Unemployment benefits, or unemployment insurance as it's also known, are meant to provide a minimum amount of financial protection for employees in certain situations. Unemployment insurance in Iowa is made available through Iowa Code Chapter 96. In Iowa Code 96.2, the Iowa Legislature stated that unemployment benefits serve a very specific purpose: "Economic insecurity due to unemployment is a serious menace to the health, morals, and welfare of the people of this state. Involuntary unemployment is therefore a subject of general interest and concern which requires appropriate action by the legislature to prevent its spread and to lighten its burden which now so often falls with crushing force upon the unemployed worker and the worker’s family. The achievement of social security requires protection against this greatest hazard of our economic life. . . . The legislature, therefore, declares that in its considered judgment the public good and the general welfare of the citizens of this state require the enactment of this measure, under the police powers of the state, for the compulsory setting aside of unemployment reserves to be used for the benefit of persons unemployed through no fault of their own."
You might find yourself applying for unemployment benefits under various circumstances. For example, you may be completely unemployed, have reduced hours, or be temporarily laid off. Regardless of how you end up in the unemployment benefits system, it's likely the only time that's happened to you, or it's something you've at most rarely gone through. Because of that it can be a bewildering process. We'll try to make it a little less confusing.
Iowa Code 96.4 sets forth numerous requirements for benefit eligibility. With the exception of persons who are deemed partially unemployed, unemployment applicants must prove that they are available to work, able to work, and earnestly and actively seeking work. Even if an applicant meets those eligibility requirements, Iowa Code 96.5 includes numerous ways that an otherwise eligible person can be disqualified from benefits. They include voluntarily quitting employment without good cause attributable to the employer, discharge for misconduct, and failure to accept suitable work. Iowa Workforce Development has issued agency rules that expand upon eligibility and disqualification issues.
You'll begin by filing for unemployment benefits with Iowa Workforce Development. Information from Iowa Workforce Development about beginning an unemployment benefits claim is available here. Your employer can choose to protest your benefits claim or not. Either way, there'll be a telephone factfinding interview during which a hearing officer will ask questions to determine your eligibility for unemployment benefits and whether you should be disqualified for any reason. You should submit any documents you have as evidence before the factfinding interview. You can then verbally add whatever other information is necessary while on the telephone with the hearing officer. Your employer will be able to do the same and submit documents if it protests your benefits and participates in the hearing. Within a few days or a week or so the hearing officer will issue a benefits determination based on the information presented before and during the factfinding interview. If you're found eligible for benefits you'll soon begin receiving them.
The party that loses that initial determination (you or the employer) has a right to appeal it. The appeal is to Iowa Workforce Development's Unemployment Insurance Appeal Bureau. Those appeals are heard by administrative law judges (ALJs). You can chose to have the hearing in person or by telephone. Go here for more information about filing a "first level" unemployment benefits appeal.
At the first level appeal, an ALJ hears the claim all over again, as if the initial factfinding interview and preliminary benefits decision never happened. Before the appeal hearing, you have to re-submit all the documents that you provided for the factfinding interview. You'll also have to repeat for the ALJ all the information you previously told the hearing officer during the initial factfinding interview. The ALJ hearing is basically conducted like a mini-trial of your unemployment benefits claim. There'll be witness testimony; you'll have a chance to question those witnesses. You can choose to have witnesses testify for your side of the case. Specific procedures for unemployment appeals are included in Iowa Workforce Development's administrative rules. After the appeal hearing the ALJ will enter a ruling either affirming or reversing the initial benefits decision that the hearing officer reached.
The loser of the ALJ appeal decision can appeal it to the Employment Appeal Board for a "second level" appeal. Iowa Workforce Development provides instructions for the second level appeal on its website. Using its agency rules, the Employment Appeal Board will consider the record made before the ALJ during the appeal hearing and decide whether the ALJ's appeal decision should be affirmed or reversed. The Employment Appeal Board's decision can then be appealed to state district court and then the Iowa Supreme Court. Any legal authority reviewing the ALJ's appeal decision is likely to review only the record made before the ALJ, not new evidence, and will very likely affirm the ALJ's decision. Consequently, it's extremely important to win at the ALJ stage.
First, employers have no say on whether an employee's allowed benefits. Employers can't "deny" unemployment benefits to an employee. That's something for Iowa Workforce Development to decide. Employers can only choose whether to contest an employee's benefits claim.
Second, read everything you receive from Iowa Workforce Development very carefully, especially any instructions, because you're expected to comply with all instructions and procedures and may lose your benefits claim if you don't. If you have any questions or concerns about the process, use the links I provided above to contact Iowa Workforce Development for more information. It's best not to wait before you're in the middle of a telephone factfinding interview or hearing to try to figure something out because you won't always have the chance to fix something that you should've done earlier.
Third, the ALJ hearing is extremely important. In fact, it's the most important stage of the entire unemployment benefits process. Employees have the right to appeal if they lose on an ALJ appeal decision, but they're almost always limited on appeal to arguing the evidence they presented to the ALJ during the appeal hearing, including documents and witnesses. ALJ decisions are rarely overturned on appeal. That means you need to get the ALJ appeal hearing right and not leave out any potential documentary evidence or testimony, either from yourself or from third-party witnesses, because if you lose the ALJ appeal you'll likely keep losing. If you lose because you were lacking in evidence, it'll be very unlikely that you'll get to go back before the ALJ and have a do-over.
Employees seeking unemployment benefits have the right to be represented by a lawyer during the process. Employees sometimes choose the wrong time to do that though. The right time to bring in a lawyer is for the ALJ appeal hearing to ensure that you get your presentation right, keeping in mind that, if you lose, any appeals of the ALJ appeal decision will very likely be limited to the evidence that was presented during the hearing. Quite honestly, if you lose before the ALJ it's almost too late to decide to hire a lawyer to handle further appeals because a lawyer's best chance to help you is during the ALJ appeal hearing.
When our Des Moines employment law firm is contacted by someone about an unemployment benefits claim, we sometimes identify other employment law issues that they may have with the employer. As part of our work on unemployment benefits matters, we have also identified for clients claims involving:
We do this analysis with every unemployment benefits claim we work on to ensure that our clients' rights are fully protected.
If you'd like our Des Moines law firm to assist with your unemployment benefits claim, or if you're curious as to whether there might be another type of employment law claim available to you, please don't hesitate to reach out to us through the Web Contact Form by using the "Contact Us" button or by calling (515) 281-1460. We make every effort to provide a same-day response to all communications received during weekday business hours. Initial telephone calls are always free. If it looks like we can help, it'll be our pleasure to meet with you, learn more about your situation, and lend you a hand.
Erbe Law Firm
2501 Grand Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa 50312
Erbe Law Firm has proudly served clients throughout Iowa since 2005 from our Des Moines offices. We look forward to hearing from you to see whether we can do the same for you.
Harley C. Erbe