Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Family Caregivers: An Analysis of State Rules and Practices

A rapidly growing number of older people and adults with chronic illness and disabling conditions receive care from unpaid family members. Many of these family caregivers are also employed outside the home. While some are able to alter their work schedules or take time off from their jobs to provide hands on care, such as help with bathing, eating, managing medications, others are compelled to leave their jobs, or are fired for reasons related to their family caregiving responsibilities. In these cases, family caregivers may be able to seek assistance from some state unemployment insurance (UI) programs. Yet, few resources are available to help family caregivers and advocates understand the intricacies of these programs.

Drawing on legal analysis, in-depth interviews with advocates and UI officials, and analysis of available data, this paper presents detailed information on the policies and practices in place in state UI programs that provide potential temporary financial assistance to family caregivers.

Highlights of Findings

  • State and federal UI data show that family caregivers are claiming UI, but at very low rates. With more than 65 million Americans acting in caregiver roles across the lifespan and nearly 10 percent reporting that caregiving responsibilities have led them to leave their jobs,[i] it is clear that even where caregiver-friendly UI provisions exist, many family caregivers are not applying for and receiving UI benefits.
  • Three categories of UI rules apply to working family caregivers seeking unemployment benefits. These are rules about voluntarily leaving work, discharge for misconduct (or just cause), and availability for work. The specifics of UI caregiving rules in each state determine the extent and nature of support UI programs can offer to working family caregivers.
  • Claimants are unlikely to meet availability for work conditions while they are engaged in full-time family caregiving. For this reason, UI benefits are not a substitute for paid leave. However, if family caregiving is provided on a part-time basis and the caregiver is available to work at other times of day, they may remain eligible. A worker may also wait to apply for UI until caregiving responsibilities lessen or end.
  • All states limit UI benefits to a one-year period. A caregiver who files a claim at the time the caregiver’s responsibilities led to quitting their job, will only have 52 weeks in which to draw any benefits under that claim. In most cases, once that claim expires, any claim in a later benefit period would require additional employment earnings to qualify for UI benefits.
  • In 2009, under the federal UI Modernization program, 19 states expanded UI eligibility to allow benefits for separations from work due to “compelling family circumstances.”[ii] The federal government offered financial incentives to states that adopted the provision, which includes the need to care for a family member experiencing illness or a disability. Some other states have rules pre-dating UI Modernization that protect eligibility for UI benefits for caregivers.
  • Almost half of states have UI rules that accommodate workers who leave their jobs voluntarily to act as family caregivers; however, a favorable decision to grant UI benefits is far from automatic. Nine states have UI rules that permit any compelling reason (not just work-related reasons), including compelling family reasons, to serve as good cause for voluntarily quitting a job. Thirteen states have UI rules that accept compelling family reasons as good cause for quitting a job. Three states have UI rules with other favorable provisions that accommodate family caregivers. In the remaining 26 states, personal reasons, including compelling family circumstances, are disqualifying.
  • Awareness of UI rules that accommodate family caregivers is very low. Agency officials and advocates who were interviewed agreed that many people assume they are ineligible for UI when they quit their jobs, and few are aware of caregiving-friendly provisions.
  • Even where UI rules that accommodate family caregivers exist, implementation is sometimes lacking. Advocates described agency staff (including adjudicators, who make eligibility decisions) lacking training in compelling family circumstances provisions, and state UI “cultures” that lead agencies to disregard the rules. Many UI claimants have no access to legal counsel and limited ability to appeal adverse decisions.
  • Unreasonable requirements for family caregivers to engage with their employers prior to quitting often result in denial of benefits even when states have caregiving-friendly rules. Many states have stringent rules in place requiring working caregivers to request accommodations from their employers prior to quitting, sometimes even when such requests would prove futile. Agency officials cited failure to comply with employer engagement rules as one of the most common reasons for denying benefits.
  • Employers may be less likely to contest family caregiving-related voluntary quits because they are not directly taxed for employees who quit due to compelling family circumstances. In contrast, when a worker is fired for reasons related to family caregiving concerns, the employer’s UI tax rates will be increased. The UI system’s experience rating mechanism, which increases UI employer payroll taxes based on employee usage of UI, makes exemptions for voluntary quits for caregiving reasons. These exemptions may not extend to workers who are discharged (fired) for family caregiving related reasons, so employers may be more likely to contest such claims.
  • In most states, when workers are discharged for reasons not within their control, including caregiving responsibilities, they are generally eligible for UI benefits. UI rules appear to favor workers who are terminated from their jobs for reasons related to caregiving over those workers who voluntarily quit their jobs under similar circumstances. In addition, the compelling family circumstances provisions that some states implemented under UI Modernization also extend to discharges.
  • Parttime availability is only acceptable for workers with a recent history of part-time work in most states. While twenty states allow benefits for claimants showing part-time availability, rules only apply to people with a prior history of part-time work. Though some family caregivers could hold a part-time job while performing their caregiving duties, many would be disqualified from receiving benefits while seeking such work because of these rules.


  • Expand public education regarding family caregiving responsibilities and UI rules. States and family advocacy organizations should launch outreach campaigns to inform workers about their rights and responsibilities when they must leave work to care for a family member who is ill or has a disability.
  • Permit “voluntary quits” for compelling family circumstances. States should excuse workers who are compelled to voluntarily separate from their job for caregiving reasons from provisions that would otherwise disqualify them from being eligible to receive UI benefits.
  • Allow limits on availability for compelling family circumstances. States should allow individuals with compelling family circumstances to limit their availability to part-time work as long as they remain available for a minimum number of hours of work each week.
  • Change restrictive administrative agency interpretations. States should review and modify restrictive interpretations of existing statutory language and/or pursue regulatory or legislative action to encourage more favorable interpretations of UI rules. In some cases, narrow administrative interpretations of statutory language – such as the definition of care – restrict effective implementation of UI rules relating to family caregiving issues.

Reform excessively strict rules requiring claimants to explore alternatives to quitting their jobs. States should pursue regulatory or legislative changes to clarify the requirements for employees to make efforts to preserve employment, and these requirements should not apply where efforts would clearly be futile or unreasonable.


[i] National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP, “Caregiving in the U.S. 2009,” Bethesda, MD: NAC and Washington, DC: AARP, funded by the MetLife Foundation, (cited hereafter as NAC 2009 survey) (2009),

[ii] In most states, compelling family reasons and circumstances associated with voluntary separation from work include caring for oneself or an immediate family member who is ill, has a disability, or is a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, or an individual who moves because a spouse has relocated to another location for employment.

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Rick McHugh

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