Is It Okay To Take a Vacation While Collecting Unemployment?
Someone I know (I'll call him Luigi) recently got the shock of his life when he went on a much-needed vacation — and was rewarded with a letter from his state's Department of Labor (DOL) informing him his unemployment insurance account was frozen. This felt especially upsetting since he was taking his job hunt very seriously and aggressively looking for work.
He networked, sought out unlisted jobs, and even went on interviews for jobs that weren't exactly dream jobs. Still no job offer. The stress was really getting to him. So he decided a vacation would be good for replenishing mind, body and spirit (which also can help a person interview better).
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How did the DOL find out he was away?
Thinking he was doing the right thing, and not being aware he was technically filing a fraudulent claim, he faithfully checked in online the same as always. The one big difference was that his computer was now in a foreign country, and his state (New York) checks IP addresses (location of sender's computer) as part of their protocol to prevent fraud.
You see, you can't be available for work if you aren't actually there to interview or accept a job. And unemployment insurance is based on that. You promise to do your best to look and to be continuously available, and that entitles you to your weekly check. But Luigi didn't realize that. And so his check-in was a big red flag that told the DOL he was very unavailable.
So now there is no check until (we hope) things get worked out, and that's scary. His hard-learned lesson made me realize my readers might also want to know what happened — and what to do in case you are thinking of an out-of-town trip while collecting.
What you MUST do if you travel while on unemployment
The number one thing you must do (after you've reread your hard copy or online version of the UI claimant's handbook) is to call your local office BEFORE you go out of town. In some cases, you have some leeway about where/ how far you can travel and also how to check in.
For example in New York State, you can actually file via phone or online while in Canada. But still you should check with your local office for the exact rules in your state, since that could still trip you up. Here's more of what New York DOL wrote me when I asked for the rules in this state:
New York State DOL: Traveling while receiving Unemployment Insurance
Question: What if I leave the area?
Answer: If you leave your normal labor market to travel to another area, you must call the Telephone Claims Center before you leave. They will tell you whether your benefit rights can be protected while you are away. You could lose your benefits if you fail to advise the TCC before you leave. Also, when you travel to a foreign country (except Canada), you should not use our web or phone systems to claim benefits while you are in the foreign country.
If we learn that you received benefits while outside of the United States, we will issue an over-payment determination. That makes you liable to repay any benefits that you were not entitled to receive.You are in a foreign country when you go outside of the United States or a U.S. Territory (except Canada).
Claimants may file for UI benefits from Canada using our web or phone systems. However, if you plan to leave your normal labor market to travel to Canada, you still must call the Telephone Claims Center before you go.
A few more thoughts and warnings
Again, each state is different. So please take the time to find out what restrictions there may be on travel where you live — and which travel, if any, still permits you to claim your benefits. It's much harder to undo a bureaucratic action than to avoid it in the first place, if at all possible. And even if being unavailable means you can't get paid that week, at least by staying in touch you minimize your risk of having your benefits frozen completely, as in Luigi's case.
Of course, if you're going somewhere close enough to scoot back in time for an interview or job it might be ok. Or, you can always time your vacation to fit between reporting days. But even then, be aware that sometimes stuff happens. So my best advice, if you're at all concerned, is still to contact your local office just to be safe.