PART II: Cooler Heads Prevail

/ March 3, 2014

What You Need to Know About Getting Unemployment Benefits

There’s no use trying to pretend that it didn’t happen now. As we discussed in my last entry, finding out that you’ve been let go from your job is a shock to the system, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to sit around and mope about it. After you’ve requested a reason for your termination and your employment file from your employer and gotten the final wages you were owed, now it’s time to update that resume and get back out there to find a new job. But first, you want to make sure you apply for unemployment benefits to make that transition a little easier for you and your family.

The Minnesota Unemployment Insurance Program’s website pretty clearly describes your eligibility and the amounts you might receive. What follows is a brief resuscitation of some of the major requirements for unemployment insurance. 

Eligibility Requirements

In order to be eligible for unemployment insurance in Minnesota, you need to meet the following requirements. 

Base Period: First, you need to have sufficient earnings in your “base period” – or your previous 52 weeks of work. This is the amount that will determine what your payments will be if you meet the other eligibility requirements.

Approved to Work in U.S.: Second, you must be legally allowed to work in the United States. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you will need to verify that you are legally approved to work in the U.S.

No Fault of Your Own: Third, you must be unemployed, or working significantly reduced hours, through no fault of your own. In other words, you may not qualify for unemployment benefits if you quit your job. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Applicants who quit their job can still be eligible for unemployment benefits under the following circumstances:

  1. the applicant has a good reason to quit – one that would compel an average reasonable worker – that was caused by the employer;
  2. the applicant accepted better employment;
  3. a serious illness or injury required the applicant to quit, or to care for an immediate family member due to their illness or disability;
  4. the job was part-time work, and the wages in the applicant’s base period are from full-time work that was lost through no fault of the applicant’s;
  5. the employment was unsuitable and the applicant quit within the first 30 days of employment;
  6. the employment was unsuitable and the applicant quit to enter full-time re-employment assistance training;
  7. the applicant was notified that he/she will be laid-off within the next 30 days and he/she quit before the lay-off date;
  8. domestic abuse of the applicant or the applicant’s minor child required quitting;
  9. the applicant lost child care and made reasonable efforts to find new child care that were unsuccessful; and
  10. the applicant’s spouse’s job location changed.

Man Looking At Tablet - iStockActively Seeking Employment: Fourth, you must be actively seeking employment each week. Actively seeking employment means you are working towards finding a job that matches your experience, skills and mental and physical ability for each week you claim benefits. This can include updating a resume or searching the web for job listings at first. It also includes meeting with potential employers, even if the interviews are just informational or exploratory. If you are a seasonal worker, you must be looking for work in the offseason. If you were a temporary worker when you were laid off, you may also look for temporary employment. Essentially, to meet this prong of the test, you just need to be able to show that you’re making attempts at getting re-employed.

Ready to Start: And finally, fifth, you need to be ready to start a new job immediately. This means that you have the ability to transport yourself to work, arrange for daycare if necessary and be physically and mentally able to work. The new job must include reasonable hours, pay and distance from home.

Now That You’re Eligible…

Once you’ve been deemed eligible to collect unemployment benefits, you need to stay up-to-date with your reporting requirements. You need to log in to the unemployment website and report the hours you worked and wages you earned during the week. That includes any kind of work you did during the previous week. You are not eligible for benefits in any week you work 32 or more hours, or when your gross earnings for the week are equal to or greater than your weekly benefit amount. A partial benefit payment will be made for any week you work less than 32 hours and your earnings are less than your weekly benefit amount. The system will deduct 50 percent of your earnings from your benefit payment. The amount not paid for that week stays in your account.

Don’t forget to report the hours you worked or wages you earned! If you forget to report hours or wages earned while requested your benefits, you will have to pay that money back and you could be subject to fines or penalties.

If Your Employer Disputes Paying Unemployment Benefits

If you are denied unemployment benefits, you are entitled to a hearing with an unemployment judge. You must follow the instructions for filing an appeal that come in your denial letter then fax, email or mail in your appeal to the Minnesota Unemployment office.

First level hearings are generally conducted over the phone. At the hearing, you will be given an opportunity to tell your story and present witnesses or evidence that supports your claims for benefits. The unemployment judge will normally ask you and the opposing side questions to bolster the record and get all of the facts. The judge is also there to keep the hearing from turning into a shouting match and to make sure everyone stays on point. After the hearing, the judge will review the record and then issue a decision. If you disagree with the judge’s decision, you can request a reconsideration by the same judge. If the judge still doesn’t rule your way, you can appeal the decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Do You Need a Lawyer for an Unemployment Hearing?

This is the million dollar – or rather $200 an hour – question. The Minnesota Unemployment website says an attorney is not required for a first level review before the judge. However, you don’t want to get caught in a situation where you are representing yourself against a seasoned and experienced attorney or Human Resources representative that has gone through several of these hearings before. My suggestion is that you find out whether or not your former employer is going to be represented by an attorney or HR representative before the hearing. 

If you worked at a small company and know that your former employer won’t have an attorney representing them at the hearing, then you may be able to handle the hearing on your own. However, if you worked at a large, national corporation like Target, Macy’s or the like, then you will most likely be going up against an attorney with a prepared set of questions to ask you, extensive documentary evidence and witnesses from HR lined up. In those instances, you would be better served to hire an attorney to help you prepare your exhibits, go over your testimony and represent you at the hearing. Although that will likely cost you some money up front – and it doesn’t guarantee you a win – you will have a much better chance at the hearing than you would if you represent yourself against an experienced lawyer who knows all the ins and outs of unemployment law. Attorneys who handle employee’s cases recognize the financial situation you are in and will likely be able to work out a fee structure that will be affordable for you.

As I say to any client who is considering representing themselves in court: You only get one chance at these things. You want to make sure you protect your interests and your rights.  Although it may cost you some money to pay an attorney to represent you, if you handle the case by yourself and get taken advantage of by opposing counsel, you won’t get another chance.  At the very least, get an initial consultation with an attorney to see if the attorney thinks you have a probable chance of success. Most attorneys won’t charge for an initial consultation. Even if the news isn’t what you want, you’ll at least have a better idea of where you stand when considering whether to spend the money on an attorney for your hearing.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss the elements required to make a case for wrongful termination.