The myth of the unemployment agent

Filing an unemployment claim is a pain in the neck. Filing a claim in MA is not just a pain, it’s a competitive sporting event won by endurance athletes. It’s you against all the other claimants to reach an actual person.

To file a new claim by phone, you must dial the 877 number (1-877-626-6800–I have it memorized), and listen to the lecture (“You have reached the Department of Unemployment Services. Depending on the services you require, you may be asked to call back at another time, if all agents qualified to answer your question are busy…blah blah blah”) and maneuver through the automated choices:

“If you are calling to file an extended benefit claim, press 1. If not, press 2. (Press 2.) If you are calling for unemployment insurance claim services in English, press 1. Para servicios in Espanol, marque tres. Para services in Sprekiagge [I’m pretty sure that’s what it says], mark numero cinco. (Press 1.)

“You will now hear a menu of claim services available…blah blah blah…To file a new claim or to file an extended claim for existing benefits, press 1. (Press 1) Your social security number is needed to file a claim, to identify you, to obtain wage information, for reporting your compensation to the IRS, etc., blah blah blah. Enter your nine-digit social security number now. You have entered ###-##-####. If this is correct, press 1.(Press 1)

Then you might hear something like, “Your social security number ends in 2. Today is not your day. Please call back on your day. Your day is Tuesday.”

If it is your day, (TODAY IS MY DAY…) you will hear more choices:

“Please enter the year you were born. (For example, blah blah blah). You have enterered ####. If this is correct, press 1. (Press 1.) To file a new claim, you need the names, addresses, and dates you worked for all of your employers in the last 15 months. If you worked for the federal government, or in another state, or (blah blah blah), press 1. (Wait.)

“If you are going to claim an allowance for dependent children, you may do this today by providing the names, date of birth, etc. blah blah blah. The social security number of each dependent claimed (blah blah blah) will be used in determining the eligibility (blah blah blah). Blah blah blah answer all questions completely and accurately. The law imposes fines and/or imprisonment for false statements to obtain unemployment insurance benefits. Please hold while you are transferred to an agent.”

Then you are transferred to an agent! Then: Hallelujah! It’s ringing!

But the recording says, “We regret that due to an unusually high number of calls, we will not be able to answer your call at this time. Your call is important to us. You may try your call again later today or on Friday.The hours of the Unemployment Teleclaim Center are  8:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Friday. These hours apply only to services by telephone.” Then the call hangs up on you.

This happened to me last week on Tuesday and Friday while I was in Vegas (where I stayed with family over the holidays, thanks to my parents and sister). I called again and again and again, until getting the message that the Unemployment Teleclaim Center is closed. You would think that Massachusetts would have an online system for the unemployed to file an initial claim, but they don’t.

DAMN. I really need to file this week for a new claim. My benefit amount is supposed to triple, but I can’t get through to file the claim! My nearest unemployment service office, half an hour away, is closed. I know this because I last drove there to file my previous claim four months ago, and they told me they no longer offer unemployment services. They now offer only job and training services. To be very accommodating, the busy woman behind the Job Services desk directed me to a telephone, where she gave me a super-secret special number to try and get through. It worked. (WHERE IS THIS NUMBER NOW?? I CAN’T FIND IT! I don’t think she actually gave it to me.)

But today, I go online and search for my nearest Unemployment Service Center. It’s a half an hour the opposite direction from the other office, into the crappy city of Lowell.

Here is what their website says: “Appointments will be made at the front desk every Monday at 8:30 a.m., and will continue through the week until all slots are taken. Appointments will be made on a first come, first serve basis. (Hours: Monday-Thursday 8:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., and Fridays 9:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.)

We are unable to accommodate anyone without an appointment.

I refuse to believe they don’t have someone available to make your appointment by phone, but see this:

“Due to the high demand for services, no telephone appointment requests will be allowed and Unemployment Representatives at the Career Center will not accept incoming telephone calls.(You may call the above listed telephone numbers [the 877 number I can’t get through on] to discuss your claim by telphone.)<—[sic. They need an editor!]

Panic

Try not to panic, but your mortgage was due ten days ago and you can’t get through to file your unemployment claim.

“No children are allowed at the Career Center of Lowell, including the Unemployment Insurance Department. Feel free to review our Childrens Policy for more information. If you do not have child care arrangements you can call the Unemployment TeleClaim Center at (877) 626-6800 or (617) 626-6800.

“Please Note:

“Due to unforeseen circumstances, there is a possibility that even though you have an appointment, you may not be seen on the day/time/week you are scheduled for. The career Center will make every attempt to contact you to let you know if this occurs. If your appointment is cancelled, you may call the TeleClaim Center at (877) 626-6800 or (617) 626-6800 (for area codes 617 and outside of Massachusetts) between the hours of Monday thru Thursday 8:00 am – 6:00 pm and Friday 8:00 am – 4:30 pm.”

I am going to drive to this center now, in spite of the fact that I have low-paying work I should be doing. It may be a complete waste of time. I may get turned away. If so, I will have gone a second week without being able to file. I panic a little knowing that if I can’t file my new claim this week, the benefits I’m supposed to receive–the generous ones I’ve been waiting months for–the ones that are supposed to “save” me (ha ha)–may not come. I may not be able to collect them.

It’s go time! Wish me luck!

The full-time “job” of the un*employed

“How do you DO it?” people ask me all the time. How do you keep paying your bills as an un*employed single parent? (un*employed is my shorthand for unemployed or underemployed, similar to how ve*gan includes vegans and vegetarians–groups that have much in common). The answer is what I call the full-time “job” of the un*employed.

