How Long Do I Have to Work to Get Unemployment?

You are typically ineligible for unemployment benefits if you lost your job due to an inability to work, scheduling conflicts/unavailability, or misconduct on the job. Furthermore, if you were removed from your job because you refused to engage in suitable work without a good cause, you are not eligible for unemployment.

Perhaps the most important cause for ineligibility you should know, and often the main reason for why the recently unemployed are not eligible for benefits, is if you voluntarily quit your job without due cause.

Therefore, if you are recently unemployed and did not voluntarily quit without good cause, did not get fired for misconduct, did not get fired for being unavailable, did not get fired for having an inability to work, did not get fired for refusing to work without good cause, and are not self-employed, then you may be eligible for unemployment benefits!

This can be the most confusing part: have I worked long enough to be eligible to receive unemployment benefits?

This varies by state.

Earnings: Eligibility for receiving unemployment benefits is based on earned wages over a 12-month period, also known as the base period.  The amount of required earnings and/or time worked varies by state.  Most states require earnings in at least two quarters of the base period.    A few states will provide benefits with just one quarter of earnings in the base period.

Claim Award and Weekly Benefit Amount:  The total claim award and weekly benefit amount (WBA) also varies by state and can be as high as 60% of a worker’s average weekly wage earned during the 12-month base period, up to the maximum weekly benefit amount determined by that state.  In some states, the maximum weekly benefit amount increases each year.

Number of Weeks Paid:  Maximum number of weeks for which benefits are paid can be anywhere between 12 and 30 weeks.  Most states pay a maximum of 26 weeks’ benefits.  MA pays up to 30 weeks.  Some southern states have drastically cut the maximum number of weeks to as few as 12 weeks’ benefits.

Base Periods:  In calculating the benefit, the majority of states use the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters preceding the quarter when an unemployment claim is filed, otherwise known as the standard base period (SBP).   In addition, depending on circumstances, many states use an alternate  base period (ABP) which will include twelve-months earnings to the date of the most recently completed quarter.  A few states will use a second alternate base period, which includes earnings to date of discharge and the three quarters preceding that.

As a rule, the state will use the first base period which will qualify you – not the most advantageous base period.  However, one or two states, upon written request, will allow you to request use of the more advantageous base period without actually withdrawing the claim and refiling.

Withdrawal of Application:  In addition, many states will allow withdrawal of a claim application if it appears by waiting to file in a different quarter a more advantageous base period would provide a better benefit.  This withdrawal right is conditioned upon:

  • the withdrawal request being made within 30 days of being notified of the benefit amount, and
  • claimant must not have claimed and/or received any benefit under that claim prior to requesting the withdrawal.

Select below for State Specific Requirements:

Detailed Explanation of Unemployment Eligibility

While the amount of time you spent employed is important, that amount of time is entirely dependent upon the amount of wages you may have earned during that time. Therefore, the question is not only about how long you have to work to be eligible to receive unemployment, but it is also about how much you have to of earn during that time to qualify for unemployment….

Did I work long enough and earn enough wages during that time to qualify for unemployment insurance in my state?

The overarching important detail in determining your eligibility is answering the question of whether you actually were employed or not…Ultimately meaning, are the services that you performed for another individual, presumably your employer, covered under unemployment insurance? To answer this, four questions need to be taken into consideration.

  • Did you perform services for an employer?
  • Were these services performed within an employee-employer relationship? (i.e. not just a friend helping another friend out)
  • Did you perform these services while employed?
  • Were you compensated for these services with wages?

If you answered yes to all four questions, then the time you spent working is covered under unemployment insurance, granted that your employer qualifies as such under state and federal laws. If you did not answer yes to all questions, you likely do not qualify for benefits.

