The Unemployment Survival Guide
Collecting your benefits can be an uphill battle. But it shouldn't be an unwinnable war
November 12, 2009
When I first arrived on the scene, my name was added to the bottom of a list about four pages long. There were at least 40 people waiting ahead of me. Between rotating shifts of reading my copy of The New Yorker, posting my frustrated thoughts to Twitter and playing solitaire on my phone, I looked up to watch how she handled person after person who came to speak with her. The same tone of voice, same bewildered look, same apologetic language that seemed canned and repetitive. I felt bad for her, and for the people who had to speak to her. Nothing about this felt good. I actually thought I was going to be sick.
This particular visit cost me more than three hours of my life, two changes in parking spots and several bitten fingernails before it was finally my turn to speak to her. I rushed up to the window, bursting with hope, and she gave a response that caused several of my happiest braincells to commit instant suicide. "Well, there's only one person here who can talk to you about that issue, and he's on the phone. He's been on for a while, so...don't know how long he'll be. And then, when he's done, he still may not talk to you. See, the people back there at the desks, some of them talk to folks at the counter, others don't."
No, this isn't a David Lynch movie. It's the unpleasant, labyrinthine world of the unemployment office.
'US' VS. YOU
About seven weeks ago, I was informed I was being laid off from my full-time job working for a Maui nonprofit. I was appraoching my two-year anniversary there, and I didn't see it coming. I didn't have any money saved, and had no idea where I'd look for my next job in such a dismal job market. As they broke the news to me, I tried to stay positive: This could be a good thing, or could lead to new opportunities. Even though the outlook was bad and getting worse, I kept my spirits up for the last several days on the job. A few of us even met up for a drink at the end of my last day. Then, once I left for good, I experienced a range of emotions akin to being suddenly dumped by a long-term boyfriend.
After the first gut-punch of shock wore off, I immediately began questioning my own worth. I went from a confident, professional, functioning adult with a 4-year degree to an unemployable, unwanted, useless buffoon overnight. I lost my rhythm and couldn't figure out how leave the house. I stayed in my pajamas, indoors on perfectly gorgeous Maui days. I didn't shower. I even watched a Matthew McConaughey movie (it was getting serious). I became obsessed with checking the company website daily until my photo and bio were taken down from the "About Us" page. When it was gone, and I was no longer part of the "us," I started wondering why I was the one that was sacrificed during company downsizing: Was it something I said or did? Wasn't I passionate enough? Wasn't I worth something? Would I ever become a productive member of society again?
After about a week of self-loathing, poor hygiene and bad Netflix movies, I realized something else: there was no possible way I could survive without filing for unemployment benefits with the state of Hawaii. I'd been reading all about it in the news: our country's economy is only at the beginning of what they call a "jobless recovery," where the unemployment rate stays high while business productivity starts to rise. In other words, employers are getting more output from the workers they have (probably because those workers are afraid of being laid off), and the outlook is too grim for businesses to justify hiring new people. Clearly I would need help.
My instincts started to kick in. I would soon have to pay rent, utilities, car insurance, health insurance and figure out how to feed myself. At the same time, I would have to ferociously and fearlessly try to find a job. I couldn't pick and choose—in order to make it through what could prove to be a lengthy job search, I needed to keep a roof over my head, gas in my car and food in my belly. So I pulled myself up by my slipper straps and filed for unemployment.
'THEY MAKE YOU WORK'
It was my first time navigating Hawaii's State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Naturally, I started with a Google search. I found the state Web site easily, and right away it seemed that I could file everything online as long as I was totally unemployed and had worked only for Hawaii employers. All I had to do was "click here." This would be easy.
Oh how naïve I was. It turned out to be a complicated, error-prone, highly questionable process that required my careful time and attention. What's worse, while navigating through a tangled safety net, I almost lost my right to collect benefits. "Around here, they make you work for your unemployment," a three-times unemployed construction worker advised me.
Another man, forced to come out of retirement only to find himself unemployed, tried to spell it out for me. "I've called the unemployment number at least 20 times today, and whenever I got through, I'd hear a recording that says they have too many callers and that I need to call back. That's why I came here from the West side, to simply talk to somebody. It's so messed up, a lot of needy people probably give up and fall through the cracks. And that would save money for the state, whose unemployment fund is being used up. So it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that they want you to give up."
