The main factors in being eligible for unemployment depend on the kind of job you worked before you became unemployed and what state you live in—not your criminal record.
Read on to find out the answer to the question, “can felons get unemployment?”
What Are Unemployment Benefits?
The U.S. government offers several social security unemployment benefits, from unemployment insurance to workers’ compensation or Disability Insurance.
They also offer things like Continuation of Health Insurance (COBRA) and Welfare Assistance, which can help you take care of yourself and your family between jobs.
Unemployment insurance is usually what people refer to when they talk about “claiming unemployment.”
It draws from the money you’ve paid in taxes to provide you with some support in paying your bills while looking to find your next job.
Workers’ compensation (or worker’s comp) and short-term or long-term disability insurance are unemployment benefits paid to you due to an injury that prohibits you from working.
Workers’ comp is paid if you have a job-related injury, while disability is offered when you cannot work due to something that happened off the clock.
Eligibility Criteria to Receive Unemployment Compensation
Again, the UI benefits and criteria vary by state.
No matter what state you work in, you need to be working a job where taxes are taken out of each paycheck by the government.
Freelancers, contract work, or “under the table” jobs do not count toward unemployment.
How much money you receive on unemployment depends on the salary you earned at your previous job, and why you left will affect how long you can draw unemployment.
In addition, as a convicted felon, you are required to be fired or laid off to receive benefits, meaning that if you voluntarily quit, you are ineligible.
You can view state-specific laws here by selecting your state’s unemployment insurance benefits.
If you have any doubts about whether or not you qualify, call or visit your local unemployment office, as they can give you personalized information and help.
Unemployment Among Former Felons
It’s no secret that many felons want to work.
They want to return to the job force and their lives and do everything they can to stay on a positive path.
However, the raw data suggests challenges on that road.
Unemployment Rates: 2022 Statistics
Despite the unemployment rate in the United States is slightly over 6%, the jobless rate for felons six months out of prison is significantly higher.
This rate is not technically the unemployment rate since some of these people are not actively looking for another job and are likely discouraged and disheartened by their current prospects.
Unfortunately, this high jobless rate, especially considering the number of felons not currently seeking employment, puts even more individuals at risk of going back to jail.
Factors that Affect Unemployment Rates
Felons face unique barriers to getting and keeping a job, from more than just their past conviction.
The severity of that felony conviction, access to full-time work, how long they’ve been out of prison, and their identity play a part in finding a job after being released.
Severity of Felony
If your criminal record is considered severe enough, you may get a lower payment or not be eligible for compensation.
Also, if your felony is related to misconduct at work (like stealing from your employer), you may lose access to social security benefits.
Access to Full-Time Work
Most states require you to work a specific set of hours or earn a sufficient amount of money before you can claim unemployment benefits.
Since unemployment is a pay-in system, this requirement is to keep things fair.
However, this requirement can be a challenge for felons who are not eligible for full-time employment due to any number of reasons.
Felons who struggle to find full-time employment are still eligible to file for unemployment benefits in some cases as “under-employed,” especially if they were promised full-time hours but are only getting part-time hours.
Time Since Release
Readjusting to life after prison can be difficult, making job hunting and holding down employment even harder than usual.
Felons in a halfway house with specific rules and guidelines on jobs have an even harder time, especially if that halfway house is part of a rehabilitation program for substance abuse.
Data suggests that jobless rates go up the longer someone is out of prison, by nearly a percent a year until evening out after four years since their release.
One of the likely reasons for this increase is former felons becoming discouraged to apply to jobs.
That leads some to stay on unemployment or work infrequently or less legitimately until their record is sealed, so they don’t have to disclose their felony conviction to an employer.
Race and Gender
Discrimination makes every job hunt harder, but being a member of a minority or marginalized group while being labeled a felon complicates everything.
People of color, women and LGBTQ+ folk already have more limited options, and having a criminal record often shrinks the list of job prospects even further, making it incredibly tough to get a job in the first place.
Can Felons Get Unemployment Benefits?
The short answer: is yes!
The long answer: yes, depending on their previous job, their state, and how severe their charges were.
For the most part, felons are eligible to get unemployment benefits, regardless of their past conviction.
How to Qualify for Unemployment as a Former Felon?
Remember, to qualify for unemployment as a felon, you must have worked a job that withheld federal taxes from your paycheck, and you must have been removed from that job through no fault of your own.
Moreover, you need to be actively looking for another job the entire time you receive unemployment benefits.
You must also meet your state’s requirements for minimum time worked in that state, or minimum wages earned.
If you are a contract worker or freelancer, you are not eligible for unemployment benefits.
Likewise, if you were fired for misconduct or quit your job on your own terms, you will not be able to get unemployment benefits as a felon.
How Long Does It Take to Get Unemployment?
Everything depends on the state, but typically you will start receiving unemployment two or three weeks after you initially apply.
Of course, that assumes any documents were filed correctly and the unemployment office doesn’t need any additional information.
Some states have a waiting period of a week (or more) before you can apply for benefits after you become unemployed.
After the initial approval or waiting period, you will need to fill out the application for unemployment every week to keep receiving benefits.
Benefits should be paid out every week that you apply.
Benefits of Unemployment for Felons
Barring any severe felonies that may disqualify you, unemployment benefits are the same for felons as they are for non-felons.
The government will pay out a check (or a direct deposit or debit card) that is a percentage of your former salary to help handle finances while looking for a new job.
Typically, it maxes out at $300 per week, but it all depends on your job and salary before becoming unemployed.
Felons are also eligible for COBRA and programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), depending on the state and the household’s needs.
A felony, unless related to fraud, should not affect unemployment benefits like workers’ comp or disability (both short-term and long-term).
Returning Back to Work After Prison
Re-entering the workforce after prison can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible.
Look for the resources around you that can help find the most likely jobs to hire former felons.
One of the best places to start looking for support is your local unemployment office or Department of Health and Human Resources office.
Companies Hiring Former Felons
If you are looking for work and having trouble finding a company that hires former felons, get in touch with a community organization or talk to the people at your unemployment office.
These places should know the most about businesses hiring in your area and what they require.
UPS, Amazon, and Wal-Mart all hire former felons as long as they are upfront during the application process.
Bear in mind that, while these companies do emphasize merit, they may still judge a job applicant based on the severity of a felony conviction.
A re-entry program is designed to help former felons find housing, jobs, and a community.
These programs are set up to have as many resources as possible for felons re-entering their community from prison, so they have the best chance for success and the support they need.
Re-entry programs are also a great place to meet other people in the same situation as you and help encourage each other.
So, can felons get unemployment in the United States?
In short, felons are eligible for unemployment benefits so long as they worked a job that paid into unemployment insurance and left their previous job through no fault of their own.
With this complete guide on hand, you can better navigate the system and receive what you are entitled to.