They handle most of this unemployment stuff over the internet now. The signing up, the form-filling, the fact-checking. Which is convenient, because as someone who never has been unemployed, I really didn’t want to make lots of trips to DMV-type settings and hang out with other jobless folk eager to get themselves on the dole. A sort of Protestant work ethic/middle-class sense of shame and resentment was at play. “I am not like you … but apparently I am.”
I signed up online. I created a resume online. I actually received my first unemployment check without having to leave my home.
But I suspected that, eventually, I would have to go to some shabby government building and make a personal appearance, and this was the day.
Among the pile of materials I received from the state government, via U.S. mail, was a sheet entitled, “Reemployment and Eligibility Assessment Appointment Notice.”
“Failure to Attend This Appointment May Affect Your Eligibility to Receive Unemployment Insurance Benefits,” was the drop hed, as we would say on the layout desk.
So, there I was, at an office called, in a marvelous euphemism, the “Torrance WorkSource Center,” pulling open the door and expecting to see mobs of the great unwashed waiting to have their out-of-work status confirmed/trumpeted.
Well, turns out, the mobs were something like five people … who were outnumbered by employees in the big room. Which was, in fact, DMV-like in its appearance, with dog-earned announcements and colorful pamphlets pinned to the wall in big, glassed-in cases, and the usual desk to sign in and the U.S., state and MIA-POW flags hanging hither and yon and a sort of barricade separating government workers from citizens.
But it was no mob scene. I saw one woman talking to the guy at the reception desk (“I want to work, you know? I do!”), one or two people over to the left inside some anteroom (the computer room, it turns out) and three people sitting at a desk, waiting for someone to come talk to them. And that was all. You’d think the region’s entire unemployed population numbers in … the dozens.
I liked that. Thing is, you want your money ($405 per week, after withholding), but you don’t want to feel as if all of Southern California is there to see you ask for it.
I suppose lots of people have been on unemployment. Real people who had real jobs and not just idlers and slackers. But it’s a hard image to overcome, the sense of “you must be a loser or you wouldn’t be here.” Hell, I thought that myself the years and years I drove past the Unemployment Office on Fifth Street in San Bernardino and looked at the dead-enders loitering around. Well, they had to be dead-enders, didn’t they?
I had a government-set “appointment” for 4 p.m. Luckily, the case workers were running late (and really, why should anybody there be in a hurry?), because as I sat at the waiting table I realized I hadn’t read every last sentence of the reams of material I had been sent. At the bottom of the “Appointment Notice” was a paragraph noting that “California law requires … proof of legal status and authorization to work prior to receiving services. On the reverse is the list of acceptable documents. You must bring your documents to the interview.”
So, I flipped the page over (everything is printed on both sides these days), and saw a page I hadn’t read. Basically, I had to have an original Social Security card, as well as a picture ID, such as a driver’s license. I had the license, of course; I needed it for the half-hour drive over to Torrance from Long Beach. But I don’t carry around my Social Security card. I’m not sure I have the original, actually.
So I scanned the list for acceptable alternative documents, which include a birth certificate or passport. Don’t carry those, either. I was faced with a situation, then, where I might be sent off because I hadn’t bothered to wade through every last page of the documents I had been sent. And that was going to be really annoying.
(The ease of registering for unemployment online is balanced by the sheer mass of material the California “Employment Development Department” sends back to you. They must shed X percent of potential unemployment-eligible people due to their inability to fill out all the forms. Which probably is their plan. Turns out, I also had failed to fill out a two-sided sheet in which I had to list my job preferences, and where I was looking for work, etc. I filled that out as I sat there, waiting for someone to come fetch me from their cubicles. The result being, even though you can do this stuff online, there is quite a LOT of it to do, and all of it somewhere has a threat along the lines of “failure to do this could result in a delay in your benefits” or some such.)
Maybe 15 minutes later, a young guy, maybe 27, 28, wearing the government-worker uniform of slacks, a long-sleeved, pastel-colored shirt and tie (but no coat) came out and invited me into a cubicle. The name on the wall was “Somebody Ueberroth”, and I was prepared to ask him if he were related to Peter Ueberroth, who headed up the L.A. oganizating committee for the 1984 Olympics.
But this was a guy just using someone else’s office. No relation to Peter. No apparent sense of humor, either. This was a guy who didn’t really want to chat.
He took the form I had just filled out. He asked if I had my Social Security card. The original (which would be 40-something years old, if I still have it), and I said no and cringed at the expectation that I would be sent packing to come back at some later date with my passport or birth certificate. But the guy just asked if I had a driver’s license. Of course I did. And the “interview” progressed.
