Unemployment Rules for Seasonal Workers

Not everyone fits the traditional, eight-to-five, year-round job scenario. Seasonal employees work for defined, often short periods of time during specific times of the year. This phenomenon is created by variations in certain industries that are affected by seasonal shifts in demand or weather-related impediments.

Seasonal unemployment is most commonly associated with the tourist and seasonal-recreation industries (ski resorts, amusement parks, etc.) as well as weather-related jobs (landscaping, construction, lifeguarding, etc.). The phenomenon can also apply to sporadic, but predictable employment areas like certain types of farming, working for a theatre company, or employment structured around an academic calendar (this one is special, we’ll cover it below).

Seasonal Unemployment Requirements

Seasonal unemployment can get a little complicated, because it is a subcategory of structural unemployment. In the latter, qualifying for unemployment is a matter of meeting two simple criteria factors: 1) being unemployed through no fault of your own and 2) meeting your state’s requirements for wages earned.


Seasonal unemployment is unique in that lack of work is caused by a trend that is predictable of a particular industry. This unique trend means that seasonal workers are not considered “unemployed” in the traditional sense and many states act on that view by denying seasonal workers unemployment benefits outright.

Since a seasonal worker technically has a job to return to, collecting unemployment benefits during their “break” is not something certain states are willing to fund. Unemployment benefits for seasonal workers are determined state by state, however states that do provide seasonal unemployment benefits do so on the basis of wages earned during the base period.

The base period is a one year period sectioned off into five quarters and most states require that applicants earn a minimum amount of wages during this time as a qualification for unemployment benefits.

Note that states that rely on a tourist-based economy are generally more generous to the seasonal worker.

Understanding Independent Contractors

The first thing you need to know about seasonal unemployment is whether or not your employer is required to provide you with benefits.

Independent contractors are defined by the U.S. Small Business Administration as self-employed individuals and as such, they hire seasonal and part-time workers, they don’t employ them. It is a one-word difference, but understand that only an employee can claim unemployment benefits.

Find out whether you are working for an independent contractor right off the bat, this will help you prepare better for a period of unemployment.

Weather Related Unemployment: What’s the Difference?

First thing’s first: do not confuse seasonal unemployment with a weather-related job disruption. While there are jobs that entail seasonal unemployment caused by weather (snow doesn’t make a beach very appealing), these should be viewed as seasons, therefore the layoffs are due to seasonal demands.

Weather-related unemployment only becomes valid when a weather-induced disruption causes loss in wages or outright unemployment. A lifeguard who goes home for the winter is not the same as a construction worker laid off for a few weeks because of snow. In this scenario, the construction worker would qualify for unemployment benefits, but not the lifeguard.

Seasonal and Tourism-Related Unemployment

True seasonal unemployment is not technically unemployment at all. Rather, it is a gap between work commitments. While most seasonal workers are not receiving a paycheck in between working seasons, states do not readily classify them as “unemployed” because they technically have a job pending. The reason collecting unemployment benefits has become difficult for such workers is that states do not want to be responsible for giving workers with a job a paid break.

States whose primary economy relies on the tourist industry however, have higher percentages of seasonal unemployment and in addition to unemployment benefits (or as an alternative), may provide other resources to ensure that their employees return to them during peak season.

Seasonal Unemployment Alternatives

Given recent changes in state unemployment laws, many seasonal workers find it hard to collect unemployment benefits; actually, only construction workers and agricultural workers seem to qualify for what was once a wider pool of unemployed seasonal workers. That being said, many employers are providing their workers with alternate benefits in hope that they will serve as incentive for their workers to return during peak season.

One of the arguments against providing seasonal unemployment benefits is that a seasonal worker is self-aware and knows that a period of unemployment is on the horizon. This is partly true, so if you’re a seasonal worker that does not qualify for unemployment benefits, below are some things you can look for to cushion lost wages.

Part-time Job Opportunities

Many seasonally operating companies are willing to employ their workers part-time in order to help them keep a source of income during off-season. As an employee, this will initially seem like a cut in wages, but given that collecting unemployment benefits may be out of the question, it is your company’s way of providing you with some semblance of income between peak seasons.

Employer-Aided Job Placement

Other companies are implementing post-season job placement programs to ensure that their employees have a job when the season ends. This aid may come in the form of networking or providing a great recommendation. This type of collaboration is also convenient because the process is cooperative; it takes competition away from the picture and ensures risk-free employment year-round.

Competitive Wages

Actors, musicians, performers, and athletes are a great example of seasonal workers armed with competitive wages. Good wages allow employees to save for that period of unemployment between peak seasons, ensuring that they will have enough to survive on and that being a seasonal worker will be a sustainable lifestyle.

Off-season Housing Benefits

Another great perk to look for, especially for employees in the tourist industry, are off-season housing benefits such as free or reduced rent. Many employees in this area may already receive such benefits during peak season, but many employers have started to extend it during off-season as a way to keep their seasonal employees. Since rent is an employees main monthly expense, providing off-season housing benefits has both reduced the need for employees to claim unemployment benefits (or seek work elsewhere) and increased the number of employees returning for the peak season.