‘Am I Unemployed If I’ve Never Had a Job?’ Here's What to Know Before Filing For Unemployment

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Kayla Heisler
Kayla Heisler1.16k

Congratulations! You’ve graduated school and are ready to take your first official plunge into adulthood: It’s time to apply for your first job. You’re rolling through your application until you reach a question that you aren’t sure about: are you currently unemployed? 

You aren’t technically employed — that’s why you’re applying for a job — but does the word “unemployed” describe your status? After all, if you’re unemployed, does that mean that you qualify for unemployment benefits? Who determines what is considered to be employed and who isn’t? Let’s move away from the question spiral and dig up for concrete answers.

What are the basic concepts of employment and unemployment?

The literal definitions of “employment” and “unemployment” are pretty straightforward: Employment is the condition of having work where you’re paid, and unemployment is the state of not having a paid job but being available to work. 

The United States Department of Labor, the federal department that administers labor laws that protect workers’ rights. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is the unit of the DOL that finds compiles facts and figures related to labor economics. Their definition is slightly more precise than those found in most dictionaries: “People are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work.” They also define unemployment as pertaining to those who don’t have a job but have searched for a job in the past month and are both willing and able to hold employment. People are considered to be employed if they perform work for which they are paid. 

How do we measure unemployment?

One way that the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of how many people are unemployed is by conducting the Current Population Survey each month in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau. The surveys were first administered in 1940 but have undergone many renovations since then. The Current Population Survey questionnaire is now completely digital, and field representatives conduct interviews over the phone. Those eligible must be 15 years old or older and not currently serving in any branch of the Armed Forces or in institutions such as prisons or care facilities.

Approximately 60,000 households from all states and Washington, D.C. are surveyed for 4 successive months, not surveyed for 8 months, then surveyed for 4 additional successive months to warrant a significant continuity while still varying respondents.

The unemployed population and the total employed population make up the labor force. Those not included in the labor force include those who are jobless but are not seeking employment, such as people who are enrolled in school full time, manage the home or are retired. The unemployment rate is calculated by dividing the total number of unemployed people by the total number of the labor force.

Can you get unemployment benefits if you've never had a job?

Unemployment benefits, or Unemployment Insurance, is a program funded by the federal and state government to temporarily assist unemployed workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Although the definition for unemployed can include those who have not had a job, that does not mean that such individuals would qualify for unemployment benefits. The sum of money that is distributed to individuals is determined based on a percentage of their earnings in a previous time frame that varies from state to state, so someone would have had to earned money previously before they could be considered. 

To qualify for unemployment benefits, a person must prove that they were terminated through no fault of their own. This means that people who voluntarily leave a position or are fired for gross misconduct are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits, but specific requirements vary from state to state. Those who have never held a job before are considered to be jobless, but are not technically unemployed.

Who is counted as employed?

The Current Population Survey considers individuals to be employed if they have done any work for pay or profit during the survey reference week, including part-time or temporary work. People are still considered to be employed if they have a job but did not work during the survey week because of a reported amount of time off when they expect to work again. These reasons include healing from an illness, taking maternity leave, or being away on vacation. 

There’s another small group who comprises the employed but do not earn wages who are known as unpaid family workers. Unpaid family workers are people who work 15 hours or more at a business owned by family members who they live with. For example, if a woman owns a flower shop and her husband maintains the household during the week but manages the shop on weekends, he would be considered an unpaid family worker because has a job and is not seeking another one though he does not receive an actual wage.

Who is counted as unemployed?

People who have searched for work in the previous month but not procured employment are considered to be unemployed, so not everyone who doesn’t have a job is considered unemployed. Those who work fewer than 15 hours each week and looking for additional employment are also counted as unemployed. 

Additionally, only people under the age of 16, those living in care facilities or prisons, and those not actively searching for work are not considered unemployed. Actively searching for a job includes performing activities such as attending job interviews, submitting job applications, answering job advertisements or contacting an employment agency.

If you believe that you may qualify for unemployment benefits, it doesn’t hurt to apply for them. As long as you're honest on your application, you have nothing to lose. Losing your job can be a major challenge, so receiving financial assistance could help give you the boost you need to better focus on finding you ideal job and putting together a compelling application.

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About the Career Expert:

Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, and her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.