Laid off in America

Monday, February 24, 2003

I have come to the conclusion that the unemployment office has two functions. The first is to ensure that they either discourage you from applying for unemployment in the first place or get off it as soon as possible. The second is to ensure that you never get yourself in a position of needing it again. It is embarassing enough for many people to show their face at the unemplyment office and apply, even though we have been dutifully paying our unemployment taxes for years in preparation of just such an event. But the process is also confusing and demeaning.

I swallowed my pride and called the unemployment office right away. I've counseled enough of my friends who have been laid off to do the same thing and didn't want to wait around and hear them give me the same advice. I discovered that you can apply right over the web. That's convenient, I thought. Except the application was hard to find, hard to follow, and of course I was a "special case"--I had not yet lived in New Jersey an entire year. I switched to trying to get through on the phone. The phone was busy for days, but I was determined. When I finally got through, the woman looked up my social security number on her computer and pulled up my entire history--jobs, addresses, and all. That was pretty scary--I almost asked her if she could tell when my Young Nazis of America dues were due, but decided that I didn't want to lose 6 months of benefits for being sarcastic. One question she asked me really stumped me. Why was I laid off? Well, since I had never really discussed that with my ex-employees, I wasn't sure how to answer that. "Wasn't a good fit" wasn't an option. "Poor performance", well maybe, but not exactly. We finally settled on economic reasons. She assure me she would call my ex-place of enployment to verify. "Ask them, then", I said. I was so proud of myself for getting through and surviving that I took the rest of the day off.

Several weeks later, I went down to the office for my orientation meeting. I had no idea what to expect. I drove around finding no street parking and was forced to park in a lot at $7.50 an hour. Fully employed, I don't like to pay that much an hour. I hadn't had a paycheck in weeks, I was not thrilled. The place was a mob scene and I had no idea where I was supposed to go. Fortunately someone pointed me in the correct direction on the first try. The meeting was really short and the facilitator said that the orientation had been cut to a bare minimum. Their staff had been cut 40% and the number of people receiving unemployment was rising. Like everyone else, they are scrambling to do more with less and keep their own heads above water. The facilitator also thought they had a lot of newbies on-board so a lot of mistakes were being made (I guess it was cheaper to lay off seasoned employees then bring on new cheaper junior people--nothing like running a public agency like a business). They also had a lot of technical problems--they were switching from a mail based system to a phone/technology based system and had the usual myriad of bugs to work out. He also acknowledged that yes, the forms are darn near impossible for college graduates to figure out and pity the high school drop out with english as a second language. I volunteered to re-write the forms (something Iknow how to do in my sleep with my industrial and organizational psychology background), and he took me up on it. I ran in horror when I realized what I had done. Okay, I need to cut these for folks some slack.

The only other times I ended up at the uemployment office were when I made a stupid mistake and couldn't correct it because I couldn't get a live person on the phone--so it was a combination of me and technical problems. I learned not to go in late afternoon, because after hours of waiting in line, I got a number and was asked to return the next morning where I got to wait a few more hours.

I also learned that humans are really strange creatures. I encountered people who were a whole different type than I had ever encountered before... A husband and wife were waiting together in line. The wife took a break. As the husband neared the beginning of the line, no wife. He finally got out of line to get his wife and when the two of them got back the people behind them wouldn't let them back in line--cussing and yelling racial insults at them. The poor couple didn't speak english well, so the people in line screamed at them to learn english. They finally left without getting their problem taken care of. In line behind me, a woman spit water on another woman (who she did not know) because the other woman had done something she didn't like. Cussing and screaming racial insults at each other, the two women had to be ripped apart by a guard. Most other people shuffled their feet and looked at the floor when this was occurring. Not me, I was staring unabashedly at such immature displays of adult conduct. I had never seen anything this bad, not even in junior high school.

After that, I was careful not to make any mistakes. I haven't needed to go down there since.

And lucky me, I qualified for an extension. But that is coming to an end. I'm not sure what we are going to do. I'm lucky. I'm married and my husband has a great job. But he just took a cut in salary so that at his company they wouldn't have to lay off as many other employees. It's the second cut he has taken in as many years. I think more companies should use that tactic and I'm not resentful. Just a little worried.

posted by Valerie 11:53 AM

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The experience of the new rite of passage among today's professionals: Being Unemployed

Contact me
You can contact me by sending me email at

This blog's mention in the July 2003 issue of Fast Company
Web of Despair.

Other unemployment blogs I have found
Ask your ass.
All about Jen.
Homee's job search.
Get that job.

Some blogs I like but haven't been updated in a while
Where The Hell Did My Job Go.
Invisible Matrix.

Credit problems?

What's keeping me occupied while I'm unemployed?
My husband and my travel photography blog.


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