Hours cut at work? Unemployment benefits may be available

Unemployment form
Most people seeking unemployment benefits visit the state's Web site to apply.
Image courtesy of the state of Minnesota

Karin Patrick of Roseville works for a small non-profit agency and it's not doing well. Patrick's hours were cut from five days a week to three. A colleague, however, was laid off.

So, Patrick decided to see what the state could offer her if she eventually gets laid off too. What she found was that she didn't have to wait, she could apply for benefits right now.

"That was a big surprise," she said. "I'd never heard that."

Lee Nelson of the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development - or DEED - said placards in workplaces describing unemployment benefits clearly say that you can get state help if your hours are reduced.

"I don't think in anyway it's hidden from people. You won't find it on a billboard anywhere," he said.

But Nelson, legal counsel for DEED, concedes that people whose hours are cut may not be aware they are in line for benefits. After all, national studies show that nearly a third of those who lose a job don't apply.

So how many people are seeing their hours cut, and could also be eligible for benefits? State officials say a number is not easy to come by.

But here's one indicator: The National Bureau of Labor Statistics said the number of people that people who want a full-time job but are only working part-time rose 70 percent in the last year to nearly 9 million people.

An employer has basically said you have to take unpaid time off. That's a layoff. Whether it be for a week or a day, it's a layoff.

Karin Patrick knows that she's not alone in getting her hours cut back.

"I know a lot of employers are trying to avoid layoffs by reducing salaries, reducing hours, having people work fewer hours," she said.

In fact, Patrick's daughter had her work hours cut from 32 to 20 per week. She could lose her position entirely later this month.

Through her daughter's experience, Patrick received a more sobering surprise about unemployment benefits.

Her daughter's hours were cut last November. And she hasn't applied for unemployment. And that will cost her. The base benefit amount is calculated on income earned during the first four of the last five calendar quarters.

If she were to file now, one of those calendar quarters is part-time work, is only 20 hours a week instead of the 32 hours a week she had been working. So her base amount is much lower than had she known that and been able to file right away.

So it's imperative to file as soon as hours are cut. And DEED's Lee Nelson said that applies to any reduction of work time -- from those who are furloughed, to people who are taking unpaid time off.

"I mean, it's a layoff. Layoffs can be seasonal, they can be temporary," Nelson said. "An employer has basically said you have to take unpaid time off. That's a layoff. Whether it be for a week or a day, it's a layoff."

Whether you get any benefits is another matter. You still have to meet eligibility requirements. Nelson said the rules are so complicated, you won't know unless you apply.

Meanwhile, Karin Patrick said her daughter's employer is now considering keeping her on longer as a part-timer. Patrick herself also remains working as a part-time employee, not knowing what the future holds.

But one thing is certain: even though she still has a job, she's applying for unemployment benefits.