A Week in the Life of an Unemployment Insurance Claimant

I had procrastinated applying for unemployment benefits, feeling that other people needed this more than I did.   But I do have financial obligations, and I have paid into the system, so it makes sense to accept support when it’s there.  Here’s a look into the process:

Friday:  It was a relief to be directed to an automated system when I dialed the Department of Labor phone number.  I had studied the website instructions, and I had collected the required information, from driver’s license to bank routing number, but I was dreading the process.  A recorded male voice asked me questions, and I typed in 1 for yes, 3 for no, and various personal numbers as instructed.  This impersonal start helped make the application easier for me psychologically.

After the recorded questions and a lengthy period on hold (with “dentist office” music), I was connected to a live person.  She checked and confirmed more information than I had just entered, so it was obvious that I was properly in the system.  It’s interesting to think about how much of our personal information strangers handle, whether it’s in government offices, health services, or schools.  On the one hand we value and protect our privacy, but in all these areas of our lives, the details are laid open and we are potentially vulnerable.  I hope that these clerks and counselors, like doctors and nurses, have seen it all and are not surprised by our individual info-nakedness.

During this call I was inducted in as a “claimant”, instructed on the next steps, and reminded of the importance of reading the handbook they would send me.  Especially important is paying attention to and following all the rules and regulations.  My benefit would be $425 per week (which I later found out is the maximum allowed.)  I was told that my previous employer would be notified, and that there would be a phone “hearing” scheduled.  It was emphasized that I should watch for an assigned appointment for this, as my participation was important.  I was informed that I must make three “job contacts” each week in order to continue the benefits.  I took notes, and although somewhat embarrassed, felt relieved that I had taken the step.

On the one hand, this is a logical and well-organized system, supporting people in difficult times, offering multiple resources, and setting up clear expectations. On the other hand the process is daunting.  There is so much information and multiple steps, and when you combine the stress and anxiety of unemployment with difficulties of transportation, computer access, and education, I wonder how many people have real trouble accessing the support they are entitled to.

Sunday:  One of the weekly tasks of a claimant is to register activities from the previous week.  This can be done from Sunday at midnight to Friday at 4:30.  I opened my online claim for the first time, and answered the required eight questions, which included:  have you looked for work, have you refused work, have you quit work, been fired, etc.  Along with this you have to show that you have made three “job contacts”, which my Friday person had said means applying to three jobs. They don’t require you to take jobs you are not qualified for, and at first they allow you to look for work in your most recent salary range. Depending on your profession, finding three jobs to apply for each week can be difficult.  Luckily, this was a week when I did have the three, so I quickly filled in my forms.

Monday:  I received three official Dept of Labor (DoL) notices in the mail, very official looking, like checks where you have to fold and tear off the perforated sides of the document to open it.  One document told me to register my previous week’s job search between Sunday and Friday at 4:30.  (Done.)  Another reported my previous year’s income, as submitted by my employer.  (No action needed if accurate.)  The third required me to register for their online job support (“JobLink” ) within five days, under threat of lost benefits.

I registered right away.  This was another account to open, and more personal information required so it can be cross-referenced with the unemployment claims. There was online information for those of us without the handbook.  It was somewhat helpful, although there was not much for me, and at least one posting was seriously outdated.  The jobs on the site were mainly the same I’d been finding elsewhere, but there were a few new leads.  I diligently continued my job search over the next few days, including a new application.

Wednesday:  The Handbook arrived, a nicely printed booklet with everything clearly articulated in black and white, with the most important expectations emphasized.  (You MUST call if you… change address, etc, etc.).  I was a little concerned about the “job contacts” requirement.  The handbook doesn’t actually say you have to apply to jobs, although that’s what I was told on Friday, and the “contact” can vary by type of employment.  For example, certain professionals can send a resume and call it a contact, while other positions require face-to-face contact.  Be careful, because phone contact does not count.  (You have to watch the rules!)

I do have some job contacts this week, but one is a follow up from the previous week, another is setting up a meeting from a previous contact, and a third is some paperwork for a part-time job.  The rules say you have to have new job contacts.  But wouldn’t any contact that moves you closer to a job, such as an invitation to an interview, count?  The answer wasn’t clear.

Thursday:  This was a day of frustrations.  I called the Claims Center, and after listening to more lousy music  while on hold, was helped by a person (agent?  counselor?  case manager? customer service associate?)  I asked the question about contacts, and she said, “That’s a good question. Let me ask my supervisor.”  (I wondered, had no one ever asked this before?)  The answer came back – no, a follow up or interview does not count as one of the three weekly contacts.  You can count a contact about the same job as a new contact only after five weeks have passed.  However, if you apply for a different job at a company, that can count as a new contact.  So you can apply for three jobs at a company and meet the weekly quota, but if you apply for one and actually moves to the next level with an interview, that doesn’t count.  Alternatively, if you are working part-time for a company, you can count that as one of your weekly contacts.  This seemed illogical to me and was frustrating.  So, I can receive benefits by making superficial applications, but I get no credit for serious follow-up and time spent getting closer to a specific position.  I’m not in a position to fight the system, so I put in an application for another job at a company I had already contacted even though I was not very interested in it.

Adding to Thursday’s frustration – another official notice arrived, with the reminder to input the current week’s “job contacts” by the following Friday at 4:30.  However, it also had a printed message at the bottom saying:  “There is an unresolved issue on your claim.  As soon as we resolve this issue you will be notified.”  There was no mention of what the issue is, or when or how it will be resolved.  There was also no suggestion of any action I can take or any way to get information about it; there’s nothing I can do.  This is like poking at a caged animal, to see whether it will growl or cower.  If you’re going to resolve a normal issue as part of the standard timeline, do I need to know about it?  If you tell me there’s a problem, you have an obligation to give me details, good or bad.

Looking for work is demanding emotionally and intellectually, and when a government agency adds extra hoops to jump through and then lights those hoops on fire, it gets even harder.

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