Unemployment Insurance

Losing your job is bad enough without having to go through the difficulties of dealing with unemployment insurance bureaucracy. But, you must and should file for unemployment benefits after losing your job or having a substantial reduction in hours. Some may think they shouldn’t because it is just too much of a hassle, they are ashamed of being fired or their buddy told them they wouldn’t qualify. Wrong. File for unemployment benefits no matter what.

While there is a rather lengthy unemployment statute that supposedly spells out how and when a former employee is eligible for benefits, it has been my experience that the actual practice is much more variable than one would think. In other words, what may be true for your buddy may not be true for you.

After being laid off or fired, the first step should be to go online and file for unemployment. If you’re not adept at using the computer, find someone to help you, it isn’t too difficult. You can call unemployment too, but using the online services is probably better and more accurate. Before going online, have all your information ready, such as the name of your employer, your address, etc.

After that initial claim someone known as an “adjudicator” may call. Just do your best to answer the questions. 

The adjudicator may call to get additional information but more often it is because the former employer is challenging the employee’s eligibility for benefits. Generally, there will be advance notice of such a call, but not always. Again, preparation is key. Have handy any termination letter or written counseling you may have received. If you don’t have such information, you may go to your former employer and ask for a copy of your personnel file (the employer has seven days to comply and may charge a copying cost). 

 Since the beginning of the Great Recession, it has been my experience that adjudicators are denying more employee claims than before. In other words, tie goes to the employer. Don’t despair, appeal. 

The adjudicator will send out an “Initial Determination” finding the employee either eligible or not eligible for benefits. The explanation for the initial determination is usually not very clear or is written in unemployment-ese, so don’t worry too much about figuring it out. What is important, if the employee is denied eligibility, is to appeal the decision. The deadline for the appeal is in the lower right hand corner of the initial determination. 

The appeal letter doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a letter to the Unemployment Insurance department asking for an appeal hearing. Keep a copy of what you send to UI in case it isn’t received. I usually send a copy of the Initial Determination in with the appeal letter, just to be clear. 

Most, if not all, appeal hearings around La Crosse are by telephone. You will receive a notice by mail in advance of such hearing. The notice can be as little as two days or as much as two weeks. If there is a conflict with the time, call immediately to ask for a different time. The unemployment hearing office can be stingy with granting a new date, so don’t call unless there’s a good reason. 

With the notice should be a packet of documents, often on green or yellow paper. Read these documents carefully. They are going to be used at your hearing. If there are documents missing or ones that the employee thinks are important, the employee must send such documents immediately to both the unemployment hearing office (address will be listed on the notice) and the employer. Sending the documents just to the UI office isn’t good enough, they must go to the employer. 

Also, if there are witnesses the employee needs, have the witnesses be available by telephone on the date of the hearing. 

The administrative law judges (ALJ) for unemployment are generally fair. Employers often say they favor the employees and employees say just the opposite, so this tells me they don’t favor one side or the other. Again, preparation is the key to winning a claim. For employees, it is a matter of knowing what happened to them. While it may seem obvious, the employee is really the only person at the hearing that really knows what went on in their job. Employees need to use this knowledge to be confident and sure in their testimony. 

There are only two common reasons why an employee is denied unemployment benefits. One is that employee quit the job. However, even with a quit there are some exceptions, such as a substantial reduction in pay or sexual harassment. The other misconduct. Many people, including human resource people, confuse misconduct with poor performance. Getting fired just because you weren’t good at your job isn’t enough to deny benefits. Misconduct requires the employee to do something intentional, such as stealing or hitting their boss. What is or isn’t misconduct is probably one of the most litigated topics in UI hearings. 

After the hearing, both sides will receive a written decision from the ALJ. This decision will again contain some unemployment-ese but will also have some explanation of the reasons for the decision. Win or lose, this is the effective end of the unemployment process. While the losing side may appeal the ALJ’s decision, such appeals almost always lose.