He looked at my sheet. “Journalist, huh? And that’s the field you would like to continue in?” And I said, well, yes, for now, I would like to see if I can remain in the field. “It’s in some distress,” I offered.
This was news to him. “They’re laying off people … in journalism?” And I said, “Well, yes, seems like about half the workforce.” He was spectacularly disinterested. So from that point on I just answered his questions and volunteered nothing. “Did you create a resume on the caljobs website?” Well, yes, I did, and I held up my one-page resume printout. Unpersuaded by this palpable evidence, he typed in my case number, to make sure my resume was in the computer, and it popped up, and he seemed satisfied.
He was officially pleased that I had noted, on the form I had just filled out, that I have my own car and am willing “to travel some distance for new work. That’s good.” Figure about five minutes of uncomfortable chit-chat, him at least as uncomfortable as me (maybe because it was like his dad had showed up at the office?) … and finally he asked, “Do you have any other questions?”
Well, I had one, and it seemed a good time to ask. I know how much I am to receive, while out of work — $450 per week, gross. And on one of the earlier forms I had received, it listed the length of time I could receive benefits at one year. Yet I had read somewhere else that my maximum unemployment “benefit” was $11,000 — and that works out to about 24 weeks at $450 per — not quite half a year.
So, yes, he said, the $11,000 is my maximum number. I can blow right through it in 24.4 weeks, or get it over an entire year if some pittance of earnings from piece work generates some other form of income … and slows my climb to the $11,000 max. OK, got it.
Oh, and I just remembered: While talking about my job search, the young man noted that I was responsible for checking with at least three potential employers each week to continue receiving unemployment checks. Which seems a fairly high threshold in a imploding industry. (Inside my head I was thinking, “Three a week? I could exhaust every news organization in SoCal in a month.”) But we didn’t dwell on this. It was as if both of us knew it was part of a sort of shell game … I would pretend to look for nonexistent jobs and the state would pretend to be satisfied by my efforts.
On the way out, he gave me a sheet listing “50 Top Job Websites” … and mentioned the center’s resource room (online capability, and all), and noted that for any future dealings I could visit the office in Long Beach at the corner of Atlantic and Wardlow, or about five minutes from where I live; it never was clear why I had to be in Torrance at all.
And as a parting shot, perhaps divining that my background didn’t include long stints on the dole, nor any recent stints in the fast-food industry, he hopped over to another table and picked up a sheet explaining how to join the “South Bay Professional Association” job club. He said something like, “I don’t think you’re looking for an entry-level job, so you may want to consider joining the SBPA.”
And what is the SBPA? I quote from the first paragraph of the flier. “(SBPA) members represent many professions including administration, management, finance, personnel, education, engineering, marketing, accounting, computer technology, scientific endeavors and other disciplines. In other words, we are just like you: Looking for work in our occupations!”
And under “About SBPA,” the members have written, “Join our Job Club — We always have room for new members!”
Ah, so cheery. The SBPA is about the “many professional, managerial and technical workers who, like most of us, have unexpectedly found themselves out of work (and) are now working together, helping each other find new employment opportunities. Our self-help and support group also provides meeting and research space, computer equipment, telephones and a staff specialist.”
The SBPA meets every second Wednesday, there in Torrance. Which is grand, but I don’t really live there and I seriously doubt they are good at turning up journalism jobs. And I also had this vision of the club’s “best” members as being the chronically unemployed. That is, people you don’t really want to hang with — even if they were aerospace engineers until a few years ago.
So I took these sheets of paper and waited to be released from the whole disconcerting experience. And finally the young guy said, “Well, I think we’ve covered everything. I’ll mark you down as having attended.” Which was the point of the whole exercise. Proof I had complied with the latest EDD directive.
I’m hoping I won’t have to go back. That I can just fill out the “employers I spoke with” forms, send them in and get my $450 (gross) per week … until I’m on someone’s payroll or the $11,000 runs out.
Since unemployment is paid by my former employer — that is, MediaNews — I can’t really say I’m in a hot-hell hurry to get off the dole. I wouldn’t mind taking another $11,000 from Dean Singleton. Though I suppose I can let him slide if something interesting pops up.
I’m in the system now. Which I never thought would happen to me. Not after three decades of glowing performance evaluations. But there you are. I guess unemployment isn’t the same as plain ol’ welfare … but I have to at least wonder if I’ve taken the first step to “Welfare King” status. I hope not to stick around long enough to find out.