet the state’s earning requirements or because you don’t have a valid reason for separation from employment.

State Earning Requirements

In order to receive benefits, all states require employees to have worked for a certain length of time or to have earned a certain amount in wages during a 12-month base period before the claim is filed. For example, in New York, you must have worked during two calendar quarters in the base period and been paid at least $1,900 in one quarter in the base period. If your wages weren’t reported (for example, because you were working under the table), you may have difficulty proving eligibility.

Reason for Separation

In all states, to be eligible for unemployment, you must have lost your job through no fault of your own. That means that you:

  • were laid off due to lack of work
  • were terminated for reasons other than misconduct, or
  • quit with good cause.

What qualifies as misconduct varies significantly from state to state. Don’t assume that you are not eligible for unemployment just because you were fired. Your state agency might find that your actions did not rise to the level of misconduct, especially if your employer doesn’t have enough evidence to support its decision or didn’t have a clear policy in place.

Likewise, if you had good cause for quitting your job, such as a serious health issue that prevented you from working, you will likely still eligible for benefits. (However, you must be able to work at the time of filing for unemployment.) For more information, see Can I Collect Unemployment if I Quit My Job?

How Do I File an Appeal?

The determination letter from the state unemployment agency should tell you when and how to appeal a denial of benefits. You can typically file an appeal in person, by phone, or online. Take note of the deadline stated in the determination. In many states, the time limit to file an appeal is very short. For example, in California, you have 30 days to appeal the initial determination. In Montana, you have only ten days to file your appeal.

In preparation for filing your appeal, you should carefully read the determination letter and the reason provided for denying your claim. Then create a list of reasons why the grounds for denial are inaccurate or don’t reflect all of the circumstances. Gather documents to back up your claim for benefits. For example, if your employer terminated you in violation of its own policies, you should provide a copy of the employee handbook or other written policies. If coworkers can support your version of the events, make a list of their names. If you had a medical emergency that caused you to miss work, gather your medical records pertaining to that visit. Some states will require you to submit these documents before the hearing, so pay close attention to the instructions you receive about your hearing.

In some states, you can contact the state unemployment agency and request a copy of any records that your employer has submitted to the agency. Also, in many states, employees have the right to a copy of their personnel file, so you can request a copy of these records from your employer.

What Happens After I File My Appeal?

In most states, an appeal of a denial of unemployment benefits involves an administrative hearing. The hearing is usually very informal and is held either at the unemployment agency’s administrative offices or, in many states, over the phone.

To continue to receive unemployment compensation, workers typically need to file weekly claims for benefits and document their work search efforts. While you are waiting for your hearing, you should continue to meet these requirements. If you fail to do so, you may be denied benefits even if your appeal is successful.

Before the Hearing

Before the hearing, carefully review the determination letter, any documents you have submitted to your state unemployment agency, and any documents you received from your employer about your termination. Writing down a timeline of events or making a short list of what happened can be helpful. Use the timeline to practice summarizing what happened in a clear, concise manner. But don't try to memorize a script; sounding too rehearsed can work against you.

You usually must submit all documents that you want to present at the hearing to your state unemployment agency before the hearing. After you file your appeal, you should receive a notice from the agency with instructions on how to do that. If you do not, call your state unemployment agency and ask for guidance.

If the hearing is in person rather than over the phone, you should dress and groom yourself appropriately. Arrive early with your documents in order. If your hearing is over the phone, make sure that your phone is working and fully charged. You will need to be alone in a quiet room during the hearing. You should have all of the documents you submitted to the agency in front of you.

During the Hearing

During the hearing, an administrative law judge will put you under oath and ask you to explain why you think you are entitled to benefits. If the hearing is conducted over the telephone, the judge will ask if anyone else is in the room with you and instruct them to leave (with the exception of your attorney, if you have one).

If your former employer is disputing your claim for benefits, someone from human resources or your former supervisor will also be at the hearing. Your employer’s representative will explain why the company is disputing your claim for benefits. You will have a chance to ask that person questions, and that person will be able to ask you questions as well. The administrative law judge may also ask his or her own questions.

You may bring witnesses to testify, but you should only do so if the testimony is essential to your claim. Unessential witnesses can distract from the issue and prolong the hearing unnecessarily. Administrative law judges often have several hearings scheduled on the same day and need to make sure that the hearings are conducted efficiently and quickly.

Stay calm and polite during the hearing. Talking over other people or being rude will make you less credible to the judge. You will have an opportunity to tell your side of the story and to dispute what your employer says, so be patient and wait for your turn to speak. Don’t speculate. If you are unsure or can’t remember something, say so. Speak in short, clear, and confident statements.

After the Hearing

The administrative law judge will consider the testimony and documents presented at the hearing and issue another determination. The judge’s order will usually be sent to you in the mail. If your claim is still denied, you can appeal again. In some states, such as California and Ohio, you can file a second-level appeal within the state unemployment agency. After the second-level administrative appeal, or if your state doesn’t have one, your next step is to appeal in a regular state court. However, unless the administrative law judge failed to consider a major piece of evidence or testimony or made an egregious error, a state court appeal is not likely to be successful. So before filing a court appeal, consider whether it’s worth the time and money to do so.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

While most workers can handle unemployment claims on their own, you may want to get a lawyer if your claim is particularly difficult, or if you think you have reason to sue your employer in court (for example, if you were fired because of your race or for making a safety-related complaint). See Do I Need a Lawyer for My Unemployment Case? for more information about retaining a lawyer.

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