Thursday, May 17, 2007

This is a rewrite of a previous post. I'm about to ship it off to the Providence Journal.

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. She was one of the last ones hired, therefore she was among the first to be laid off when work slowed down. She was laid off often.

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 in the second floor office located on Pleasant Street in Northampton. I recall seeing young mothers with crying babies in their arms. This was in the 1950s, an era in which everyone smoked everywhere. The room was thick with the second hand haze of Camels, Pall Malls and Winstons. 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 and she was told to leave, walk around Northampton and find a fifth place at which she should ask for a job. She did this, she said. Then walked back to the unemployment office, went to the end of the line, and started that part of the process all over again.

Signing up 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 first hand what’s it’s like.

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 had been eliminated. Just about everyone I talked to, including people whose job it is to help people who have just lost their jobs, told me that getting benefits should be no problem.

“ Change in working conditions. “ Elimination of position. “ Lack of work. “ These were a few of the terms that were tossed around, all of them spoken to me with confidence – confidence that my filing for unemployment benefits would be a process that would end successfully.

That was back in March, a week or so after my last day of work. That was then. This is now.

Now I find myself in the midst of a Kafaesque process, much of it involving me ( Trying my best to ) communicate with the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training ( Note that the word " Unemployment " isn't in the name stenciled on the office door these days ). I’ve tried to communicate on line and by voice message. Yes, I've spoken to three human beings in the past two and a half months, but that is not the rule; it's the exception.

The process started auspiciously. I filed. I started receiving benefits. Then I got a letter from the Department of Labor and Training informing me that they had received information that might disqualify me from continuing to receive the benefits I’d been getting. There was no indication in the letter from whom or where that information had come from.

I had filed for benefits online. I had made calls once a week to a “ Teleserve “ line over which I spoke to a computer. After getting the letter informing me of my possible disqualification, I finally got a chance to speak to an “ adjudacator. “ I explained to this human being what had happened to me. Told her that I had been working 20 hours a week and that my position had been eliminated. She asked me if I was looking for work. I said yes. She asked me some more questions. I answered them. She thanked me and I thanked her. I thought this part of the process had gone well.


I got another letter from the Department of Labor and Training. They weren’t going to be giving me any more benefits. And they wanted the money they’d paid me sent back. They also said I could appeal, which I did. I wrote a letter. They scheduled a hearing.

The next step in the process was a hearing in Providence. I was given a time and date to attend. I expected my former employer to be there. Some people I talked with before the hearing told me: If they don’t show up, you’ll win the appeal. They didn’t show up. I lost the appeal.

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, the company that changed my working conditions, the company that lacked the work I had for nearly three years. I spoke with the Human Resources Director. Told her how surprised I was that no one from the company was there at the hearing on Westminster Street in Providence.

“ 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.

For decades now, I’ve given much weight to an old Woody Allen line: “ Ninety percent of life is showing up. “ I don’t believe that anymore.

I've been working since I was 18. I spent four years in the Air Force. I've had three careers. Never abused sick time. Never lied about being injured on the job and collected workman's compensation. I know this kind of thing happens. I’m not just talking about hearing about these things happening. I know. Just as most of the folks reading this know. It happens everywhere. Including right here in Rhode Island.

I've worked hard and I've played by the rules. Then a part-time job I had was erased. I found myself unemployed. Signed up. And am getting nothing but confused and frustrated. Am I whining? Nope. Am I saying it isn’t fair, but life isn’t fair? Yeah. But at the end of the day, that time of day when, when I was working - and feeling pretty good about that -

This is how I’m feeling. I’m feeling like I’m at the end of a very long line. There’s a human being on one end of it.

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, Rhode Island

1 comment:

Jennifer Warner Cooper said...

Great job on this, Terry.

The smoke. The circle. The long line with a human being on one end.

I'll look forward to reading it again in The Providence Journal. Let us know...