Tuesday, November 16, 2004

There's a reason they call it Flushing

I went to "Unemployment Camp," as my friend K calls it, this morning. EARLY this morning. For those of you who don't know, in New York State, if you claim unemployment benefits, you're required to go to an "Orientation" at the Department of Labor. Fine. The government is giving me free money, and the ultimate goal is for me to get a job and stop living off them, so I have no problem with this in theory. In practice, though, it's supremely irritating and vaguely offensive. For starters, I'm working part time right now, and some weeks I work few enough hours and make little enough money that I'm still entitled to partial benefits. In fact, since opening this claim last month, I have not had a single week where I've claimed my full amount. But here's the thing: I had to miss work to attend the unemployment orientation. Ironic, no? DOL's answer to this is that if I've "returned to work," I don't need to attend. But in their terms, I haven't "returned to work," because I'm still claiming benefits. And if I don't attend, I lose those benefits (which last a year). And there's no way to reschedule.

As long as I'm bitching, let me digress to an annoyance that isn't really the system's fault: They recently moved the Queens office from just over the bridge to Manhattan, to all the way at the eastern end of my subway line. I guess I should be grateful it's still on my home line, but it used to be 10 minutes away in a direction I would likely be traveling anyway (or at least near the gym), and now it's 40 minutes away in Flushing, from whence it then took me an hour to get to work. Now, Queens is a pretty gigantic county, and in geographical terms I suppose the new location is more central, but apparently someone who works for the state has forgotten that it's all about ME.

The orientation has actually improved since the last time I did it in early 2002. Back then it mostly consisted of "advice" on how to get a job. Here are some of the helpful bullet points for job-seekers:
  • Check job listings such as the New York Times
  • Send out resumes
  • Call friends and family to see if anyone knows of a job opening
  • Follow up with contacts

    So the assumption was basically that we didn't have jobs because we're all too stupid to even look for them. I was incensed. Especially in 2002, with the city's economy in the state that it was in.

    This time it was better, less insulting but no less irritating. In a room filled with classroom desks far too much like high school, we got a very bare-bones PowerPoint presentation (see, I'm criticizing the PowerPoint presentation -- I'm skilled, dammit!) which started by telling us how to claim our weekly benefits. Never mind that the orientations don't happen for weeks after you open your claim, so presumably we've all been doing this for some time already.

    After this came the real meat of the orientation, a dry and lengthy list of all the resources available to us at the Department of Labor Office, and on various city and state websites. Also various support groups offered by the DOL for people who've lost their jobs. Okay, useful probably to lots of people in the room, but couldn't they have mailed this to us? Or put it on the website that we use to claim benefits every week? Because I really wasn't interested.

    Now, I understand that I'm in the minority here. I know that I was probably the only freelancer in the room (almost certainly the only theater professional) for whom none of this was helpful at all. It's not that I don't want a job, and I'm certainly looking, but these people can't help me. I didn't lose my job in the traditional sense, my show closed, and that's totally normal in my world. But I accept that it's weird at the Department of Labor. But in this market, I have to wonder how many of the people in that room this stuff is useful for at all. I mean, no offense intended to anyone, but I have a feeling that the types of jobs coming into this run-down state office are not the types of jobs that are being lost by the score right now. To assume that the majority of us need instruction on how to use the Internet, or a resume-writing program for which "you only need to know how to use the mouse" (really? I'd expect the keyboard would be useful there too) is just condescending and a waste of time that could be better spent looking for a job. Or, in my case, being at one.

    The thing of it is, most of the system is automated. When you call to open your claim, 9 times out of 10 they already have your entire work history in the computer (linked to the IRS, I assume). You submit for your weekly checks (telling them if you worked the previous week, and if so how much, determining the size of your payment) either online or through an automated phone system. So how hard would it be to design a filter that identifies people who are frequently on and off benefits or have multiple employers (indicating freelancers or temps), or that shows a history of partial claims (indicating part time workers), or (probably harder) people working in certain industries, and exclude those people from the orientation? Or at least make better use of our time?

    Oh well. I guess if the government understood that the world revolves around me, we'd have a different president come January, so I shouldn't waste even more time ranting about petty state beurocrats.
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