Unemployment Compensation Benefits (Answers to Common Questions)

Authored By: Georgia Legal Services Program® LSC Funded


What is Unemployment Compensation?

By Mary Irene Dickerson
Attorney at Law / Unemployment Compensation Specialist Attorney

Georgia Legal Services Program, Inc.®

Georgia has an unemployment insurance (compensation) program that:

  • supports people who have lost their jobs and cannot find enough work
  • pays a portion of the wages of the job you lost, from a minimum of $44 up to a maximum of $330 each week, and
  • lasts for up to 26 weeks (plus federally-extended benefits, which are currently in effect due the current rate of unemployment). Benefits are paid from a fund created by taxes paid by employers based on wages paid to their employees.

The Details: Who is Eligible for Unemployment Benefits?

The main requirements for unemployment benefits are:

(1) You must have lost your most recent job through no fault of your own or quit the job with good cause connected to the work;

(2) You must be currently unemployed, or partially unemployed;

(3) You must currently be able to work, available for work, and be looking for full time work; and

(4) You must have worked and earned enough in the past year and a half.

*A recent change allows a worker to limit his or her search to part-time work if the majority of the work during that period was part-time.

Immigration status: You may receive unemployment insurance if you are a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident ("green card"), otherwise authorized to work in the U.S., or in one of several special immigration categories. In almost all cases, if you are in the country illegally, you cannot receive unemployment insurance.

What Counts as Losing Your Job Through No Fault of Your Own?

If You Were Laid Off

You will usually qualify for benefits if your job ended because of things that had nothing to do with you personally, such as:

• Your employer went out of business;

• Your employer laid you off because there was not enough work for you; or

• Your position was eliminated because of "downsizing."

If You Were Fired

You may still be eligible for benefits even if you were fired or terminated. You lose eligibility only if you were fired for misconduct, which means intentionally ignoring your employer's rules or interests. It does not include other reasons, such as:

  • Your boss didn't like you; or
  • Your employer thought you weren't doing a good enough job.

Georgia law provides several exceptions to disqualification when you lose your job. The employer has the burden of proving that the discharge was your fault. You should still qualify for benefits if:

1) You made a good faith effort to perform the duties for which hired but are simply unable to do so;

2) You did not intentionally fail or consciously neglect to perform your job duties;

3) The discharge occurred because of absenteeism and the absences were caused by your illness or that of a family member, unless you failed without justification to notify the employer;

4) The discharge occurred as a result of a violation of the employer's rule of which you have not been made aware by the employer or through common knowledge. Consistency of prior enforcement of the rule shall be taken into account as to the reasonableness or existence of the rule and such rule must be lawful and reasonably related to the job environment and job performance; and

5) The discharge occurred when you were exercising a protected right to protest against wages, hours, working conditions, or job safety under the federal National Labor Relations Act or other laws.

If You Quit

Quitting your job voluntarily will usually disqualify you from receiving benefits. However, you may still be eligible if you can show that you quit with "good cause." Under Georgia law, you would have the burden of proving good work connected cause. A "personal" reason would not be good cause. Georgia labor regulations provide that there could be good cause to quit if the employer changed the terms and conditions of work in a manner that the employee, applying the judgment of a reasonable person, would not be expected to continue that employment. Factors that the Department of Labor is required to consider include:

  • Whether you were downgraded for reasons other than your own fault;
  • Whether you had undergone harassment on the job of a substantial nature which would induce a reasonable person to quit in order to seek other employment;
  • Whether the hiring contract had otherwise been broken in a material way;
  • Whether there was an economic downgrade based on the employer's inability to continue the former salary, but only if the reduction in salary is a substantial reduction below a reasonable rate for that industry or trade;
  • Whether your health was placed in jeopardy by conditions on the job. There must be some clear connection between the health problem and the performance of the job, and professional medical advice is required unless the reason would be obvious that harm the employee would result from continued employment. This includes such obvious things as broken limbs, violent reactions such as allergies due to the environment on the job and similar circumstances. Provided, however, that the employee must discuss the matter with the employer to seek a solution by another assignment or other changes that would be appropriate to relieve the medical problem before the employee can show good work connected cause for quitting.
  • Whether the employee quit because the rules of the employer prove to be unreasonable as related to proper job performance.

