Can you get unemployment benefits if you’re fired?

Last updated: May 23, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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Can you get unemployment benefits if you’re fired?
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Unemployment is a concern for many U.S. families.

With the country’s unemployment rate ranging from 3.4% to 3.7% since March 2022, many employees are looking for ways to sustain themselves and their families during unemployment.

Many of these individuals wonder how to get unemployment when fired.

This article will discuss how to determine if you were fairly terminated and what to say to unemployment when fired. We’ll also give you some tips on how to answer unemployment-related questions during future job interviews.

How to determine if you were rightfully fired

Before looking into unemployment benefits, you must determine whether you were wrongfully terminated.

In the United States, most employees work “at will.” If this is the case with your employment, unfortunately, your employer can end your employment with or without cause.

If you’re unsure if your employment is “at will,” then you can check your employment agreement to find out. If you no longer have this agreement, you can ask the HR manager for a copy.

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If you aren’t employed at will

If you determine that you’re not employed at will, your employer may be required to provide a good reason for your termination. In this case, you may also be entitled to compensation. Make sure you do the following:

  • Go to your state’s Department of Labor website for information regarding local regulations.

  • Check your employment contract to see if it indicates any specific rights you may have in the case of being fired.

If you are employed at will

Even if your employment contract is at will, there are some cases in which your employer can’t fire you. Here are a few examples:

  • Discrimination: Several federal and state laws make it illegal for employers to fire employees based on protected categories, including race, gender, color, sex, national origin, disability, or religion.

  • Retaliation: Employers aren’t allowed to fire or otherwise retaliate against workers if, for example, the worker reported the employer for potential safety violations.

  • Law violations: It’s illegal for employers to ask employees to do something unlawful and fire them if they refuse.

  • Refusal to take a lie detector test: Most employers can’t require workers to take a lie detector test to keep their job. However, there are certain exceptions to this rule. For example, the government, pharmaceutical organizations, and security companies can require polygraph tests.

Are you eligible for unemployment benefits if you’re fired?

Not every unemployed person is eligible for unemployment benefits. Your eligibility will depend on the reason for your termination.

Generally, for you to get unemployment benefits, you must be laid off (losing your job for reasons outside of your control) as opposed to fired (losing your job due to misconduct).

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Layoff examples

Here are a few common examples of circumstances when employees might be laid off:

  • The company is downsizing.

  • There’s a lack of available work.

  • The company has a lack of funds.

  • The employee’s position was eliminated.

  • The employer temporarily shuts down due to weather, a natural disaster, or a maintenance issue.

  • A national or international disaster, such as a pandemic, occurs.

  • The employer goes out of business.

Were you fired for reasons out of your control? Learn how to apply for unemployment benefits.

Fired due to misconduct examples

Here are a few common reasons an employee might be fired due to misconduct:

  • Violation of the company’s standard of behavior.

  • Negligence or carelessness that happens so often that the employee shows an intentional disregard for their employer and/or fellow employees. Such carelessness could be exhibited through the following:

  • Dishonesty related to the employee’s employment and work duties.

  • Repeated and inexcusable absences.

  • Repeated tardiness after multiple warnings.

  • Carelessness that could result in bodily harm to the worker’s employer or coworkers.

  • Poor job performance.

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Fired due to gross misconduct examples

Here are the most common reasons that employees are fired due to gross misconduct:

  • A criminal act of which the employee has been convicted in a criminal court and has admitted to committing, such as:

  • Theft of property.

  • Embezzlement.

  • Purposeful destruction of their employer’s property.

  • Drug or alcohol possession at work

  • Conduct connected to their place of work that shows a blatant disregard for their employer or coworkers, such as:

  • Installing a hidden camera in the bathroom.

  • Identity theft of a patient or client.

If you were fired or suspended for misconduct or gross misconduct, some states, such as Washington, will deny your application for unemployment benefits for at least 10 weeks after the week you were terminated.

Rights of fired employees

Even if your employer fires you for misconduct, you have certain rights, such as the right to receive unemployment compensation if you qualify. Other rights include the following:

  • Paid severance (if stated in your contract)

  • The right to receive your final paycheck

  • An adequate period of notice if your employer fires you due to the company closing

  • Continued health insurance coverage through COBRA

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Can your previous employer contest your unemployment claim?

Once your employer receives a notice from the federal unemployment agency or state and details about the termination, they can contest unemployment claims if they think the notice is invalid or misleading.

You can fight the denial if the employer decides to deny or contest the claim. In this case, the employer will need proper documentation, such as pay slips and documented warnings, to back up their denial.

Without proper “proof,” you may be able to keep your job or receive additional benefits and compensation when you leave.

What to say to future employers about why you were fired

If you were fired from your previous job, employers will likely ask about it. They’ll do this for two main reasons:

  • They want to understand why your previous employer fired you and if the firing reflects on your character.

  • They want to see how you handled the situation.

Here are four things you can do if a potential employer asks you why you were fired:

1. Be honest

Always be honest and open about the reasons you were fired from your previous job.

Give your prospective employer the most objective explanation possible. Remaining calm as you explain yourself will showcase your professionalism and maturity.

2. Focus on what you learned from the situation

Try not to focus on the negative aspects of your termination. Instead, hone in on what you learned from the situation. You can use the “situation, task, action, result” (STAR) method to do this.

You can use the STAR method as follows:

  • Situation: Describe the situation in which your employer fired you.

  • Task: Explain your task in the situation.

  • Action: Discuss the actions you took upon hearing about your termination.

  • Result: Mention the result of being fired and the lessons you learned.

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You can also try to gracefully shift the conversation to the value you provided to the company during your time of employment. This will help to keep the conversation about your termination as brief as possible and instead focus on the skills and experience you can bring to the table for your potential employer.

3. Keep the explanation simple

When an employer wants to know about the terms and circumstances of a prior termination, it’s best to stick to the basic facts and move on as quickly as possible.

So don’t feel obligated to provide all the nitty-gritty details of what led your employer to fire you from the company. Less is more in this regard.

4. Remain positive

While you may still be angry about your termination, avoid saying negative things about your previous employer. Remember that the interviewer is evaluating whether you’ll be a valuable and positive addition to their company.

So be mindful of your comments and tone of voice when talking about your ex-employer. Again, this will show the potential employer that you can remain professional even in difficult situations.

Here are some other great job interview tips to help you make a good first impression.

Find your dream job with Jobcase

There’s a big difference between being laid off and being fired.

If you’ve been laid off, you’re eligible for unemployment benefits. On the other hand, if your employer fired you, you might not qualify for unemployment benefits — though you’ll still have several employment rights, such as the right to get your final paycheck.

If you’re in the market for a new job, head to Jobcase’s job board to find a position that suits your needs. Simply type in the position you’re looking for alongside your location to find job openings near you.

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Alexander Montoya
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Commercial Driver

I was wrongfully terminated in 2016, but my former employer didn’t contest my unemployment benefit so I was able to receive them. I also filed a claim with the labor board for wrongful termination but didn’t have enough evidence because my former employer failed to preserve the camera footage even though their policies state they would preserve any evidence of incidents that result in a litigation. It really all depends if the employer contests the unemployment benefits or not.

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