Friday, January 3, 2014

Unemployed in West Michigan: more complicated than it looks

When I was younger, I was always a bit curious how people seemed to simply wait in line to get an unemployment check. It appeared as if it was a somewhat unappetizing way to attain free money. In other words, I felt as if it was a world an enterprising person never had to come into contact with. Naive me.

Last September I was laid off from a job I had had for 15 years I knew the unemployment office was to be my eventual destination. And I inquired from friends what that actually entailed. But I gradually became acquainted with the full scope of process: keeping record of your job search, going to a Michigan Works office, getting acquainted with calling an interactive phone recording (asking about my job search). And fortunately for me, the regional problem resolution office was only a mile from my house.

Then the checks started coming. It wasn't a lot of money, but it wasn't insignificant either. A welcome relief actually when so many bills need payment. I seemed to have the system down - keep records, fax those records monthly to Lansing, collect money. Then I made a mistake. I told the truth.

The truth was that, feeling the pressure to supplement my income, I applied for a low-paying very part-time janitorial job. I then decided that would almost be counterproductive to finding a job in my field, so I turned it down after being offered it. The aforementioned phone recording that asks questions about your job search does indeed ask if you've turned down any jobs. Well, I detailed through subsequent paperwork the why, who, and where of this refused job.

Michigan's unemployment system does not necessarily cut off benefits if you refuse a job. It depends whether it's in line with your previous salary and experience. The employer is contacted, and a review of the facts occurs. This is something that should take a few weeks, correct? I'm still waiting after nearly 3 months.

To complicate matters, Michigan's unemployment office instituted a new interactive phone system to determine eligibility. Such a system is not new in itself, but the roughly 30 questions needing to be answered takes a full 25 minutes. Eventually I realized that using the state's website to answer their questions was a quicker route.

Somewhere, I'm sure, a state bureaucrat confidently assumed that instituting a new and highly specific questionnaire would weed out fraud and abuse. Perhaps even generate savings. And of course, the internet would expedite this process for everyone. But they didn't think it through. At least they didn't consider the resulting casework overload. My guess is that this bright idea was floated in the past. But someone with more experience thought this through and realized it might not be so successful in execution. She must have retired. I suppose that's the problem with bureaucrats - they're rather immune to feedback.  Just ask any of the hundreds of people who swamped the Unemployment Agency last Monday, stood out in the freezing cold for hours, and didn't get to speak to anyone. Government doesn't tend to have to worry about marketing and continuous improvement the way small businesses do.

So what happened when I decided to take action and meet with an unemployment officer? Stay tuned; I'll answer that next time.  Perhaps I'll have heard something back by then, but I'm not holding my breath.

--John Potter