An employer or employing unit is covered under unemployment insurance if it paid at least $1,500 in wages during any calendar quarter in the current or previous calendar year. Further, an employer/employing unit is also covered under unemployment insurance if it paid wages to at least one employee and employed said worker at least one day per week during the 20 weeks of the current or previous calendar year. Please note that only approximately half of states use this definition in determining eligibility based on employer qualifications (also, this is typically not applicable to agricultural or domestic labors). States that use other definitions will be discussed in state-specific articles. These states include: AK, DC, MA, MT, NM, PA, UT, WY, AR, HI, MI, NV, NY, PR, VI, CA, MD, MN, NJ, OR, RI, and WA.

Oddly enough, if you are a railroad worker, you are not eligible for state/federal unemployment insurance. There is a separate program run by the Railroad Retirement Board under a Federal program.

While the federal government has provided various laws and regulations to enforce certain guidelines on unemployment benefits, the specific requirements for eligibility and for the amount of coverage over a set time period you may receive is determined by your state. This creates a somewhat confusing atmosphere for the recently unemployed, who are likely already distraught.

For the most part, eligibility for receiving unemployment benefits are based on earned wages during time spent working over a 12-month period. The entitlement formula (how they determine the amount of coverage to award you per week) varies by state, and most states require a substantial work history. Unemployment benefits in some states will cover up to 50% a worker’s wages that were earned during the 12-month period.. Depending on the state, there are also minimal levels of earnings required over the 12-month period in order to be eligible for receiving unemployment benefits.

While unemployment benefits may cover up to 50% of your earned wages, most states also have established a cap on how much you can receive. Meaning, if 50% of your wages is an amount over the maximum benefits, then you will not receive 50%. You can only receive up to your state’s maximum amount, if you earned enough to do so. To give you an idea of the a possible amount you could receive: the average weekly benefit in January of 2008 was $304.

The 12-month period of work history used to determine eligibility is referred to as the base period. The amount of wages earned or the amount of hours worked is used in determining how much compensation a worker may be entitled to.

The majority of states use the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters preceding the filing of an unemployment claim as the base period. This can create a potential dilemma for some workers, as a gap of up to five months long between the date of filing a claim for unemployment and the end of the base period may be present. Because of this, there are some workers that are deemed to be ineligible for unemployment compensation, even if they have a strong work history. There are some states that have expanded their parameters for the base period, making the potential for ineligibility due to the aforementioned 5-month gap minimal.

For those without much experience with financial quarters or how the year is split up into quarters, here is a bit of information you may find useful:

There are four quarters within a complete calendar year. Three months are grouped together in order to form a single quarter.

Q1 is January, February, and March.
Q2 is April, May and June.
Q3 is July, August, and September.
Q4 is October, November, and December.

Worker2 filed an unemployment claim on October 17th of 2012. The base period is the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters. Because worker2 filed just as the 4th quarter began in October, she will not be able to include the third and fourth quarters of the 2012 calendar. This is because the fourth quarter has not been completed. Further, the third quarter is not included because only the first four of the last five quarters are used. That makes the third quarter the fifth and final one.

The quarters that Worker2 may use are as follows:

Q2 of 2012
Q1 of 2012
Q4 of 2011
Q3 of 2011

It is also important to understand the differences between the typical base period, Alternate Base Periods (ABP) and Extended Base Periods (EBP). Some states use ABP and EBP as a way to compensate for the limitations of the regular base period. (SOME states – not all)

Extended Base Periods allow workers who have not earned any wages within the current base period to use past wages earned, granted they meet certain conditions. Namely, if a worker is injured or becomes ill while employed and has received workers’ compensation (WC) benefits (temporary disability payments and/or compensation for permanent injury), then the worker may use earned wages from before the injury/illness occurred in order to qualify for unemployment benefits.Alternate Base Periods acknowledge the 5-month gap that may present itself within the regular base period, which only takes into account the first 4 of the last 5 completed calendar quarters. For those who do not qualify under the base period (because of too few wages earned or not enough time spent employed), the ABP will take into account any wages earned within the 4 four completed calendar quarters (instead of the first 4). This allows the most recent work history a worker may have to be included when determining eligibility and compensation.

