Generally speaking, when an employee voluntarily resigns, he becomes ineligible for unemployment benefits. Under the Unemployment Compensation Act, only employees who lose their job due through no fault of their own are eligible for benefits. This concept is critical to remember, because the federal statute provides a baseline for Washington’s unemployment benefits program (RCW 50.20.050).

Washington Law

Currently, Washington provides that an employee with “good cause" to leave his employ is not disqualified for benefits even though he voluntarily quits. The term “good cause" has taken on several meanings throughout the years, but has finally settled on an exclusive list of categories, as follows:

  1. To accept bona fide job offer
  2. Illness or disability of employee or immediate family
  3. Employer-initiated layoffs or reductions in force.
  4. Mandatory military transfer of spouse
  5. Domestic violence and stalking
  6. Reduction in compensation of twenty-five percent or more
  7. Reduction in hours of twenty-five percent or more
  8. Change in worksite location
  9. Worksite safety
  10. Illegal activities at the worksite
  11. Change in usual work that violates religious or sincere moral belief
  12. Entering approved apprenticeship training
  13. Quitting part-time work

See W.A.C. §§ 192-150-050 et seq.

Let’s focus on the categories that get the most use today.

Approved Apprenticeship Training

RULE: This section applies only if you quit work to enter into related/supplemental (classroom) instruction that is part of an apprenticeship program. The program must be approved by the WSATC or a person or entity authorized by the WSATC. Programs available here: http://www.lni.wa.gov/tradeslicensing/apprenticeship/programs/

WHEN AVAILABLE: There are a few procedural elements to keep in mind here. First, be careful entering apprenticeship programs with other employers under which you will receive compensation. There are different standards for these programs. Second, ensure that you are accepted into the program with a confirmed start date before quitting. Third, you need to continue your employment for a reasonable amount of time before quitting to start the program. Benefits do not start until 1 week before your program, so keep this in mind when deciding when to quit.

Changes in Usual Work that Violates Sincere Religious/Moral Belief

RULE: The idea here is that you wouldn’t take a job that violated your religious or moral beliefs. However, if circumstances change as a result of your employer’s actions, and the work directly involves an action that violates your sincere religious moral beliefs (not just mere disapproval of the employer’s method of business), then you have good cause. You also must notify your employer about the violation (unless doing so would be futile).

WHEN AVAILABLE: Here’s an example of how this plays out in a real case. An employee has a sincere moral belief in peace - i.e., that no country should be at war. His employer makes widgets for light machinery, and suddenly is granted a contract with the Army to build tanks, which will be sent to war. In that situation, the employee would have good cause for resigning.

Illegal Activities at the Worksite

RULE: This section applies to both civil and criminal illegal actions of the employer. For example, if the employer failed to properly report earnings pursuant to SEC rules, improperly handled personally identifiable information of customers, or simply committed a criminal act, such as bribing a foreign official. The most frequent application of this rule is with regard to sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and discriminatory practices of the employer.

WHEN AVAILABLE: You must notify your employer if reasonable and will not jeopardize your safety.

Illness or Disability of Employee or Immediate Family

RULE:This section is used the most frequently in Washington. Domestic partners qualify as “immediate family" as do in-laws and any relative that temporarily resides with you. The illness or disability must necessitate your quitting work. In other words, the conditions are of such degree or severity in relation to your particular circumstances that they would cause a reasonably prudent person acting under similar circumstances to quit work. Although “illness" is not clearly defined, a disability must be (i) a sensory, mental, or physical condition, (ii) medically recognizable, (iii) diagnosed and recorded by a doctor, and (iv) a substantial limitation on proper job performance.

WHEN AVAILABLE: Application of this section does depend a lot on your job duties. For example, a forklift operator has more access to this section than a clerical worker because of how much an illness or disability can affect manual labor positions. You must also notify your employer and demonstrate that you have exhausted all reasonable alternatives prior to leaving work.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to remember that your employer has a vested interest in fighting you on unemployment benefits, because the more benefits paid by an employer means the higher rates paid by the employer into the general fund. Approximately ¼ of benefit claims arising out of voluntary resignation result in an award of benefits. More information is available through the Washington Employment Security Department ( www.esd.wa.gov). Consult with an attorney if you have a close case or are otherwise unsure how to proceed with appealing denial of your claim.