Your claim for unemployment benefits could get denied for several reasons. But the arrival of the coronavirus public health emergency has meant that it’s been harder for unemployment offices to deny unemployment claims. But despite the expansion of unemployment eligibility in the United States, your claim could still get incorrectly denied. If this happens, there’s an appeals process to confirm if the decision to deny your claim was correct. In this article, we’ll explain how Congress and states expanded their unemployment insurance programs. We’ll also examine why your state’s unemployment agency might deny your request and how you can appeal that decision.
Written by Attorney Curtis Lee.
Updated August 16, 2021
When you lose your job, you may be eligible to receive unemployment insurance benefits. These are designed to replace a portion of your income while you look for new employment. This social safety net became more important than ever when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, which resulted in record unemployment. And many unemployed individuals ended up applying for unemployment insurance benefits.
In response, Congress passed several coronavirus relief laws. These expanded the eligibility and benefits states could offer their unemployed residents. One of the most notable changes was the addition of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. In this article, we’ll explain how Congress and states expanded their unemployment insurance programs. We’ll also examine why your state’s unemployment agency might deny your request and how you can appeal that decision.
Common Reasons Unemployment Claims Are Denied
Each state sets its own eligibility criteria for its unemployment insurance program. This means someone could be eligible in one state, while someone else with the same work history could get denied in a different state. Despite these differences, there are some common reasons for denying a claim for unemployment benefits.
First, your claim may be denied if you didn’t earn enough money or work long enough. Most states require their claimants to have earned a minimum amount of money over a base period. The base period is often one year.
Second, your claim can be denied if you are the reason you lost your job. This includes voluntarily quitting or getting fired for misconduct. But there’s an exception to this rule. If an employee voluntarily quits for good cause, they could still be eligible for unemployment benefits. Every state decides what constitutes good cause. In most states, the good cause will include the following situations:
The applicant was the victim of unlawful harassment or discrimination.
The applicant needed to relocate because their spouse was in the military.
The applicant required a type of medical treatment that was only available in a location far away from where they lived or worked.
The employer asked the applicant to get involved in the employer’s illegal activities.
The workplace was unreasonably or unlawfully dangerous.
This last exception is extra relevant because of the coronavirus. Many employees have felt that their employers weren’t doing enough to keep them safe from the coronavirus. This includes taking measures to stop infections from coworkers, business partners, or customers. Due to their fear of a coronavirus infection, some of these employees quit. Depending on the circumstances, this reason for leaving a job could qualify as a good cause.
The unemployment insurance department gets to decide if this reason for quitting was reasonable or not. This decision is easier to make if there’s an applicable statute or regulation that the applicant can claim the employer didn’t follow.
The problem with these situations is the lack of a comprehensive legal standard. There is no federal law concerning what employers are legally required to do to protect their workers from the coronavirus. This makes it difficult to decide if the employer’s coronavirus precautions were reasonable. Some states have passed laws to create workplace safety standards concerning the coronavirus, but many haven’t.
How COVID-19 Affects Unemployment
When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, it provided financial assistance to workers who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus. This law made three major changes to unemployment insurance:
It established the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program. This gave unemployment recipients an additional $600 in weekly benefits on top of whatever state benefits they were getting. This was later decreased to $300. The time to receive this weekly benefit amount was extended by the American Rescue Plan Act.
It created Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). This added another 13 weeks of eligibility for unemployment benefits.
It offered Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). This increased the categories of workers who were eligible to receive unemployment benefits, such as those who are self-employed.
PUA is an option if you’ve been denied regular unemployment benefits. You can submit a PUA claim if you are:
Engaged in self-employment (as a gig worker, freelancer, or independent contractor);
Unavailable for work (or unable to work) as a direct result of COVID-19; or
Unable to meet your state’s earning history requirements during the required base period.
One thing to keep in mind is that PUA doesn’t change how states operate their unemployment insurance programs. It has its own eligibility guidelines, application procedures, and benefits. In other words, PUA is a separate program, but states can choose how to implement it. Another thing to remember is that the American Rescue Plan Act extended PUA benefits until September 2021. But some states have already stopped participating in PUA.
In addition to Congressional action, the White House has also taken steps to help workers. On January 21, 2021, President Biden issued the Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety. This executive order was directed to the secretary of labor. It instructed the secretary of labor to create new rules for employers on what they should do to keep workers safe from the coronavirus. But what does this have to do with unemployment benefits?
Recall from earlier in this article that if you voluntarily chose to leave your job, you could be denied unemployment benefits. But there is a good cause exception. This exception might apply if you resigned because you felt your working conditions were unsafe.
President Biden’s executive order is important for two reasons. First, it gives employers additional direction on how to keep their workers safe from a coronavirus infection. Second, it creates standards that workers can refer to when explaining why their decision to quit wasn’t truly voluntary.
For instance, imagine there’s a state law that requires all employees in your type of work environment to wear N95 face masks. But your employer doesn’t comply with this requirement and you feel unsafe at work. As a result, you decide to leave your job. While looking for a new one, you file for unemployment benefits. Because there’s a legal standard to refer to, there’s a good chance that your state’s unemployment office will accept that you quit your job for good cause.
Appeal a Denial for Unemployment
Sometimes, applications for unemployment benefits are wrongfully denied. So each state has an appeals process in place. The process to appeal the denial of unemployment benefits varies by state. Usually instructions for the appeals process are given at the same time a claim gets denied.
For most states, you’ll have 10-30 days to file your appeal. This first level of appeal will take place at your state unemployment agency or labor department. You’ll then get assigned a hearing where you present your case. This is your opportunity to present additional information. This could include offering evidence in the form of documents and witness testimony.
You might submit documents consisting of pay stubs. They would show that you earned more money than your employer claims. Or perhaps there are personnel records that support your position that you quit due to unlawful harassment. Witnesses might testify that the workplace was unsafe. If applicable, they could testify that you were the victim of illegal discrimination.
After the hearing, a decision will be made. If you disagree with that decision, you can file at least one more appeal. In some states, your next appeal will be to a higher level within your state’s department of labor or unemployment office. After that, any more appeals will go to your state's regular trial court. In other states, there’s no second appeal level within your state’s labor department or unemployment office. Instead, your second appeal will be to your state’s regular trial court.
Your claim for unemployment benefits could get denied for several reasons. But the arrival of the coronavirus public health emergency has meant that it’s been harder for unemployment offices to deny unemployment claims. Workers who were previously ineligible for unemployment could now receive benefits under PUA. And individuals who quit their jobs because of unsafe working conditions due to the coronavirus may be eligible under the good cause exception.
Despite the expansion of unemployment eligibility in the United States, your claim could still get incorrectly denied. If this happens, there’s an appeals process to confirm if the decision to deny your claim was correct.