Federal law applies to employers who employ one or more employees in covered employment in at least 20 weeks in the current or preceding calendar year or who pay wages of $1,500 or more during any calendar quarter of the current or preceding calendar year.

All states require that a claimant must have earned a specified amount of wages or must have worked a certain number of weeks or calendar quarters in covered employment within a base period to qualify for benefits. States impose rules on the amount of wages that must have been earned during the base period, the year before the worker files for unemployment insurance benefits.

Unemployment is defined as losing a job through no fault of your own, so quitting a job or being fired for cause does not qualify a jobless worker for UI. (Federal law requires that state and local government employees, and for the most part non-profit organization employees, be covered, but self-employed and independent contractors are not.)

Jobless workers who are eligible for UI must file each week, or every two weeks, depending on their state, to continue to be eligible to receive benefits. States usually require claimants to demonstrate that they are actively searching for a job, and that they “able and available” for re-employment. In all states, claimants who are deemed ineligible for benefits because of their inability to work, refusal of suitable work, unavailability, or any other disqualification are entitled to a notice of determination and an appeal of the determination. Workers typically wait two to three weeks after filing a claim before they receive their first benefit check.

Over and above providing replacement wages, state UI programs also assist jobless workers in finding new jobs. According to the Department of Labor explanation of the rules, “Claimants who file for unemployment benefits may be directed to register for work with the State Employment Services, so it can assist you in finding employment. …  "If you are not required to register you still may seek help in finding a job from the Employment Service.”

In addition to basic UI coverage, specialized federal programs enable people who are temporarily without work for specific reasons to collect benefits.

Workers whose jobs have been interrupted because of a disaster that was declared by the President are eligible for benefits for as long as 26 weeks after the disaster occurred. This includes natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as catastrophes such as the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia.

Another source of help is designed for workers whose jobs are affected by foreign imports. Special benefits are authorized under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program for people “who were laid off or had hours reduced because their employer was adversely affected by increased imports from other countries,” according to the Department of Labor's Employment & Training Administration. Benefits are available after regular UI has been exhausted. “These benefits include paid training for a new job, and financial help in making a job search in other areas where jobs are more plentiful,” the Employment & Training Administration said.

Two additional programs to assist UI claimants are also active in a small number of states: 1) The Self-Employment benefit program assists eligible claimants in starting their own business, and 2) The Short-Time Compensation program, (or so-called Job Sharing program) provides employers an alternative to layoffs when business is slow by providing UI benefits to employees whose hours have been reduced.  

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