Unemployment Insurance Benefits are a temporary measure, so if you’re receiving unemployment compensation, you do have to look for work. Each state has different work search requirements and rules about how to verify that you're looking for work, but this article will give you a general overview of the work search requirement and what might be expected.
Written by Attorney Eric Hansen.
Updated July 30, 2021
So, you’ve recently lost your job. Unfortunately, you’re not alone. Millions of people have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic. It's okay to feel discouraged, but the best thing you can do for yourself in this moment is to focus on the path ahead and keep moving forward as best you can.
Since you are reading this article, it’s fair to assume that you’re receiving unemployment benefits. Each state’s department of labor and its unemployment laws are different, but if you’re receiving unemployment compensation, you absolutely must look for work. That’s because your unemployment benefits, even when you’ve earned them and are eligible for them, are meant to be a temporary fix. Finding fulfilling, rewarding, and (ideally) well-compensated work is the permanent fix.
Looking for a job is a job in itself. Taking some simple steps will make your life easier and your work search more tolerable. Keep an open mind, try to grow your strengths and improve your weaknesses, while you look for your next job.
Receiving Unemployment Benefits
There are certain terms that you will want to get familiar with when you are receiving unemployment benefits, also known as UI benefits. Terms like base period, regular unemployment insurance, weekly benefit amount, work search contacts, and suitable work will probably all come up during your time receiving unemployment benefits.
Your base period is the timeframe in which the unemployment office calculates the amount of unemployment compensation you may be eligible for. Most base periods are usually the year before you lose your job. The state looks at your gross earnings from all employers by tracing your Social Security number. Self-employment income usually isn’t included.
Your weekly benefit amount is the dollar amount of unemployment benefits you’ll receive each week. To ensure you get your full benefit payment, make sure to comply with your state unemployment agency’s rules. To request your weekly benefit, you typically have to call the unemployment office or log in to an online portal on a certain weekday based on your social security number.
When you request your weekly benefit, you often have to inform the state of any job activities you performed in the last week. For example, you might have to indicate how many work search contacts you made or if you worked. Work search contacts are people you may know in your professional network or friends or family that might be helpful to you in providing you information on a potential new job. They could also include a recruiter or temp agency.
If you worked the week before you request benefits, it’s possible that your weekly benefit amount could be reduced. For example, if your weekly benefit amount is $500 and you found an odd job doing some house painting and handyman work for a friend and they paid you $100, your weekly benefit amount on your UI claim would be reduced to $400.
Claimants can receive their weekly benefits in a few ways. Some states opt for direct deposit to your bank account. Others still send checks or prepaid debit cards. Keep in mind that you may want to consider having the state unemployment agency withhold taxes from your unemployment benefits so that you don’t owe money come tax time.
Work Search Requirement
While UI benefits work differently in each state, claimants in all states are typically required to actively look for work. That means applying for jobs. You can apply online at sites like Linkedin, Indeed, or ZipRecruiter or respond to local job ads in the newspaper. You could also go to job fairs, contact recruiters and temp or staffing agencies, and register for work and reemployment education through your state’s career center. Some states also include working on your resume, learning new job skills, obtaining new training, or attending job seminars as part of the work search requirement. You can sometimes log this as part of the work search requirement.
In rare cases, some claimants may not be required to look for work. This only typically happens if someone is laid off or furloughed but scheduled to return to full-time work or be recalled to work very soon, as in a couple of weeks.
How Claimants Can Prove That They Are Seeking Work Actively
You’ll have to be able to prove that you are actively seeking work if you’re receiving unemployment insurance benefits. One easy way to do this is by keeping a written journal or log of your work search activities. If you talk to someone about possible job openings, take note of when and who you talked to. If you apply for jobs on an online job board or register with a staffing agency, keep track of what you applied for, when, and the name of the contact person.
Each state has different work search requirements. It is always best to read up on your state’s unemployment agency’s policies so you know which rules to follow to stay eligible for your unemployment benefits. State unemployment agencies have unemployment handbooks published on their website or will mail you a hard copy if you request it. The handbook is a good resource to have and to review when you are receiving unemployment benefits.
