Unemployment benefits are a lifeline for those who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. During the pandemic, the procedures in many states were simplified to facilitate getting aid to affected individuals, with loosened eligibility and supplemented benefits.
The federal program ended in 2021, so New Jersey, like all other states, returned to its pre-pandemic eligibility requirements, though with an updated system.
Anyone considering applying for unemployment benefit payments in New Jersey will want to get an overview of the eligibility requirements. Eligibility is more difficult to determine than it might seem at first blush.
Eligibility for New Jersey Unemployment
Unemployment is a type of insurance, and the general rule is that only those enrolled in an unemployment insurance program are eligible to receive benefits. The program is financed by employers and is mandatory for those with qualifying employees. The payroll taxes paid by employers to which employees contribute finance the unemployment program.
In New Jersey, as in all states, the benefits available to employees are intended to partially replace wages when workers become unemployed. But not every New Jersey worker is eligible for UI benefits. Workers must have a significant work history to participate in the unemployment program. Employees who have worked only a short time may not be eligible.
Employee Base Year for UI Benefits Program
In New Jersey, an employee is required to have worked a certain number of weeks earning a minimum amount before being eligible to collect employment. These qualifying wages must be earned during a “base period,” the time frame used by New Jersey to determine who qualifies for unemployment benefits. The base period is a 12-month period, but it varies depending on when the claim is filed.
The regular base-year period consists of the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters (three-month periods) before the week in which the employee files their initial claim. The regular base-year period is 52 weeks. The day the base period starts depends on the date the worker applies for benefits.
Base Year Periods for a New Claim
An unemployment claim filed in the first quarter of a calendar year will have a base-year period running through September 30 of the prior year. For example, a claim filed in January, 2022, will use a base-year period of October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021 for unemployment insurance benefits.
Other base-year periods are:
- Claim filed in the second quarter of the calendar year will use the prior calendar year as the base-year period.
- Claim filed in the third quarter of the calendar year will have a base-year period running from April 1 of the prior year to March 31 of the current year.
- Claim filed in the fourth quarter of a calendar year will have a base-year period running from July 1 of the prior year to June 30 of the current year.
Earnings Required During Base Year
How much does a New Jerseyan need to earn during the base year to qualify for UI benefits in New Jersey? And how long does the employee need to have worked? The amount must be at least 20 times the current minimum wage and can change from year to year. For example:
- In 2021, the worker must have earned at least $220 per week during 20 or more weeks in covered employment during the base-year period. Alternatively, they must have earned at least $11,000 in total covered employment during the base-year period.
- In 2022, the worker must have earned at least $240 per week during 20 or more weeks in covered employment during the base-year period. Alternatively, they must have earned at least $12,000 in total covered employment during the base-year period.
Note that the amount of wages earned during a base year determine the weekly unemployment benefit amount the worker will receive, as well as the total weekly benefit rate they are eligible to claim in a year.
Alternative Base Period in New Jersey
An employee who does not qualify for UI benefits in New Jersey under this base-year requirement may be able to qualify under an alternate base period with stricter wage requirements.
When an unemployed worker's earnings during the regular base-year period do not meet the required minimum, the Department reviews the employee's earnings in two alternate base-year periods. These are the last four calendar quarters before the claim was filed or the three most recently completed calendar quarters preceding the date of the UI claim, plus the weeks and wages in the filing quarter up to the employee's final day of work.
Note that this second alternate base year contain fewer than 52 weeks. The worker would still need to have worked at least 20 base weeks earning the required amount per week (for 2022, the weekly earnings must be at least $240), or earned the set minimum period (for 2022, at least $12,000) during the alternative base year.
New Jersey "Covered Wages"
Not every dollar a worker earns counts as part of their base period earnings. The wage requirements described above for both the regular and alternate base periods must be from "covered wages." This means wages paid by employment protected by the New Jersey unemployment laws where the employer is required to pay into the unemployment fund.
This includes most employment, but not self-employment, independent contractor work or commission-only work. Money earned from these types of work don’t count toward monetary eligibility for UI, and generally, claimants cannot rely on money earned from these types of work for eligibility.
Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation
The federal government supplemented state unemployment compensation programs during the coronavirus pandemic. Because the pandemic caused high unemployment rates, the federal government increased the benefit amounts, offered extended unemployment benefits, and allowed claimants to qualify for unemployment benefits even if they were self-employed or contractors.
These programs were available in New Jersey, as in most states. That is, there was increased eligibility and increased benefit amounts. But these pandemic-related programs ended in 2021, and there is no current talk of additional federal supplements for state UI coverage.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. 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 M.A. and an M.F.A in creative 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.