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I Want to Apply for Unemployment Benefits. Will I Get Them?

Your nanny family let you go. You think to yourself: how do I get unemployment benefits? The working arrangement between you and the family is considered employment at-will under U.S. common law unless the written work agreement specifies a term of contract (which is a horrible idea). In broad terms, at-will employment means that employment is presumed to be voluntary and indefinite for both employees and employers.

Under the at-will doctrine you may quit a job whenever and for whatever reason you want, usually without consequence. In turn, employers may terminate the at-will employee whenever and for whatever reason they want, usually without consequence.

Generally, you are eligible for unemployment compensation if you were dismissed for any reason other than “for cause.” If you leave voluntarily, you are not eligible for unemployment benefits unless you leave for “good cause,” which is often referred to as “constructive discharge.”

Your former employer does not have the power to deny unemployment benefits, only to protest them.

The state unemployment office makes the final determination of benefits eligibility. Both the employer and the employee have a right of appeal. The burden of proof for “cause” rests on the employer. For this reason, many employers document the poor performance in writing, and provide the nanny written warning that the specific performance issue may result in termination. This documentation carries a lot of weight when the state is making the benefits determination.

An example of “good cause” for you to leave might be as follows:

“A nanny was hired to work from 7 AM until 6 PM weekdays. She and the family negotiate a written work agreement that memorialized the terms and conditions of employment, including schedule, wage, and benefits. The nanny enrolls in a Saturday/Sunday degree program at a local college for which the family provides limited tuition assistance. 20 months into the employment arrangement, the family announces that, effective immediately, the nanny’s schedule will change to Wednesday – Sunday 7 AM – 6 PM. The nanny explains that she cannot work this schedule due to the conflict with her college commitments, and quits. She files for unemployment benefits, citing constructive discharge. The benefits determination process takes into consideration the unilateral and substantial change to the employment agreement, and awards benefits.”

You should always insist on a carefully written work agreement, as it protects you as well as the family.