“Insulted, overworked, and benefits taken away– can I get unemployment?”

Question: The owner of the company I work for over the past 3 years has started to insult my intelligence verbally. And he has added literally 5 peoples’ jobs (from people he has fired) at a savings to him of about $300,000. He has put their responsibilities on me, without a raise in pay. Of course, I still have my other full-time responsibilities. 

When I was hired I had health benefits offered by the company which the company stopped paying benefits for, and all employees found out only by a letter from our former insurance company. 

I have never quit a job before and have a solid 12-year resume with no holes as far as history goes. How can I transition out quickly, and collect unemployment benefits? 


Oakland, California

Answer: Dear Michael: Your situation is a common one these days. People often find themselves “between a rock and a hard place,” that is, (a) their working conditions are intolerable, but (b) they need income, and they are afraid that leaving their jobs will result in their being denied unemployment benefits. What can be done? As always, you are best served by both (a) knowing the “rules,” and (b) “working within the rules.” Here are my thoughts: 

1. You probably are aware of the “general rule”: You are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits if you “voluntarily” resign from a job. Almost all states in the U.S., and all other countries, too, follow this general rule. Thus, unemployment benefits are reserved for people who have lost their jobs, due to no fault of their own, and not available to those who simply do not want to work, or find it inconvenient to do so. Note, though, the use of the word  “voluntarily,” because it is the operative word in this discussion. The fact is that many people resign and leave their jobs “involuntarily,” and many of them qualify and receive unemployment benefits.   

2. The exception to this “general rule” is this: If you were treated so badly that you really had no choice but to “involuntarily” resign, then you are generally considered eligible to receive unemployment benefits. That word “voluntarily” is the key to someone in your circumstances receiving unemployment benefits. If, for example, an employee was being so severely sexually harassed that he or she reasonably believed that a rape was imminent, then that would quite certainly make that employee eligible to receive unemployment benefits, even if he or she resigned. Likewise, if an employer required an employee to engage in illegal conduct, such as stealing money from customers, that too would probably make the employee eligible to receive unemployment benefits, even if he or she had resigned. The question is this: are the facts, events and circumstances of your treatment so compelling to justify your leaving your job, even if it is, at least technically, still available to you?  

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3. California State law has two requirements before a resigning employee is deemed eligible for unemployment benefits: (a) only if there was “good cause” for his or her resigning AND (b) also, if the employee made all reasonable attempts to solve the “good cause” problem. “Good cause” for leaving is defined in California law as “when a substantial motivating factor in causing the [employee] to leave work  . . .  is real, substantial and compelling and would cause a reasonable person genuinely desirous of retaining employment to leave work under the same circumstances.” In addition, the leaving employee must also try to resolve or ameliorate the “good cause” problem, and be prepared to show he or she did so. As you might imagine, the facts, events and circumstances of each person’s situation are unique, and must be explored. Just one fact – such as a threat of violence or an unwanted touching of the body – can make the difference.  

4. To be considered “good cause” for leaving in California, the reason for leaving must be “compelling to a reasonable person.” Compelling means that the employee’s reasons for quitting exerted so much pressure that it would have been unreasonable to expect him or her to remain with the employment. The “pressures” exerted upon the person may be (a) physical (as with health), (b) moral, (c) legal, (d) domestic, (e) economic, or otherwise. The question is this: “Would that reason cause a reasonable person, who was genuinely desirous of working, to leave work under the same circumstances?” This is what us lawyers refer to as a “reasonable person” standard.         

Incidentally, an employee can have more than one “compelling reason” to leave a job. 

5. Are your reason(s) for wanting to leave “compelling to a reasonable person?” Frankly, from your brief description of your situation I really can’t tell if your reasons are “compelling to a reasonable person.” If you were a client of mine, these are some of the questions I would ask you before I counseled you as to which path to follow:  

(i) Are the verbal insults to your intelligence: (a) causing you ulcers? (b) making you afraid for your safety? (c) perhaps so often and humiliating that you are becoming seriously depressed? (d) being made in the presence of your clients, colleagues or even family?  

(ii) Are the number of hours you are being forced to work: (a) an extra two hours a week? (b) an extra 20 hours a week? (c) an extra 50 hours a week? (d) seven days a week?  

(iii) Was the loss of health insurance benefits (a) retroactive? (b) the cause of your not being able to get medical care or medications without notice? (c) in violation of any agreement or law? (d) harmful to your children? (e) make it impossible to treat a current illness? 

(iv) Have other employees left their jobs for the same compelling reason(s)?

(v) Are there any other reasons you feel you must leave, including matters of (a) ethics, (b) emotional problems, (c) medical reasons, (d) family problems, (e) immorality, or (f) violations of law? 

For many people, it’s a great idea to ask your former employer not to oppose your Unemployment Benefits applications, and to give them great reasons why not to do that. Use our “Model Letter Requesting Employer’s Assurance Not to Contest Your Unemployment Application” with Ten Great Reasons. “What to Say, How to Say It.”™ To get your copy, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

6. Also, notice that California law provides that you must be able to show that you tried to solve or ameliorate the “compelling reason” to leave. In my experience, California is unusual in its requirement that the departing employee must not only have “good cause” to leave, but also must have tried to solve, get around, or in some way address the problem(s) he or she faced. Thus, it would be smart of you to send one or more emails to your employer (a) explaining the problems you face in how you are being treated, and (b) requesting a cessation or lessening of that problem. If he or she does not respond, or responds in anger, or fires you for making the respectful request, that could only help you in gaining unemployment benefits.   

7. Consider the potentially great value to you of our concept of “Involuntary Resignation.” We have invented and championed the concept of “involuntary resignation,” which is just what you may need to satisfy the requirement of the California law on eligibility for unemployment benefits. The concept is this: when you resign, make sure it is (a) in writing, (b) by email, and shows both (c) your “compelling reason” for leaving, and (d) your unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem. This may help you in two distinct ways: First, (i) it may convince your employer that your reasons for leaving are such that he or she would rather not contest your application for unemployment. Second, (ii) if your application for unemployment is either questioned by unemployment officials, or contested by your employer, you have a neat “package of evidence” supporting you with just what you need to prevail. 

For great info and insight, consider viewing our 12-minute Sklover-On-Demand Video entitled “Involuntary Resignation: Standing Up, Not Giving Up, When You Resign.” To do so, just [click here.]  

8. We also offer an “Involuntary Resignation” Model Letter you can obtain and use to adapt to your own facts, events and circumstances. On the “Model Letters” section of our blogsite, we offer a Model Letter you can use for just this purpose, although because you are in California, you may want to supplement it with your unsuccessful efforts to address your “compelling reason” to leave. To obtain a copy, just [click here.] It is one of our most popular Model Letters.  

Michael, there is no doubt that you are in a difficult situation. If it is so difficult to live with that you have written to me, my guess is that there are more facts, events and circumstances that you have not shared that could quite easily constitute “compelling reason to a reasonable person to leave.” While there is no guarantee that an “Involuntary Resignation” will gain you eligibility for unemployment benefits, there is one guarantee you can count on: it can only help. And helping you is what I sincerely hope I have done in this answer.

My best to you,
Al Sklover

P.S. One of our most popular “Ultimate Packages” of forms, letters and checklists is entitled “Ultimate Resignation Package” consisting of two Model Resignation Letters, a Model Involuntary Resignation Letter, a Memo to HR Pre-Exit Interview, and our 100-Point Pre-Resignation Checklist. To obtain a complete set, just [click here.] 

© 2012 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.