Nothing Up My Sleeve

Jon Gallagher

A Ward of the State


Paul Harvey used to say that a Recession was when your neighbor lost his job.  A Depression was when you lost yours.  I guess that means we’re officially in a Depression.  I’m out of a job due to my employer going out of business which means it was time for a trip to the Unemployment Office.

It’s not like I haven’t filed for Unemployment Insurance before.  When I got laid off from Gates Rubber Company way back in the early 90s, I filed a claim.  When I told a District Manager at Papa John’s how stupid she was, I got to go file a claim (I was the only driver in the middle of a Saturday rush when she told me that I was fired, but not till the coming Monday, thusly illustrating my point that she was indeed “stupid”).  There have been other times in my life when I’ve had to visit the office at the corner of Main and Henderson, but I had hoped that I would never see the inside of that building again.

That was until Circuit City decided to send me there along with 34,000 others across the nation.  I showed up at the office in the late morning hours of Friday, March 13.  I thought that a Friday would be a less busy day.

A lot has changed since I last filed a claim. 

First, the people at the unemployment office are a lot friendlier.  Having dealt with a motley crew of customers over the last six weeks while closing Circuit City, I can understand how the folks at the unemployment office could be a little grumpy.  All day long they are dealing with depressed, frightened people.  Their clientele are out of a job, may feel that things are hopeless, and they’re at the end of their rope.  If the workers at the Unemployment Office deny their claim for some reason, they suddenly have no income to pay bills or buy groceries.  Since the employees at the UO have to deal with these type of people every day, it’s understandable how they themselves can get a little testy.

This time, I stood in line for a short time.  I’d guess that there were 50-60 people in the waiting room, biding their time until they could either talk to a job counselor or use a computer to do a job search.  When I got to the counter, I was handed a small stack of papers to fill out and instructed to bring them back to a second counter, just to my right.  The woman who handed me the papers seemed genuinely sorry that I’d lost my job.

There was nowhere to sit, and all table space was filled, so I took the paperwork back out to my car to fill out.  The tiny parking lot was overflowing, with cars meandering in and out, cruising Main and Henderson Streets, as they waited for a car to pull out of a space.  It reminded me of a game of musical chairs, done with vehicles.  While sitting there filling out my paperwork, one car honked at me, trying to urge me to move, and another car’s driver approached me, asking how soon I’d be leaving.

It took about fifteen minutes to complete the paperwork.  I took it back to the second counter and was met with another friendly face.  I should say that his attitude was friendly; his face looked like he’d just put in a killer week and was happy that it was Friday.

He gave me my Wage Information Sheet which determined how much I’d be receiving on Unemployment.  It was not good news.  The determining wages were taken from the fourth quarter of 2007, and the first three quarters of 2008.  I’d been promoted to management shortly after that, but my raise didn’t count in the figures. My unemployment benefit was going to be less than half of what I’d been bringing home.  Ouch.

In fact, if I divide out my weekly benefit amount by 40 hours, I’m making less than minimum wage.  I guess that’s added incentive to find a job, even if it’s flipping burgers somewhere.

I was told I’d have to certify every other week.  This means I was going to have to report to the State on my job search activities as well as if I’d found work or not.  In the past, they would send you a certification sheet in the mail which you would fill out and return to the office (you could send it to the office, but that delayed your check by a day or more).  Now, you have a toll free number to call which hooks you up with a computer which records your answers.  Answers are kept to a simple “yes,” or “no,” and anything other than those answers will probably require another visit to the office.

In the past, you’d receive a check in the mail every other week.  Now, unless you sign up for direct deposit, you get a Visa debit card in the mail.  You can use the card the same way you use any credit or debit card and it’s accepted anywhere that displays the Visa logo.

This of course makes it a little harder to pay rent or a mortgage since landlords and lending institutions that take Visa are few and far between.  It also means that if you lose your card or it’s stolen, you’re out of luck.

The debit card also has some fees attached to it which most people probably won’t even look at before they use the card.  For example, if you use the card to withdraw money from an ATM, there will be a 95 cent charge for doing so.  Checking the balance on the card at an ATM will incur a charge of 50 cents. 

You can lose your card up to four times a year without being charged to replace it, but from the fifth time on, there’s a charge of $5.00.  If you need the card replaced immediately, whether it’s the first time or the fifth time, there’s a $25 that goes along with it. 

Overdrawing the card (for example you have five bucks left on the card and you get gas, pay at the pump, and pay $10) will cost $15. 

If you need to check your balance by phone, and you can do it with their automated system, there is no charge.  If you need to talk to an actual person, you can do that for free once a month.  I assume there is a charge for anything over one, but that fee is not listed (at least that I can find) anywhere in the paperwork I received.

It used to be that you needed to register with “Job Service” and keep track of where you looked for work.  You were required to report to the Job Service office once a month and have your card validated, showing that you were searching for work.  Failure to do so could cost you benefits.  Now, you sign up for Workforce, and most of that is online. 

Workforce allows you to list your experiences and job skills, then matches you up with jobs that they have in their system.  So far, they’ve matched me with two and neither of them have panned out.

I’m lucky though.  My wife still has her job.  We don’t have a lot of bills (my parents always taught me not to buy something unless you could afford it).  We may have to cut back on a few things, but we’re going to make it until I find a job.  That is, unless I don’t find one in the next six months.

Unemployment Insurance was never meant to help someone make a living.  It was meant as a bridge to tide one over during the transition between jobs. 

Here’s hoping that it’s a very short bridge.