Some states require an affidavit about your work search activities. An affidavit is a written form in which you swear that you have done something or completed something. Be truthful and accurate when you sign off an affidavit to your state’s unemployment agency. Lying or being inaccurate can be a huge problem that could result in fines or even criminal penalties.
Other states require you to submit a certain number of work search contacts per week. The state unemployment agency usually requires the name of the person, their title or relation to you, their contact information, and the nature of the contact you made. It’s best to keep a notebook or a spreadsheet with this information on it so it’s easily accessible. Some states operate on an honor system but you still should keep detailed, accurate records as they sometimes randomly audit claimants receiving unemployment compensation to prevent fraud.
Being job-attached reduces your weekly benefit amount. It basically means that you work part time and that your gross weekly earnings are less than your weekly benefit amount from unemployment. If you are job-attached, you need to keep track of the hours you work each week and your earnings. Report those figures to your unemployment office. Your weekly benefit amount will be reduced.
Seasonal, Union, and Contract Workers
Completing the required reemployment activities may be different from state to state depending on what type of worker you are. Seasonal workers, union workers, and contract workers may be affected differently by unemployment insurance.
A seasonal worker is someone who works roughly the same time each year doing tasks that are in season. Think of snowplow drivers, school bus drivers, field laborers, lifeguards, or tax accountants. A seasonal worker can be eligible for unemployment benefits as long as they have unemployment insurance taxes taken out in their base period before applying for benefits.
A union worker is someone who may be part of a hiring hall. That is, you may not have to look for work on your own, but if the union places you on a job and it is suitable work you should accept it. Otherwise, you may lose your unemployment benefits. Union workers should be in good standing and available for union work.
Contract workers, or independent contractors, are not typically eligible for unemployment benefits. Contract workers are not at-will employees. They are usually hired to work for a specific duration, and they don’t usually pay into unemployment insurance.
The Effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic
As with most other aspects of ordinary life, the coronavirus pandemic changed a lot about unemployment compensation and eligibility requirements. In addition to providing stimulus payments to many Americans, Congress passed both the CARES Act and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to help people who lost their jobs, had their hours cut, were laid off, or had difficulty working during the pandemic.
Under these temporary assistance programs for workers, some work search requirements were waived, frozen, or relaxed. Additionally, independent contractors, individuals who are self-employed, and gig workers became eligible for unemployment compensation. That will likely soon change, so check with your state’s unemployment insurance agency for further details.
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Rejecting a Job Offer When Receiving Unemployment Benefits
Hopefully, you will get many job offers after being unemployed for a very short time. Ideally, the one you accept will be better, higher-paying, and more rewarding than your last job. That is not always the case, unfortunately. You can only reject a job offer when receiving unemployment benefits if the job is not suitable work. But, if you reject suitable work you may no longer be eligible for unemployment benefits.
What is suitable work?
The answer is it depends. The definition of suitable work varies from state to state. For example, in New York, suitable work means any work related to your primary skill set or any secondary skill sets you have. Generally, if the prospective job has similar pay and responsibilities as your previous jobs, then it is suitable work. If it pays significantly less or the responsibilities aren’t similar, then it may not be suitable work. The definition will also depend on how long you have been unemployed. It can change or expand after a number of weeks of unemployment.
Always check with your state unemployment office.
It’s always smart to check with your state unemployment office if you have questions or concerns about unemployment benefits and eligibility. They often have many employment services available to help people looking for part-time or full-time work. You can call and speak with someone at the office directly or look online to see a list of FAQs and find other helpful information about guidelines and requirements for claimants.
Being unemployed and having to look for work can be stressful and time-consuming. But the process of applying for unemployment benefits doesn’t have to be. Take your time, be thoughtful, and keep good records. Make sure you understand your state’s rules to take advantage of the maximum weekly benefit available to you while you’re out of work. Be proactive in your job search and keep at it.