Unemployed? You may have more rights than you know.

Guest Commentary

Volume CIII, No. 2February, 2003

Jon Bloom, Executive Director, Workers Defense League

Most of us assume that people who become unemployed receive unemployment insurance (UI) benefits as a matter of course. In fact, many applicants for UI – 140,000 in New York State last year alone – are denied benefits on grounds that they allegedly lost their last job as the result of “misconduct,” or that they “voluntarily quit without good cause,” or that they were incapable of work or refused a job offer.

It’s tough enough being unemployed without being disqualified for unemployment insurance. After losing your source of income, you’re now denied the minimal benefits to help pay bills, housing costs and even carfare while you look for new employment. However, claimants have the right to a hearing if their UI benefits are denied or stopped, and many win at these hearings, particularly if they have representation or coaching beforehand.

Our organization, the Workers Defense League, represented – free of charge – about 300 claimants at hearings in 2002, winning about 200 cases.

Most unemployed people actually qualify for UI benefits, as long they meet three basic conditions. First, you have to have worked and earned a certain amount during at least part of the past twelve to eighteen months, known as the “base period.”

Second, you must be available for and actively seeking work while claiming UI.

Third, you must have lost your most recent job “through no fault of your own.” However, workers fired because the employer is dissatisfied with their work are entitled to UI. Only those fired for “misconduct,” or behavior injurious to the employer, can be disqualified. If you quit, however, you must convince that you left your job for “compelling reasons,” such as a pay cut or doctor’s orders to quit for health reasons, in order to qualify.

People in the arts, including musicians, may face certain particular problems with UI because they often experience short-term employment and unemployment. They are often pursuing jobs and lining up auditions while deciding whether to respond to employment possibilities, some of which may be out-of-town. A recent case involving a member of Local 802 illustrates these problems.

The claimant was unemployed and receiving UI benefits when he was offered a week-long job with an out-of-town orchestra. However, he had scheduled an audition for a long-term job with an orchestra in the city for the day before the out-of-town job was scheduled to begin. He told the out-of-town orchestra that he could accept the job conditionally, provided that the better job did not call him back for a second audition. The out-of-town employer was unwilling to accommodate this request, and therefore the claimant did not accept the out-of-town job. (Unfortunately, he also did not get the job with the orchestra in the city.)

Some months later, he was notified by the Department of Labor that he was disqualified for UI on grounds that he had refused a job offer, and that he now owed back more than $5,000 he had received in UI benefits. However, the administrative law judge at the unemployment insurance hearing ruled for the claimant on grounds that the job possibility in the city was “a unique opportunity for a possible full time job,” and that therefore “his refusal of the four-day job in this case, because of a previously scheduled significant engagement (the audition) was with good cause.”

The claimant, however, made one mistake. When he made his weekly telephone claim for unemployment insurance benefits at the time of the one week job offer, he answered “no” to the question “Have you received any offers of work this past week?” By law, a claimant is required to report any and all job offers. If a UI claimant turns down a job offer, they need to say so and explain why. In this case, the claimant was slapped with a penalty of one week’s worth of UI benefits, the equivalent of $405. However, he did not have to pay back the $5,000 in UI that he had already received because the judge ruled that he had a good reason for turning down the one-week job.

It is almost always better to be working than not working, but if you’re out of work it’s helpful – and a worker’s basic right – to receive unemployment insurance benefits if you meet the qualifications. If your benefits have been denied or challenged for reasons you believe to be unfair, you have the right to have your side of the story be heard. There’s always a good possibility that you will prevail.

The phone number for the Workers Defense League is (212) 627-1931.