This kind of talk made me furious. I know my rights—I worked very hard at my job for two solid years, and just need a little help to get through the transition while looking for a new one. According to state labor law, I am entitled to access this fund. I was laid off, not fired. I am looking for work. Besides, back in February when Obama signed the the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it included a section called the Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act (UIMA), which was designed to "keep hardworking families from falling through the cracks. "
OK, so they're acknowledging that the system's flawed, and earmarked $7 billion dollars to fix it. There should be enough support to help me—why would I have to work for it? I decided then and there that there was no giving up. In fact, during the process, I would make sure I'm comfortable, stimulated and able to share everything I've learned with others. And man, are there others.
Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a new report stating that nationwide unemployment rates (currently at 10.6 percent) are higher than they've been since the early '80s. Of course, that figure only represents the folks like me, who are recently unemployed and haven't given up. The actual number is likely much, much higher; 7.3 million jobs have been lost since 2007, which is the longest stretch of job losses we've had in about 70 years. What's even scarier is that the underemployment rate (which includes the unemployed and those who can only find temporary or part-time work) is up to 17 percent.
According to an article in the November 8 edition of The New York Times, "At no time in post-World War II America has it been more difficult to find a job, to plan for the future, or—for tens of millions of Americans—to merely get by." Add the fact that 35.6 percent of unemployed people have been jobless for 6 months or more and we've got some seriously struggling Americans out there, with no real promise of change on the horizon. It's scary.
After 5 penniless weeks of "working for it," 12 hours of which were spent actually waiting in line during three separate visits to the State Unemployment Office in Wailuku, I finally received my first weekly benefit check—an amount equaling a whopping 50 percent of what I made weekly at my old job. Yes, it's something, and I'm glad it finally went through, but it's the only income I've brought in for the entire month of October. One week's unemployment is nowhere near enough to pay the bills for the month. I'm screwed.
On the bright side, now that my benefits have gone through and been approved, I feel vindicated. I'm proud that I didn't give up, that I have navigated the labyrinth. I have officially achieved my first post-layoff accomplishment. Maybe I'm not a loser after all! Having made it out the other side, I couldn't help but think that other well-intentioned, recently laid-off people may be questioning their worth. What's worse, they'll have to go through the same dark, dysfunctional the system that I did.
So here is my gift to them. Pay attention: one day, it could be you.
First, the basics:
LOCATION: Maui Claims Office (state building, Department of Labor and Industrial Relations), 54 S High St, Rm. 201, Wailuku, (808) 984-8400
HOURS OF OPERATION: 7:45am-4:30pm, Mon.-Fri. (not including holidays and furlough days)
NUMBER OF WINDOWS OPEN AT MAUI LOCATION: 2 for claimants, 1 for employer services
AVG WAIT TIME TO SPEAK TO A PERSON: 2 hours, 30 minutes
AVG NUMBER OF PEOPLE WAITING AT ANY GIVEN TIME: Between 20 and 30
WEB SITE FOR ONLINE FILING: www.hawaii.gov/labor/ui
PHONE NUMBER FOR PHONE FILING: Applications from Hawaii: (808) 643-5555; applications from outside Hawaii: (877) 215-5793
Go ahead, open your claim online or by the phone. BUT! Don't stop there. Visit the local unemployment office within a few days of your filing, just to be sure that everything was completed correctly and to find out if there's anything else you need to do. Yes, you'll have to wait up to three hours to speak with someone. Take it from me, you do not want to wait at home for them to tell you that you missed something—it might never happen. To their credit, there is a lot of stress on workers in this particular department, especially considering the steady rise in lost jobs. And yet—things are not consistent or fair in these parts. A substitute teacher I know received a checklist in the mail with the things she was missing clearly marked. I, on the other hand, did not receive one sign via mail or otherwise that my application was incomplete. Do yourself a favor and show up in person and ask all of the questions you can think of. Get names, take notes. You will likely have to take an active part in this whether you want to or not. Keep records and get everything you can in writing.
Do not believe everything you read in the paperwork you are mailed/emailed/given. Here's another thing I've learned the hard way. There are conflicting instructions in the numerous "handbooks" and documents that are mailed or e-mailed to you, as well as in the info you'll find on the Web. I read on one form that I had the option of "registering for work" by filing online via the State Workforce Development Web site (hirenethawaii.com), or by showing up in person to the Workforce Development office in Wailuku. Turns out, the online filing I did didn't count, and I had no way of knowing. Trust me, go in and talk to someone. They're the only ones who might be able to give you a straight answer.
