Updated: 2021-03-11 by
You qualify for unemployment benefits in California if you meet two basic requirements:
- you must have earned at least a minimum amount in the time before you lost your job, and
- you must be out of work through no fault of your own.
If you meet these two qualifications when you apply, you will likely be eligible to receive unemployment benefits. (To keep receiving benefits after you are found eligible, you will also have to meet your state’s job search requirements; to learn more, see What Do I Have to Do to Keep Receiving Unemployment Benefits in California?)
Coronavirus Update: In response to the COVID-19 public health emergency, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the "CARES" Act, which we cover here), which greatly expanded eligibility for unemployment; Congress has twice extended these benefits, which are now set to last in most states until September 6, 2021. (Learn about Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides benefits to gig workers, freelancers, and others who aren't eligible for traditional unemployment benefits.) However, some states have decided to opt out of these pandemic unemployment programs early; find out if your state is cutting off pandemic benefits. A number of states have also eased their eligibility rules to ensure that more people who are out of work due to COVID-19 qualify for unemployment benefits.
California's Employment Development Department has a resource page on coronavirus and employment, and has also issued an FAQ page on coronavirus and unemployment benefits as well as an information page on the CARES Act.
Eligibility Requirement 1: Minimum Earnings
In every state, unemployment benefits are available only to those who are temporarily out of work. If you apply after being out of the workforce for years, for example, you won’t qualify for benefits. You must have been employed relatively recently, and earned at least a minimum amount, to be eligible.
States look at an applicant’s work history during a stretch of time called the “base period.” In California, the base period is the first four of the five complete calendar quarters immediately before you filed for benefits. For example, if you file for benefits on March 15, 2020, your base period will be from October 1, 2018 through September 30, 2019. It would not include the most recent complete calendar quarter before you filed (October 1, 2019 through December 31, 2019) or the first two-and-a-half months of 2020. To qualify for benefits in California, you must have earned: If you did not earn enough to qualify for benefits during the regular base period, you may be able to use an alternate base period that counts more recent earnings. California's alternate base period is the last four complete calendar quarters before you file for unemployment.
In California, the base period is the first four of the five complete calendar quarters immediately before you filed for benefits. For example, if you file for benefits on March 15, 2020, your base period will be from October 1, 2018 through September 30, 2019. It would not include the most recent complete calendar quarter before you filed (October 1, 2019 through December 31, 2019) or the first two-and-a-half months of 2020.Some states require only that you earn a minimum amount of money during the base period; other states require, either in addition or instead, that you have done some work in more than one quarter of the base period.
To qualify for benefits in California, you must have earned:
If you did not earn enough to qualify for benefits during the regular base period, you may be able to use an alternate base period that counts more recent earnings. California's alternate base period is the last four complete calendar quarters before you file for unemployment.
Even if you don’t qualify for benefits under California’s eligibility rules, you may still qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), an unemployment benefit program created in the federal CARES Act to help workers who have lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic. This program is intended to cover those who are out of work due to COVID-19 but wouldn’t be eligible under their state’s usual rules. Independent contractors (gig workers, freelancers, and the self-employed, for example), part-time workers who don’t qualify for state benefits, and even workers who don’t meet their state’s earnings or work history requirement may be eligible for PUA. See our article Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: Unemployment Benefits for Contractors, Gig Workers, and Self-Employed Workers in California to learn whether you qualify for benefits under this temporary program.
If you were working or about to start a new job, and you have lost work or hours due to COVID-19, there’s a very good chance you will be eligible for benefits for up to 79 weeks total. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program originally expired on December 26, 2020, but Congress extended the program twice, most recently until September 6, 2021. (Some states have decided to end this program early, however.) So make sure to file an application with the California Employment Development Department: Although Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is a temporary federal program, it is administered by state unemployment departments, just like regular benefits.
Eligibility Requirement 2: Reasons for Unemployment
To qualify for unemployment benefits, you must be out of work through no fault of your own. If you lose your job in a layoff, reduction-in-force (RIF), downsizing, or similar job action in which positions are cut for financial or strategic reasons, you will be eligible for benefits.
However, you don’t have to be laid off to collect unemployment. You may still be eligible even if you quit your job or you were fired, depending on the circumstances.
If You Quit Your Job
You will be disqualified from receiving benefits if you left you job voluntarily, without good cause. Good cause to leave work may be related to the job or not. To show good cause, you must have been motivated to leave by a real, substantial, and compelling reason that would cause a reasonable person who genuinely wanted the job to quit. For example, if you have compelling family reasons to leave your job, or you stop working because you have reasonable fears about your health or safety on the job, you will likely still be eligible for benefits.In some states, you will be disqualified from receiving benefits for a certain number of weeks. In other states, you may be disqualified until you get another job and earn a minimum amount (typically, this amount is less than you would have to earn to qualify for benefits in the first place). Contact the California Employment Development Department for more information.
If You Were Fired
You may be disqualified from receiving benefits if you were fired for job-related misconduct. California defines misconduct narrowly. All four of the following statements must be true for the Employment Development Department to conclude that you were fired for misconduct:
- You must owe a material duty to your employer.
- You must have committed a substantial breach of that duty.
- Your breach must show a wilful or wanton disregard of that duty.
- Your breach must disregard the employer's interests and injure or tend to injure the employer's interests.
For example, it is not enough for an employer to state that you were fired for being absent. The Employment Development Department will consider whether you had permission to be absent, whether you had a compelling reason to be absent, and whether you had received prior warnings or reprimands.You may be disqualified either for a set number of weeks or until you get another job and earn a minimum amount, depending on state law. In some states, the length of the disqualification period depends on why you were fired. Contact the California Employment Development Department to find out more.
If You Are Out of Work for Reasons Related to COVID-19
If you have lost your job, faced an hours cut, been quarantined, had to care for a family member, had to stay home to care for children, become ill, or otherwise lost paid work because of the coronavirus health care emergency, you will likely be eligible for benefits. If you don't qualify under California's eligibility rules, you could still qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
If You Are Still Employed
If you are still working but need time off for reasons relating to COVID-19, you may be eligible for paid sick leave under your state's law. See Am I Entitled to Paid Sick Leave, Family Leave, or Vacation Time in California to learn more.
You may also be interested in:
Find out where you need to go to apply for unemployment benefits in California and how to get help with the application process.
Get answers to common questions about new unemployment programs for those who have lost work due to COVID-19.
How the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Affects California Unemployment Benefits
The coronavirus stimulus bill expands eligibility and increases benefits for California workers.