My First trip to the Unemployment Office!
I was recently laid off. Don’t worry, I knew it was going to happen, I came in with the new president and expected to be out when he retired. Since I was 16, I worked for wages. My first jobs were in the mall (high “cool” status, low pay) and McDonald’s (low “cool” status, low pay, high grease level). This is my first time on unemployment, but I have been paying into unemployment for 25 years. Now that I am laid off, my unemployment insurance kicks in. Theoretically, I have earned this benefit after 25 years of paying into it.
But it doesn’t feel that way. Instead, I need to prove that I am doing everything I can to NOT be on unemployment while simultaneously swearing that I haven’t done even one hour of paid labor.
Think of it this way – many of us pay $100’s of dollars every month for health insurance. Now, what if we get really sick and in order to get our medical bills paid, we needed to check in each week and swear that we were doing everything we could to not be sick anymore. I can see the questions: Do you swear that it’s not your fault that you are still sick? Do you swear that you have tried to get well this week? Do you swear that you have not felt well even one day this week?
Unemployment has changed over the years and especially since the beginning of the great recession of 2008. Some of you may remember the long lines snaking out of the unemployment offices. So it is better now, I suppose. We can check in on line and we can set up direct deposit. But as it is for services for the poor, unemployment still feels like some kind of stigimitzed “charity” that we should be ashamed to be have to use it. Which is really ridiculous since we have been paying into for all of our working lives!
Millions of Americans have relied on unemployment recently due to the great recession. Congress has extended it from 26 weeks, but not this year. Millions have fallen off unemployment but remain jobless. In NY unemployment is capped at $405 a week. It is a bare safety net, not a way to get rich.
Recently, I received a letter that said I had to go to a meeting at the Department of Labor as a requirement of receiving my benefits. I arrived at the worn and grey building, checked in with the policeman at the front and gave my appointment letter and resume to the woman at the front desk. She gave me a form to fill out, at the top of the form the woman put the time I arrived, and circled the words, “1st appt”. There were other words at the top: 2nd appt, rescheduled & 3rd appointment suspension.
After receiving my new form, I was directed to the next floor. There I waited in a designated waiting area. As I arrived there were a couple people also waiting and I watched more walk in and sit down in random areas. No one looked at each other, no one made eye contact, we all shifted in our seats looking uncomfortable. Then were called up and a group of us all went into a small conference room.
Once inside, the quiet and isolation continued. We all chose seats with several seats between each of us. None of us wanted to sit together. No one spoke. Then our “re-employment officer” entered.
She made a point of letting us know that this is re-employment not the unemployment office. If we had questions about our UI benefits, she couldn’t help us. She is supposed to help us get re-employed she says. And she was a nice person, polite, courteous and she shared her own experiences of being on UI. BUT she wasn’t REALLY there to help us get jobs, she was there to police us, give us our weekly forms where we have to write all our job finding activities and let us know about our next requirements.
Her speech included an acknowledgement of the “new normal.” She spoke about how it used to be that people came off unemployment after a few weeks, but now people stay for the full 26 weeks and leave the rolls without finding work. She also mentioned that waits at the “re-employment” office were long because a lot of her fellow co-workers had also been laid off! This does not create confidence, I can tell you!
Who were we? Well, she met with each of us, in front of each other, so I got to hear some of the stories. One was a 60 year old Filipina RN, who used to work at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn that just got closed. Our re-employment officer said, “I gave birth to all my children at that hospital.” Another was a young white woman in the “fashion industry,” another an older white man in IT, another a young Black man in security.
I will have to report back with my forms showing all the effort I made to find work in 6 more weeks. Next time, I think I will try and talk to my fellow unemployed, I will let you know how it goes.