Thursday, September 26, 2013

Unemployed in West Michigan: How to navigate the Unemployment Office

This month I became unemployed for the first time in fifteen years.  The last time I faced the job market, the internet was just becoming popular and finding a job was simply doing legwork or "pounding the pavement."  After all, the economy was roaring and it was more a matter of finding the right job rather than a job.  Today I'm becoming acquainted with a far different, very challenging job market.  And being able to skillfully navigate internet job boards beats any amount of legwork you're willing to put in.

Nonetheless, my first responsibility was to file for an unemployment claim.  Not unlike the Secretary of State's Office, Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency has people take a number and wait to speak with an agency representative.  As I sat waiting, I wondered just how long the wait would be.  A twenty-something woman let me know that it would be a few hours.  That is, unless I was willing to stand in line at eight in the morning.

Just as I was about to leave, a UIA worker came out and announced that first-timers could apply online rather than wait. She also apologized to everyone there, announcing that the state had cut four hundred  positions at the state's UIA within the past year.  Apparently it is in the midst of further automating the unemployment process.

Which is a grand idea!  Except that most of the people waiting to talk to a UIA worker had special circumstances (i.e., conflict with disability payments).  The UIA workers I did observe worked diligently to make sure the process worked for those in need, but just being unfamiliar with a new and bureaucratic system can make you feel like you need help too.

Getting unemployment is not typically a monumental ordeal, but you must follow the process carefully (including answering phone questions on a specific day and time).  And the UIA has a reputation for frequently changing its claims process.  Next week, applicants will have to answer a variety of different phone questions through MARVIN (Michigan's Automated Response Voice Interactive Network).  Government agencies have a real affinity for acronyms, don't they?

After making the initial claim, the UIA requires applicants to apply to at least two open job positions each week while they're receiving unemployment checks - which means trudging off to the nearest Michigan Works building.

The Michigan Works staff are tasked with helping the unemployed register for employment on the Pure Michigan Talent Bank. The staff were quite helpful to me in this regard. And the site itself is rather easy to use. However, the connectivity glitches made a 20-minute task turn into an hour. And woe to the unemployed person who has no computer experience whatsoever.

In all, applying for unemployment went fairly smoothly was not the bottleneck or broken pipeline I'd feared it might be.  As with any government entity, correct procedures must be followed to avoid a mess.  Happily, I found the people working at these institutions to be very helpful.

What is your experience with unemployment in West Michigan?

--John Potter