Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Unemployment Insurance: Then and Now

All photos from the Internet

Written over the course of the day:

It is a rainy, post-Hanna-pre-Ike Tuesday, and I am on my way by subway to see a job counselor at the Unemployment Insurance (UI) office at Schermerhorn Street, in downtown Brooklyn. According to the letter sent to me by UI, attendance in mandatory. Heck, I want to go to this; however, due to flood warnings, I tried to call and postpone, but bureaucracy rules in this case, and the phone number given has no option to talk to a human. So, with coffee in hand to fend off a humidity headache (unsuccessfully), I am in motion.

Rather than getting all whiney, let me clearly say that compared to dealing with UI in the ‘70s, it is relatively a breeze now. Picture this:

The UI office back then was on Fourth Avenue, right near where Pacific Street meets Atlantic Avenue. (A digression: the subway stop then was Pacific Street, but is now called Atlantic-Pacific. Even back then, though, my friend Dennis would call that stop the Canal Zone, which I thought was brilliant.) The area was quite dreary in that era, when it seemed like everything and everyone was muted, almost sepia. Of course, it could also be the memory of the depressing vibe of where I was heading.

First time there, once one registered their presence with the powers that be, it was a long, long wait on uncomfortable plastic chairs set in theatre-style rows, until one’s name is finally called. Like out of a script, the intake person was snarky, blaming the patron for the lack of work; assumption of guilt and guile, before proven innocent and desperate. While sitting there across the desk from the intaker, s/he called your ex-boss and asked why you were no longer working there. It was very uncomfortable. Then the third degree followed, demanding info rather than asking, sometimes with very personal questions that had nothing to do with looking for a job, or leaving the last one. It was as if they were looking for a season not to give up the money the person paid into the service from every paycheck.

Once that grueling interview ends, one leaves. A few days later (or more), a yellow envelope-sized folder arrived in the mail that had a bunch of cards in it that looked like a raffle booklet. A sheet told you when you needed to come back to the office, in my case, every Tuesday at 11 AM. Why I remember this so many years later, I’m not sure.

When arriving for the weekly visit to the UI building at the appointed day and time, you had to stand on a long line of usually more than 15 people, and wait your turn. If you reached the counter by what that clerk considered too early (varied from person to person), they sent you to the back of the line. I was never late enough to find out what happens in that case.

Once the magical time came to reach the counter, you handed over your yellow folder, and were asked pretty much the same questions one needs to fill out now, but with boredom out of repletion: “Did you turn down work?” “Were you working again?” “Did you make any money by yourself?” “Etc.” After that, the questioner stamped your book and took out the week’s ticket. When you completed the book of tickets, you ran out of weeks of UI. If you missed a week, they cut you off immediately, which meant rain or shine, in sickness and in health, you had to be there. Once I missed a week because I was on a job interview, and they stopped my benefits. I had to go through the whole intake process again to get it started again – minus the weeks I was already given – and minus the week I missed due to the interview. Why would anyone even try looking for a job until after the benefits ran out if they are going to get it threatened for it? It was a bad system.

* * *

Relatively speaking, now it is much easier. You register online and you sign in weekly online. Better do it quickly, though, or you’ll find your online session “timed out” and you have to start the weekly part of the process over again. This is an occasional inconvenience, but so much better than having to travel once a week down to where the office is now, especially at $2+ per ride on the MTA (only a fool would drive down to Schermerhorn Street, even with the $10 lots); parking is horrendous.

But now I am here at the UI office, waiting.

There is a group of about 50 of us in a warm room. Our paperwork has been collected by a couple of nice people who want to get us “out of there as quickly as possible.” That is a totally different attitude than years before. We now sit until our names are called to meet with a person who will try to help us with resumes and the like. I am totally satisfied with my resume, which I have on a floppy disk. Meanwhile, I’m stuck here with people yakking on their cell phones, despite the signs that clearly say they are not to be used. Nothing like being in a tight room listening to someone saying loudly, “I got to pay my bills” and someone else “What you doin’ up there?” Please, let them call either my name soon, or even their names to get them out of the room.

Even as we wait, the guy sitting across from me agrees that this is still so much better than it used to be. Though I have to say to anyone who comes here, bring some tissues, because there is no paper in the bathroom, for hands or anything else.

* * *

After about an hour in the room, with more than half the people called, it was my turn. I was led to the desk of another nice man with a very thick Russian accent. Basically, he gave me a list of Websites for job info, and the address of WorkForce 1 (WF1), a service to help with training on computers, shaping resumes, etc. I was out of there within 5 minutes. I would love that job: say hello, check to make sure the skills section of a form is filled out, hand out the list of Websites, and buh-bye. It would not surprise me if the reason it was so fast was sheer volume, thanks in part to the present economy (or lack thereof…can we PLEASE get a Democrat in office, already!?!?).

Brooklyn's WorkForce 1

WF1 is located between UI and the subway, so I dropped in there, after a quick Taco Bell break. Where UI has all the industrial charm of a communist-era building or a hospital for the elderly, WF1 is a well-designed, bright and comfortable space, with cushioned chairs, glass doors, and a reception area that was not merely a standee-and-ropes, metal desks, plastic chairs, and partition-style faux walls.

To attend any classes at WF1, one must attend an orientation class, which was over by the time one gets out of UI; therefore I must go back. Once orientation is completed, one can (and I will) participate in computer classes for free (the kind that Continuing Ed charges hundreds of dollars). I’m thinking of Access, and to brush up on stuff like Excel and even PowerPoint. Yes, I’ve used all of that in jobs before, but as with any organization, one tends to learn mostly what is needed for that job rather than of what the software is capable. If I can improve my skill range, I can improve my chances at a decent waged position.

Wish me luck…


  1. I thought the pic and caption of the Star Wars Soldier was pretty funny. Out of desperation I've looked into at home jobs, that involve out calls. Unfortunately you pay into these type of jobs to join, but if nothing else comes my way, then I guess I just temporarily go with it. Least I'd be something. Anyway I hope things go well. I also read your writing about your record collection. That was really great.

  2. Yes, unemployment is much higher than the numbers given, especially since the Reagan era, continuing through now. He adopted the British method of only counting those on UI as being unemployed. Once those 13 or 26 weeks are over, one is no longer part of the unemployment statistic, whether one is working or not.

    Thanks for the kind words about the collecting blog, as well!