Upon arrival at the office, sign in right away, printing your name clearly. Be sure to include the time you signed in. In my 12 hours spent at the Unemployment Office, I've noticed a handful of people who show up and don't immediately sign in. Some of them end up waiting a long time before they realize there's a sign-in sheet on the counter inside. There are no flashing signs, no greeters offering you help. Just a small note above a window and a clipboard in an often crowded, tiny room. Be sure to include the time you signed in, since people are taken in the order they arrive. Another point worth noting: for certain things, you won't have to wait on the general line. For example, if you're turning in a form, you should simply show up with your completed form and put it face down on the counter next to the sign-in sheet. Supposedly this pile of forms allows the workers to more specifically address your case and could save you some time.
Protect your back and your butt: bring something to sit on. There are only five chairs available in the small indoor waiting area, so the majority of people can be found waiting outside the office on the concrete benches (which seat approximately 12 people), or on the concrete steps that lead up to the building. There is no back support and that concrete is hard. I highly recommend you bring a small camping chair, something with back support that doesn't hurt your behind. Yes, it'll get you some funny looks. People will think you work there, but will soon find out that you're one smart cookie. Every so often, get up and move around to keep the circulation flowing.
Make a plan to fight boredom: bring something to read. You'll need more material than an issue of Maui Time (but that's a good start). Pre-load applications and games onto your cellphone if you've got one. Tweet/status update your friends about your situation. Bring an iPod or MP3 player, but keep the volume low enough so you can hear your name being called. You can bring a laptop, but there's only one power outlet available outside the building, so you might have to share it with others. I've applied for jobs online while I wait. If you're there at the right time, you can even join the lunchtime T'ai Chi crew. Or write an article about your experience. Anything you can do to avoid the mind-numbing boredom of waiting to hear your name called.
Take care of yourself: bring snacks and filtered drinking water in a re-useable bottle. The only food/beverage offering on-site is an outdoor, germ-infested water fountain that is accessible 24 hours a day from the street; in the 12 hours I spent waiting in line, I never once saw anyone brave enough to drink from it. On my second visit (once I had learned the ropes), I brought a bunch of water and some mixed nuts. By visit number three I had upgraded to water, a banana, a cookie and a bottle of iced tea. I noticed that my mood and the quality of my food/beverage were undeniably linked. This is about making it through with a minimum of frustration, so be kind to yourself and others. Bring extra and share if you're feeling generous.
Be careful where you park. You'll be a while, so try to find an all-day parking spot. The large lot behind the shops on Market Street (entrance on Vineyard near Market) is a short walking distance away and will save you the trip to move your car every two hours. There are many paid/unpaid two-hour spots near the state building, so if you choose to go that route, count on having to move your car about 10 minutes before the two-hour mark (you're in Taguma country). When it's time to move your car, alert one of the staff behind the counter and they'll make a note next to your name so you won't be crossed off the list if they call your name while you're gone. This is the path of least resistance and will save you some major headaches if you're skipped over.
Do not make any solid plans for the rest of your day/afternoon. Twice when I visited, I waited the requisite two-and-a-half hours to see someone, and then another hour or so to speak with someone else about my specific situation. If you include the drive time, these visits took approximately five-and-a-half hours out of my day. I witnessed people waiting for several hours only to leave for an appointment they had made. Others arranged for rides to pick them up much earlier than was realistic. What a waste! Just make arrangements to set aside your day, plain and simple.
Be mindful of germs! At the unemployment office, hundreds of people touch the clipboard, the pens, the door handles, the countertops every day. I've never been a big germaphobe, but every time I've been there, I've been in close quarters with someone who is hacking up a lung. Bring hand sanitizer and take your Vitamin C. As frustrated as you might be, do not bite your fingernails. (They probably have the swine flu.) No nose-picking. Wash your hands thoroughly before you eat anything and certainly before you go home to infect your loved ones.
You snooze, you lose. No matter how bummed you feel, you have to remain vigilant and strong every step of the way. The system is not designed to be easy. You have to be hands-on throughout the entire process or else there will be some inevitable piece of paper you were supposed to fill out that—left incomplete—will set you back weeks, if not months. That $7 billion of stimulus money earmarked to "improve" and "modernize" state unemployment programs has clearly not "trickled down" to our neck of the woods.
Realize that you are lucky you can talk to someone in person on Maui (even if it does take all day). In comparison, unemployed folks in California can only use the phone-in option, and often call over 200 times throughout the day without getting through to a human being. Here on Maui, at least waiting for hours gets you in front of a flesh-and-blood person, as overworked and exhausted as they might be. Try to be nice to the people behind the counter. It's not their fault they still have jobs and you don't. Maui Time Weekly, Sara Tekula
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