What Counts As Being Currently Unemployed?

Total Unemployment

If you are not doing any work for pay, and you are not doing work for your own business, then you are totally unemployed and are eligible for full benefits.

Partial Unemployment

If you are working some, but not full time, you may still be eligible for benefits. Currently, $50 (gross) in wages are excluded each week. You may earn that amount and still draw full benefits according to the weekly benefit amount for which you are eligible. This type of benefit is available either when an employer initiates the claim for its employees or when your claim is already approved (when you are unemployed) and then you get some part-time work.

What Counts As Being Able to Work and Looking For Work?

To be eligible for unemployment insurance:

(1) You must be physically and mentally able to work;

(2) You must be actively looking for jobs like those you have had in the past or are trained to do; and

(3) You must accept such jobs if offered.

Examples of when you CANNOT refuse a job and still get unemployment insurance:

  • You've done the same job recently, but don't want to go back to that kind of work.
  • The job offered is temporary, but you want to wait for something permanent.
  • The wages are less than you're used to earning, even though they are typical for the job.

Examples of when you CAN refuse a job and still get unemployment insurance:

  • The job requires an unreasonably long commute.
  • The job pays significantly less than the usual wage for that type of work.
  • The job is not the kind you've done before or been trained to do.
  • The job is with a past employer, where the circumstances surrounding the reason for discharge or quitting are such that a reasonable person would not want to return to that job setting.

Eligibility is Based on Work History During the "Base Period"

This is a complicated part of the law. If you are unsure whether you qualify, you should go ahead and apply. ALERT: Be sure to ask whether it would be BETTER to wait a few weeks for the next calendar quarter to begin before applying. When your work history is concentrated in the past few months, you may receive more benefits if you wait until the next quarter so that all of your wages may be counted in the calculation of your weekly benefit amount. Eligibility for unemployment insurance depends on how much you earned in the "base period," or the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters. Georgia also has an "alternative base period" that allows the most recent completed quarter's wages to be counted if you do not qualify using the regular base period. Using the quarter system, you must have worked in two or more quarters, and earned enough over the entire base period to qualify.

It does not matter whether the earnings came from a single job, or from different jobs. If you worked steadily and you meet these requirements, your earnings should qualify you for unemployment benefits in some amount.

How to Apply For Benefits

You can file for unemployment insurance benefits by calling or visiting your local Georgia Department of Labor office. Information about their locations and hours may be found at . Once you set up your claim in person, you will be able to make weekly reports over the phone or on-line.

You should have the following information ready when you apply:

(1) Your Social Security number.

(2) Your Georgia driver's license or Motor Vehicle ID card number, if you have one.

(3) Your alien registration card, if you have one.

(4) The names and addresses of all employers for whom you've worked within the past 18 months.

The Basics of an Appeal: You Can Stick Up For Yourself and Win

The bad news is that many people who deserve unemployment benefits are wrongly turned down when they first apply. The good news is that often you can still get your benefits by appealing that decision and presenting your side of the story before an administrative hearing officer. More good news is the fact that you may be able to get help: call your local legal services or legal aid office to see if you qualify.

Bad News in the Mail: Getting Turned Down for Unemployment Benefits

There are a number of different situations in which the Department of Labor may turn down your claim for benefits. There are two notices to watch for in the mail: the "Wage Determination" and the "Claim Determination":

