Applying for Unemployment: The Magic Words to Use

Filing for unemployment benefits can be tricky. If you're lucky and haven't lost your job before, it can be a difficult process to wade through the red tape. Some states, such as California, at least try to make it easy with various ways to file.

But there's one area of the claim form that you don't want to mess up when filing, even though your head is probably still spinning from losing your job -- the reason for losing your job. You want to tell the truth, and there are some "magic words," or keywords, to use so that an unemployment benefits claim isn't quickly rejected.

Remember that each state sets its own laws on such things, so these suggested terms may not work everywhere.

"Laid off."

If you lost your job through no fault of your own because the company is downsizing, then this is the term to use. Even if you accepted a buyout so that you wouldn't be laid off, it's still technically a layoff and you're entitled to unemployment benefits.

"Job eliminated."

This is basically the same as a layoff, and puts the burden of proof on the employer. Go with what you were told by your employer when you lost your job, said Jill Pugh, an employment law attorney in Seattle.

If you were fired but tell the unemployment department that you were laid off, you could be accused of fraud, which could result in penalties beyond paying back any unemployment benefits you've collected, Pugh said. Penalties could include being disqualified for future benefits the next time you apply, to a higher interest rate when paying back owed benefits.


This again shows that the job loss was out of your control and that the company chose to let you go as it restructured its workforce. Saying that you got a buyout may not be the best way to word it, because some states consider that leaving your job at your choice, although most states allow workers who accept buyouts to collect unemployment if they were in fact laid off.

The ultimate test, Pugh said, is that a worker lost their job through no fault of their own. If so, they should get benefits. Employees can be fired and still collect benefits if they couldn't do the job and it wasn't their fault, Pugh said. Being unable to work a computer program, for example, could lead to being fired. But because the employee didn't do it willfully, they can still get benefits.

"Position terminated."

This puts the emphasis on the job itself instead of the person who lost their job.

"Let go because..."

This term replaces using "quit," which should be avoided, Pugh said. Using "quit" implies it was your choice. If you had good reason to quit, then you can collect unemployment. Good causes include taking a big pay cut of 25 percent, unsafe workplace, illegal behavior by others at work, sexual harassment at work, and failure to accommodate workers with disabilities. But you must have complained about the cause long before quitting


This is OK to use, Pugh says, if you were fired for something that you didn't do wrong, such as steal from the company.

In California, if a claimant is discharged for misconduct connected with work, benefits may be denied, said Pasadena lawyer Melanie Calvert, in an e-mail to AOL Jobs. "Misconduct means gross misconduct which harms the employer's business. Ordinary negligence is not generally considered gross misconduct. If a California claimant was discharged or quit due to an 'irresistible' compulsion to use intoxicants, he or she may be denied benefits. On the other hand, a claimant may receive benefits if they quit due to unlawful job harassment."


It's a difficult word to put on an unemployment application and one you want to avoid if possible, but it shouldn't stop you if you did nothing wrong. One huge trick of employers is to ask an employee to resign or be fired, with the implication that they'll still get benefits if they resign but won't if they're technically fired, Pugh said. Misconduct by the employee won't lead to unemployment benefits, so there's no sense in fighting it, but if you did nothing wrong, then you can still get fired and claim benefits.

"I wouldn't fall for it," she said of employers trying to entice people to quit. "It's much, much harder to get benefits if you quit than if you were discharged."

That's because the burden of proof for getting benefits is on the worker if they quit, and on the employer if discharged.

"I quit in lieu of termination."

That's the phrase to keep in mind when applying for benefits if you quit while being threatened with termination, Pugh said. Even if the firing is justified, it could still be based on nothing bad on the employee's part. For example, if you violated a company rule you didn't know about, it wasn't an intentional bad act and you should still be able to collect benefits.

People worry about the stigma of getting fired and what it will look like to future employers. But if you didn't do anything wrong, it's nothing to hide from. Only your employer who fired you can look at your unemployment claim, and potential employers are not allowed to look at it, Pugh said.

"A lot of times people don't want to do that because it looks bad," she said of admitting being fired on an unemployment application.

Applying for unemployment benefits is a right to people who have lost their jobs, and it can be a stigma for people who have never done it before. The good news is that the national recipiency rate -- the percentage of unemployed workers who collect benefits -- is dropping, from 45 percent in 2001 to 37 percent in 2008. That's more people claiming the benefits they're entitled to -- as long as a few words don't trip them up.

Next: Where the Jobs Are: Growing States and Booming Industries >>

Read Full Story