Dealing with state agencies via phone?

On hold…forever…gotta love state agencies.

When you’re out of work or underemployed, how to supplement your “unlivable wages” becomes the problem du jour in your life. Part of my secret to getting by is that how to pay the next bill consumes my every waking moment, my every thought when I am eating, showering, using electricity, paying bills, looking for work, considering an invite from friends, writing this blog, or driving to the food pantry. My full-time job was (and still is) figuring out how to stem the tide of money going out and increase the amount coming in.

Woe is the person who asks an un*employed person, “What do you DO all day?” If you’ve ever been without work, you know finding it consumes your day: networking, searching for job openings, sorting through email, applying, drafting cover letters, customizing your resume for each position, registering for job services, dealing with recruiters, and attending job fairs. Work not forthcoming, you have to find the money for rent and mortgage: can you borrow it from your home equity line of credit? Refinance your home or car? Use your income tax refund? Cash out your kids’ college savings funds? Take it from your retirement (never a good idea)? Each one of those choices takes days of work during business hours to deal with banks, creditors, and retirement account agents.

I have spent weeks on the phone with my mortgage lender to try and qualify for mortgage refinancing or modification via the Home Affordable Mortgage Program. Hey, how about that? A program for people like me in danger of foreclosure! For five months, I filled out paperwork, faxed documents, and responded to more requests for paperwork, only to be told that I don’t qualify because 1) I am not behind in my payments and 2) I don’t make enough money to pay my mortgage even if it were refinanced. Ridiculously, I have never missed a payment in spite of the fact that my mortgage lender says I don’t have enough income to do so. They would rather foreclose on my home than risk giving me a mortgage. So I rebel and continue to pay it. If I am late or miss a payment, the fines and fees will begin, and so starts the process of me losing my home. I don’t feel like being late is an option: if I lose my home, and I don’t have a job, I can’t get another one. I can’t get another mortgage or even rent an apartment because I don’t have a job! I don’t have family I can move in with nearby, so I am dedicated to paying that mortgage.

You can spend hours a day on the phone with the unemployment office or the health insurance office, asking what happened to your check, or disputing a mistake. In both NH and MA, you are usually stuck for an hour waiting on the phone for a real person while you listen to terribly repetitive synthesizer music with the oft-repeated message: “Your call is important to us. Please remain on the line for the next available agent. Your call will be answered in the order it was received.” You may wait on-hold for hours, only to reach a robo-message telling you the office is now closed so you’ll have to call back later–meaning a week from now because Tuesday is the only day for social security numbers ending in “2.” I’ve waited on hold for an hour, reached a person, only to be disconnected and have to do it over again! I swear, the tune of the on-hold music in the unemployment office haunts my dreams–a synthesized baseline of two notes going back and forth with an occasional cymbal crash. I am not kidding!

Family Guy Unemployment Office

The definition of irony: the chronic under-staffing of the unemployment office.

The last time I opened a claim, I had to go in person to file because I missed my designated day to open a new claim by phone that week. I drove for about half an hour only to found that my local unemployment office was permanently closed due to state budget cuts. It hadn’t moved–it was just shut down, transitioning all services to “phone only.” Oh joy. Nothing sucks up your day like dealing with the unemployment office–or any government agency–by phone.

Basically, the unemployed must spend all day on the phone to find their next dollar. My 15-year-old son, bedeviled by our lack of discretionary income, got a work permit and now has a job bagging and stocking at the local supermarket. Amazing how many video games you can buy when you work six hours a week at $8/hr. While it isn’t what I’d prefer him to spend his hard-earned money on, it helps the mood of the teenager in my household a lot.

Promotional specials are my best friends. I regularly call the cable company, the power company, my internet service provider, and the phone company to negotiate a better deal, take advantage of economic specials, or cut back on my services. There’s only so much you can cut back before you have to do away with TV altogether, but when you’re unemployed, TV is your only entertainment after dark. So I kept basic cable by using a promotional deal. I can’t cut off phone and internet service if I want to freelance or be available for an interview. So I kept my phone and internet by using a six-month promotional special. In New England, shutting off the heat isn’t an option, although utility companies do offer state energy assistance for customers receiving certain types of state aid (none of which I qualify for–would you believe at $216/week, I make too much money?).

So I network my ass off, work at cut-rate freelance work, and coupon-cut almost every waking minute. But the shiny side of the coin is that unemployment also has its rewards. I can pick up my son from an after-school event instead of leaving him to the wolves-of-chance that he’ll find a ride or have to walk home several miles, partly along a dangerous highway with no sidewalks. I can sleep later in the morning. I try and do something productive to earn some piddling money every day (yay, eBay!), but at least all my closets are cleaned out. I can go to the doctor or take my car in for service during business hours (I got promotional deals for free oil & lube services for a year too). I consider going to the library a guilty pleasure–nothing like reading the memoirs of people who have survived tragedy to make one appreciate one’s own circumstances. Plus, I am always home for dinner! (An unemployed single parent has no choice but to always be home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When you can’t afford to eat out, you get to cook and do dishes for every meal, every single day! Yay!) A huge thanks to all the friends who have hosted us for meals!

Sometimes I even have work! Like today…after posting this blog, I have some part-time temp work to do from home while my son is working. It doesn’t pay much, but later, I’ll sell some stuff on eBay and maybe even facebook–if I have time.