All states require a minimum amount of wages earned or a minimum amount of time worked within a time-period (or both minimums may be required).

There are also state specific formulas used in determining these minimum amounts for employment or earned wages (or both). As with the type of base period a worker can qualify for depending on his/her state, the minimum amounts for eligibility also differ between states.

There are four ways your basic eligibility for unemployment may be determined (depending on your state): the Multiple of High-Quarter Wages (HQW)method, the Multiple of Weekly Benefit Amount (WBA) method, the Flat Qualifying Amount (FQA) method, and a general method for  minimum requirements of time spent employed and wages earned during that time. States determine which method to utilize in examining a worker’s eligibility for unemployment.

HQW requires workers to have earned a minimum dollar amount in the quarter which the worker had the highest earnings of his/her base period. For regular base period eligibility this method takes into consideration the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters. The quarter out of those four with the highest earned wages is used to determine whether or not you met the minimum dollar amount required to be eligible. Furthermore, the worker must also earn a minimum total amount for the base period in order to qualify. This base period minimum total amount needed is typically a multiple of the amount earned in the quarter with the highest wages. The multiple is usually 1.5.

For Example:

Worker A has filed for unemployment in a state that uses the HQW model

His earnings can be found in the table below

Quarter 1 : earned $1,000
Quarter 2 : earned $600
Quarter 3 : earned $400
Quarter 4 : earned $0
Quarter 5 : Not used in regular base period

The HQW method requires a minimum dollar amount for the highest quarter wages in a base period. This minimum amount varies depending on the state. In this example, we do not know the minimum highest quarter wages that need to be earned, so we cannot conclude eligibility for the first part of the HQW requirements.

For the second part of the requirement, a multiple of the HQW must reach the minimum amount earned within the entire base period.

The highest quarter wage occurred during quarter one ($1,000) for Worker A in this example.

The HQW of $1,000 is then multiplied by 1.5 (usually).

$1,000 x 1.5 = $1,500

According to the second requirement, this worker would need to earn at least $1,500 total within his respective base period in order to qualify for unemployment.

Even though this worker did not earn any wages in the 4th quarter, he still earned a total of $2,000 within the entire base period. Because $2,000 exceeds his minimum required amount of $1,500, this worker would be eligible for unemployment (based on the second requirement). This only stands if the worker’s HQW met the minimum amount as well.

The WBA method’s first step in determining a worker’s eligibility is the state computing a worker’s weekly benefit amount (WBA). In order to qualify for unemployment, the worker must have earned a multiple of (usually 40) the determined WBA within an entire base period. Further, many states that utilize this method require workers to have earned wages/worked during at least two quarters of their respective base periods.

For Example:

WorkerJohnny has filed a claim for unemployment in a state that uses the WBA model for determining eligibility.

His state determines that he will receive a weekly benefit amount of $50.

His (regular) base period earnings can be found below.

Quarter 1: $2,000
Quarter 2: $1,500
Quarter 3: $0
Quarter 4: $0
Quarter 5: Not used in regular base period

Immediately, we can see that WorkerJohnny meets the minimum required number of quarters spent working, which is 2. WorkerJohnny earned wages during the first and second quarters.

WorkerJohnny earned $3,500 for the entire base period.
The minimum amount WorkerJohnny has to earn to be eligible to receive unemployment is:

WBA x 40 (usually)
$50 x 40 = $2,000

Worker Johnny earned $3,500, which is greater than the minimum $2,000 required.

Because Johnny earned more than the minimum amount required and worked at least two quarters of the base period, he is eligible to receive unemployment according to the WBA method.

States that use the Flat Qualifying Amount (FQA) model for determining eligibility for unemployment require a minimum dollar amount to have been earned during the base period. The HQW and WBA models of some states have this method within them. Each requires a minimum amount of earnings to have been made during the base period.

Finally, some states use the amount of time a worker was employed with earned wages during the base period as a criteria for receiving unemployment. Workers must have worked for a minimum amount of time and at a certain wage in order to qualify through this method.