  • You may receive a "Wage Determination" that says "Our records show that you do not have the required employment and earnings in the base period shown below to establish an Unemployment Insurance claim as of the above effective date." Or it may simply show a WBA (Weekly Benefit Amount) of $0.
  • If the information listed on the notice is accurate, but you have more recent earnings that are not listed, you may still be able to get benefits by reapplying for benefits at the beginning of the next calendar quarter. Calendar quarters begin in January, April, July and October.
  • If your earnings from a job do not show up on the notice, your employer may have failed to report your wages to the State of Georgia. This can happen if you were paid "off the books" or if you were improperly labeled an "independent contractor." If this happens to you, gather and provide any documentation you can, such as check stubs or bank deposit slips, to the Department of Labor.
  • You will also receive a "Claim Determination." In it, the claims examiner rules whether or not you are eligible to receive benefits on your claim. If what it says under "Reason" is not true, you may still be able to get benefits by proving your case to an administrative hearing officer in a hearing. This can happen if your employer gave false information to the Department of Labor about why you lost your job. The most common examples are saying you got fired for something that you didn't really do or saying you quit when you really got fired.

Fighting Back: Requesting an Unemployment Insurance Hearing

(1). Check the date on your Wage Determination Notice or Claim Determination. You have 15 days from the date on your Notice to request a hearing. Don't miss the deadline!

(2). Request a hearing in writing.

  • Keep the request simple by stating: "I disagree with the determination and request a hearing." Ask for an in person hearing.
  • Include your Social Security number, sign the letter, and keep a photocopy for yourself. Forms are available at the local Department of Labor office where you filed your claim.

(3). While you wait for a hearing date, call in (or log in on-line) weekly and claim your UI benefits. Even if you win your hearing, you will still only receive benefits for the weeks that you claimed.

(4). In about 2 to 3 weeks, you will receive a Notice of Hearing. It will contain your case number and hearing date, time and location; and the "Purpose of Hearing." This lists the issue or issues that will be addressed at the hearing.

Your Day in Court: Winning at the Hearing

A hearing is an informal trial held before an Administrative Hearing Officer. Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the judge will decide whether you are entitled to unemployment insurance benefits.

Preparation for the hearing

  • Using a calendar if you can, take time out to remember the date you last worked, the date you filed for benefits, and any other helpful dates. You will be more persuasive if you know these details.
  • Prepare an explanation of what happened to make you lose your job. Focus specifically on why you disagree with the reason given in the Claim Determination.
  • Gather and bring both originals and photocopies of anything that will help to prove your case, such as letters you wrote or received, your journal or date book, pay stubs, etc. Try to obtain letters that back up your story, such as a note from your doctor if you missed work due to illness.
  • Contact any witnesses that can back up your version of the events, such as a co worker who saw what happened when you lost your job. Bring any witnesses with you to the hearing. Subpoenas are available from the Department of Labor.
  • Visit the Department of Labor and look at your file. You can do this if you arrive more than half an hour before your hearing, or if you come on an earlier day. Your file will contain any information your employer gave to the Department of Labor, so you know what to expect at the hearing.

What Happens at the Hearing

  • The hearing will be held either on the telephone or in a small office with a table that seats 4 to 5 people at most, with the judge's desk at one end of it. The entire hearing can take anywhere from 30 minutes to more than one hour.
  • The hearing will be tape recorded, and everyone who testifies must swear an oath to tell the truth. No written statements or affidavits are allowed. Your witnesses (and the employer's witnesses) must be present to testify.
  • The ALJ will explain the procedure for the hearing and will probably ask both you and your employer questions about how you lost your job.
  • In addition to the ALJ's questions, both sides will be given an opportunity to: present evidence, such as documents or statements by you or your witnesses; ask questions of the other side's witnesses (This means that your employer can ask you questions about what happened.); and make closing statements.
  • Remember to focus on what's wrong with the reason given in the Notice, not other complaints you might have about your job. The "last incident" or "triggering incident" should be the focus at the hearing.. You will get a decision in the mail in about two weeks. If you disagree with the decision, you may appeal it to the Board of Review, which simply reviews the record of the case, including a transcript of the hearing.


The mission of the Georgia Legal Services Program® is to provide access to justice and opportunities out of poverty for Georgians with low-incomes. Our lawyers and paralegals provide the help that reflects your community's values of fairness, equality, and responsibility to assist others in need.

Revised: 1/20/2010

Last Review and Update: Jan 20, 2011