Thursday, May 24, 2007

Here's a rework of a previous post. It's what I just shipped off to the Providence Journal's editorial page editor. Congressman. Op-ed piece in a major newspaper. Couple of straws to stir this drink.

If You Are Frustrated and Confused by This ( Filing for unemployment benefits ) Process – Press Seven

By Terrence McCarthy

When I was a kid my mother worked in a mill: United Elastic Products. She was one of the last ones hired, so she was among the first to be laid off when work slowed down.

I can remember going with her to the unemployment office in Northampton, which is the town just north of where she worked and we lived. That was Easthampton, Massachusetts, also known as " Web Town. " The web being the product, the elastic material produced in the red brick mills that lined the Manhan River.

" Signing up. " That’s what my mother called filing for unemployment benefits. Lining up was more like it. I remember the lines were long. I recall seeing young mothers with crying babies in their arms. This was in the 1950s, an era in which nearly everyone smoked. The room was thick with second hand haze. It was a line in which we waited, but my recollection of the experience I shared with my mother conjures another image: A circle. Drawn by a guy named Dante.

Waiting in line was bad, but “ signing up “ was worse. Once my mother got to talk to one of the unemployment office clerks, she was asked to name five places where she had tried to get a job during the past week. I was talking to her the other day about this. I asked her what it was like back then to apply for benefits. She said she recalled one time when she gave the clerk the names of only four places, she was told to leave, walk around Northampton and find a fifth place at which she should ask for a job. She did this. Then walked back to the unemployment office, went to the end of the line, and started the process all over again.

Signing up then was a dehumanizing process, to say the least. These days, the process is far removed from the way it was back in the 1950s. But it's still dehumanizing. Take it from someone who knows.

Back in January, on the last day of my vacation, I got a call from the supervisor of the psychiatric group home where I’d worked part-time since 2004. She told me that my position was going to be eliminated. Just about everyone I talked to, including people whose job it is to help Rhode Islanders who have just lost their jobs, told me that I should have no problem getting benefits.

As I write this, it has been three months since I last worked at the group home in North Kingstown. I now find myself in the midst of a Kafaesque process, much of it involving me( Trying ) to communicate with the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. I’ve tried to communicate on line and by phone. Yes, I've spoken to a few human beings in the past two and a half months, but that is not the rule; it's the exception. And the " conversations " have been curt and unfriendly.

At first things went well. I started receiving benefits. I got them for a few weeks, then I got a letter telling me that “ We have received information “ that might disqualify you. The letter did not indicate what that information was, nor from whom it came. I spoke with an “ adjudacator. She determined that I was not “ able and available “ to work. I appealed her decision. A hearing was scheduled in Providence. And oh, by the way. I was informed that I must pay back the more than $800 I'd received in benefits.

I went to the hearing. I expected someone representing my former employer would be there. I’d heard from someone, I can’t remember who ( I’ve spoken to what seems like scores of people) that if “ they “ don’t show up, you win by default.

For decades I’ve believed that Woody Allen was right when he said, “ Ninety percent of life is showing up. “

I showed up. They didn’t. I lost the appeal.

I take whatever Woody Allen is saying these days a lot less seriously.

A few days after I got the letter notifying me that I’d lost, I called my former employer, the company that eliminated my position. I spoke with the Human Resources Director. Told her about how surprised I was that no one from the company was there at the hearing on Westminster Street in Providence. I also asked her for a copy of some paperwork I needed.

“ Who would have been there? “ I asked. “ Who goes to these things? “

“ Oh, “ she said. “ That would be me. “

I asked her why she wasn’t there. She said she was never informed that a hearing had been scheduled. And she hasn't gotten back to me concerning the paperwork I requested.

The latest in a series of maddening experiences happened a few days ago. The referee, at the end of the appeal hearing, said I should refile for benefits. I did that. Was placed on hold for an hour. I finally got to speak with someone. Then I was disconnected. I called NetWORK Ri, an organization that is supposed to help Rhode Islanders cut their way through the thick, bureaucratic underbrush in which I have become tangled. The person with whom I spoke said I shouldn’t be calling anyone to refile.

“You have to do that in person, “ he said. “ Drive up to Cranston. “

I drove up to Cranston. Walked into the DLT office. Mosied on up to the information desk. Said, “ I’m here to refile for unemployment benefits. “

The guy looked up at me and said, “ Ya can’t do that here. We don’t take walk-ins. Ya have to do that by phone. “

I've been working since I was 18. I spent four years in the Air Force. I've had three careers. Journalism, Advertising and Mental Health. Never abused sick time. Worked hard for the money. Now I’m asking for benefits, and being denied for reasons I can’t understand.

Am I whining? Nope. Am I saying it isn’t fair, but life isn’t fair? Yeah. But at the end of the day, as far as my relationship with the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training is concerned - I have to say this:

I’m feeling like I’m at the end of a very long line. There’s a human being on one end. Who or what’s on the other end? Your guess is as good as mine.

Terrence McCarthy is a writer who lives in South Kingstown


Terry said...

OhMyGod, another son of a millworker. Consider being Hillary's running mate as a hedge against John Edwards.

Nice piece, all kidding aside.

Terrence said...

Thanks, Terry. And re being Hillary's running mate - You've had better ideas!