Monday, January 20, 2014

Unemployed in West Michigan, muddling through the system

As I described before, receiving your unemployment benefits in Michigan may be more complicated than it looks.  After weeks of not receiving an unemployment check, I decided I had better visit the state's unemployment problem resolution office. But I soon discovered that this office was packed by 8 o'clock. Apparently, the state's new eligibility questionnaire had doubled the wait time to resolve individual problems. Getting there as the doors opened only indicated that you might be able to meet with a case worker by late afternoon. But I didn't exactly have anywhere to go that day.

As I waited in line, the fellow next to me told me my best bet was to arrive early - like an hour and a half early - and wait outside until the doors open. I found myself standing outside the unemployment office at 6:30 in the morning. The wind chill was -5. But at least I would get answers, I thought.

The silver lining to all this is what you hear while waiting in line. Among the roughly 100 shivering souls waiting alongside me, many had very interesting stories as to why they're there and what their problems are. It made waiting outside in a soviet line, in the pre-dawn dark just a bit more bearable.

After finally (number #35!) gaining admission to the unemployment office, I sat, waited, and talked to the guys on either side of me. One was a highly skilled high-end plumber, and the other was a diesel trucker. What interesting stories they had to tell about their travels and their situations in life currently, and the challenges of small business. There is plenty of real suffering in this jobless recovery, and men have taken it on the chin.

Finally my number was called. As I approached the front of the line, I was motioned to talk to someone on the phone. Really? Well, all right, I figured, as long as I get some answers. Except I didn't. In so many words, I was only told that my case had been assigned to someone. It occurred to me that I had little power to affect change regarding my "pending status" anyway. Resigned, I left, my view of how a bureaucracy functions confirmed.

A few weeks later, in January, 11 weeks after my last unemployment check, when I logged on to the unemployment benefits portal, my benefit claims had changed status, and the next day, I got a check for that almost 3-month backlog of benefits.  At no time during this process was I able to communicate with anyone who had knowledge of my situation or could make any decision about them. There was no one to call, email, or otherwise query. I was relieved to finally receive my unemployment money, but the lag time occurred during Christmas, in the bleakest part of the year. If my family hadn't had savings to fall back upon, we could have been like any one of the many families who have been evicted or foreclosed on in the past five years. Weave your own safety net, Michiganders, in case the government one isn't there to catch you when you get tripped by this economy.

And wear a scarf - it's cold out there.

--John Potter