In These Times has partnered with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA) to amplify the stories and struggles of ordinary people, including workers in the United States. This piece, the first of an ongoing biweekly series, originally appeared in the Journal of Ordinary Thought, published by NWA. Find more stories and voices at NWA’s blog.
The entrance is rather mundane. It has a dark red brick front with metal- framed, smoked-glass doors that lead me into its government offices. Such places are little talked about and, as direct providers of services to citizens, are funded even less. Now, I have arrived here at this place to turn another page of my life.
The hurt, pain, and embarrassment still sting like it happened yesterday. I step into the line to sign up for unemployment compensation. Although it’s been three weeks since I was called into the executive director’s office and given my separation papers, only now, with monthly bills due and no meaningful employment on the horizon, have I ventured into this place.
The line has not moved once, giving me ample time to review my surroundings. Every wall seems to be covered with full-color posters, pastel handbills, and stark black and white newspaper clippings. These signs are notices for cooks, clerks, dishwashers, and hotel staff. Other signs note retraining opportunities and the latest government regulations on what you must do and have for this dubious “benefit.” The drab gray cubicle partitions have frayed edges and dents in their metal corners. The lighting hangs from the ceiling from metal poles painted a cream color that does nothing to enhance the brightness in the room. It is a huge open space, filled with divided places and shattered lives, where no one gets the dignity of privacy to tell their story or learn if they even “qualify” for this benefit.
I fight the urge to walk out, ignoring the thought whispering in my mind that I can always come back tomorrow. Suddenly, the person in front of me speaks to the lady behind the counter: “My job didn’t last; I wasn’t fired…” She replies, “Use the phone system every two weeks to qualify…” The time starts to have a slow-motion feel to it. The smell of fear fills the air like stale cigarette smoke wafting up from the carpeting or long-discarded butts. This smell gets into your hair, clothes, and skin as you try to neutralize your awareness of the seriousness of your plight. But then the despair becomes apparent as you listen to the questions and reactions of those around you. It is in the faces of men and women who, like myself, have studied, worked, and lived sometimes hard lives for tens of years or more and now find themselves and their families subject to the whims of the market forces far beyond their daily lives.
I stare at the faces around me for answers. The dejection and pressure facing these unemployed people is palpable. The practiced indifference of the staff is a painful sight that you can read on any face of the personnel behind the counter. Day after day these state employees gamely try to placate and process hundreds or even thousands of honest, working Americans whom they can neither point to new, suitable employment (read as “make as much as the job you were laid off from”) nor offer appropriate compensation that will meet their families’ basic needs.
At a long desk I, along with five other applicants, struggle to complete the forms and answer questions to get the benefits. First, any part-time work is counted against the amount of unemployment money received. So, that extra job you were working nights to help make ends meet is now deducted from the 40% maximum of your previous full-time salary that you would have been eligible for as the rate of payment. Some men shake their heads in disbelief, knowing that they are already at the brink of financial meltdown.
Soon, a young woman comments about continuing to study to get her nursing assistant certification while she receives unemployment. “No,” the clerk quietly replies. “If you are attending school, then you are not available to work, and thus are not eligible for benefits.” The young woman gasps and says, “But I’m only six months from completing my courses. I have been working and going to school and…” “It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry,” the clerk says firmly. The clerk looks sincere, but the young woman is becoming increasingly distraught. A gray- bearded man who almost looks homeless leans across the table and in a low voice says, “Look, that’s a self-reporting item. If you are in between classes now, you can answer no to get at least some benefits.” She pulls herself together a little, and I am reminded how people often have to help each other get through this process, learning the ins and outs of the bureaucratic rules. The government is not always there to assist you. It often gives an image of aid, only to prescribe a method and a box to live in that many of us could never fit into.
Lastly, you are asked if any potential employer offered you work and did you refuse. Of course, if you had refused, your benefits would be terminated. This is true no matter how unsuited the work or pay is to your life.
After completing the forms, getting copies of my documents, a phone number, and procedure to follow, I stumble to the door. Numb and carrying an armful of legal forms and papers to document my job search, the walk back to the car is a lonely one. The terrible reality is that the means to provide for your family are precariously hanging in the balance of apathetic state employees and a government increasingly unconcerned with those left behind by corporate mergers, downsizing, and the movement of manufacturing plants to places ranging from Mexico to Malaysia.
All you want is a decent job to support your family. Now you have to deal with the global economy. I head for home or the local bar. And I never want to come to the unemployment office again….