The general rule for unemployment seems to be: old enough to work is old enough to claim unemployment benefits. Generally, 17-year-olds who find themselves out of a job through no fault of their own may qualify for unemployment if they earned enough money to come within their state's laws. The federal government's pandemic unemployment programs have loosened restrictions so more minors may be eligible for benefits under this program than under their state's regular unemployment insurance.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Unemployment insurance eligibility varies among states, but generally, there are no age restrictions for those who meet the legal requirements to qualify.
State Unemployment Insurance
Unemployment insurance (UI) eligibility is governed by state laws on a state-to-state basis. That means that eligibility and benefits vary from one state to another, but almost all share the basic principle that, to be eligible, a person must:
- Be out of work through no fault of their own.
- Have worked a certain number of hours or earned a certain amount of money in the base year, as defined by state law.
- Be ready, willing and able to work and be actively seeking work.
There are no age restrictions, so minors qualify for benefits if they meet these requirements. However, it's important to check laws in the relevant state since these standards are interpreted differently in different jurisdictions. For example, no state allows a worker to receive unemployment benefits if they were fired for misdeeds, but some allow a worker to qualify if they were dismissed for insufficient training to do the job. Others do not.
Students May Not Meet Base Period Requirements
A 17-year-old who is not a student might easily qualify for regular unemployment if they have worked as an employee for a year or so. If they are laid off through no fault of their own and are seeking work, they meet the base requirements in most states.
However, a high school student who is 17 years of age may not meet the base-year earnings amount qualification. That is particularly true if they are not working full time. In fact, if they are attending school full time, they are probably not in a position to accept full-time employment if it is offered. According to College Recruiter, about half of the state unemployment departments cover unemployed student workers who are available for full-time work with regular UI benefits, while the other half consider student status incompatible with full-time work.
Finally, many students work on campus through the federal work-study program that pays them hourly for jobs on campus. The federal government subsidizes the students' work-study pay as part of a financial aid package. These jobs usually do not qualify for UI since the employers do not pay into the unemployment insurance fund. However, students may now qualify for benefits under the federal government's pandemic unemployment insurance program.
COVID-19 Pandemic Insurance
The federal government enacted new pandemic guidelines for unemployment when the country was shut down in response to COVID-19. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is a part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This federal law allowed individuals to qualify for unemployment if they are unable to work due to the coronavirus pandemic, even if they are not eligible for traditional unemployment insurance benefits.
Essentially, this bill opened up eligibility to:
- Those who were furloughed from work.
- Gig workers.
- Part-time workers.
- Those whose hours were reduced.
These workers can qualify if their inability to work was related to the pandemic. For example, a worker may be eligible for benefits if they:
- Have COVID-19.
- Have COVID-19 symptoms and are waiting to see a doctor.
- Have a family or household member who has COVID-19.
- Must care for a child unable to go to school because of COVID-19.
- Can't get to their workplace because of a COVID-19 quarantine.
- Were supposed to start a job but cannot get to the workplace because of COVID-19.
- Quit work as a direct result of COVID-19.
- Their workplace closed as a direct result of COVID-19.
- Do not qualify for regular unemployment but their work was affected by COVID-19.
Note that the federal program also increased the weekly benefit amount the claimant can receive, initially by $600 a week, then by $300 a week. It also extended the maximum period for which a worker can receive unemployment compensation.
Application of CARES to Students
The federal CARES act doesn't include age limits for its benefit payments. That means that 17-year-old job seekers will be covered, whether they were employees, self-employed, gig workers or seeking part-time employment, even if they do not have sufficient work history or otherwise do not qualify for regular unemployment.
This appears on its face to cover student workers. However, not every state interprets the law in this way. Some states rule that students are ineligible on the theory that they are not able to work full time. The state's UI department may attribute this simply to the fact that the worker is a student, but others claim the students are not eligible because they quit their jobs when school closed.
Unfortunately, the federal guidelines do not spell out student eligibility. Many states do interpret the guidelines as providing pandemic benefits to young people. These include Utah, where students who have been denied traditional unemployment benefits are encouraged to apply for benefits under the federal program.
California Rules for Student Unemployment
California laws regarding student eligibility for UI benefits fall somewhere in the middle, making them interesting to consider. Generally, the California Unemployment Insurance Code does not state directly that someone who is a student will be considered unavailable for work. On the other hand, if a student has classes during normal work hours, like 9 a.m. through 6 p.m., it creates an inference of unavailability for work for UI purposes.
Overcoming Student UI Eligibility Requirements
California law provides several ways in which this inference can be overcome. It the student is willing to abandon school or change their school schedule to accept work, this can overcome the inference. Likewise, the inference can also be overcome with evidence that an individual is willing and able to accept full-time employment or part-time employment.
If an individual is available only for temporary work during school recess, vacation periods or summer breaks, they may be eligible for UI if "a substantial field of employment exists for the type of services offered." That usually eliminates students who seek work that is related only to their training program or courses of study.
However, California considers students to be eligible for federal pandemic unemployment insurance. They can get these benefits if they work part-time and are unemployed, partially unemployed or unable to work because of COVID-19.
- NewYork DOL: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance
- Investopedia: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and How to Apply
- College Recruiter: Are College Students Eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)?
- University of Utah: Student Unemployment Benefits
- EDD California: Able and Available
- CA EDD: FAQs Eligibility
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.