State unemployment compensation programs require you to retain an attachment to the labor market as a condition of receiving benefits. One way of gauging your connection to the labor force is to assess your recent employment history. If you have worked sparingly, or have been out of work a while, you likely would be ineligible to claim benefits.
In most states, the issue is not how many weeks you have worked, but how much you have earned through recent employment before filing a claim for unemployment benefits. Each state sets a minimum amount of earnings for benefits eligibility, so the number of weeks you would have to work is the number of weeks it takes to earn that minimum amount in a particular job. You generally also must lose your job because your employer has no work for you or eliminates the job for financial reasons, rather than because you quit or your employer discharged you for misconduct.
In assessing your eligibility for unemployment benefits, states take into account your earnings during a span known as your base period. Your base period lasts one year — the first four calendar quarters of the five most recently completed. If you file an unemployment benefits claim in July 2011, for example, the most recently completed calendar quarter is April through June 2011. The four quarters before that — April 2010 through March 2011 — are your base period. You must have worked enough during that period to earn an amount specified by state law.
All states use their own formulas to determine your monetary eligibility for unemployment benefits, so drawing generalizations about what you must earn and how long you have to work is difficult. Some states require you to earn a certain amount in the highest-earning quarter of your base period. At the time of publication, for example, you would fulfill monetary eligibility requirements in California by earning $1,300 in your high quarter. Many states also have provisions requiring you to have earned 1.25 or 1.5 times your high-quarter earnings over your entire base period. This is to ensure you had relatively consistent employment throughout your base period. States might also stipulate that you must have wages in at least two quarters.
Just as your eligibility for unemployment benefits depends on your recent employment record, so does the amount of benefits to which you are entitled. If you worked enough to make only the minimum amount of wages needed to receive benefits, your weekly benefit rate is substantially lower than that of someone who earned higher wages. In many states, the minimum weekly benefit amount is less than $50, while the maximum is more than $400. If your base-period earnings are low enough, you also might not be eligible to receive state unemployment benefits for the maximum 26 weeks. Federal benefits might increase the duration during times of high unemployment.