The gentleman on the other end of the line was sobbing. A moment ago, he had been yelling at me, but when that didn’t work, he turned to an emotional plea. He told me about his wife and children that he needed to support, his mortgage, his car payment, his utilities. He probably would have tried bargaining, but we both knew that would go nowhere. This conversation was about one thing: ending his unemployment benefits.
I wish I could say I was moved. But I was two hours into my shift, and he was already the second sobbing person I had talked to. I knew there would be many more before my day ended.
It was December 2010 and I was working as an operator at the Pennsylvania Office of Unemployment Compensation. It was a rough month. Many people were ending their run on unemployment compensation after collecting for nearly two years. It wasn’t because they had jobs. It was because the special period of extended benefits that allowed people to stay on the program ended every December. None of these callers knew what to do.
As an intermittent intake interviewer, I was responsible for handling calls from claimants who were collecting or considering collecting unemployment benefits. It was a job I fell into because I needed a job. It was with the state, and although the “intermittent” title meant I was not eligible for benefits, it was stable and paid more than day care work. It filled my basic needs.
America was leaving the Great Recession and moving into recovery. On paper, the number of people on unemployment had dropped. But people who work with the system whispered that that meant people were getting forcibly kicked off their benefits. We hadn’t fixed anything, but the statistics let us pretend we had.
As I took call after call from grieving Americans, I learned an important reality of our economy: The unemployment compensation system was not designed to handle the reality of unemployment in America today. The economy that exists today does not care for its workers. And something needs to change.
“I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do”
When I signed up to work at the unemployment office, I had no idea I would be spending my days talking people through economic despair. I thought I’d be doing just the opposite.
When I was hired, I was told that my job was to help people claim their benefits and get paid. The agency has a system for determining who is eligible for unemployment. This is based on the reason one lost their job — typically you won’t be able to claim benefits if you quit as opposed to getting fired — and their ability to work a future job. The guidelines on that second point are very loose: You just have to be able to work in some capacity. Even if you suffered from some debilitating injury, as long as you are still able to be a greeter at Walmart, you are still eligible.
I thought I’d be helping people receive compensation. In practice, most of our calls involved telling people they were getting cut off. Once someone ran through the maximum of 72 weeks of payment, there was no money from the state left. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had already gone through emergency compensation and state extended benefits.
It was these calls that usually made people cry. I even had one woman threaten to harm herself. Callers would beg me to do something for them: release payments, reverse decisions that made them eligible, or just find more money somewhere. Occasionally, our burdened system had been slow to send out a check and I was able to speed along a payment. But for everyone else, it was, “I’m sorry; I understand your frustration. You are more than welcome to file an appeal.”
Telling somebody that you’re cutting off their payments is hard enough. Now add on to that the sheer volume of phone calls from claimants. There are thousands of calls a day to any given government office, and much of the low-level civil servant’s job is to triage those calls. It doesn’t matter if we spend 20 minutes taking care of your problem or rush you off the line. There’s always another caller.
Our hold times could be up to four hours long on a bad day. I handled multiple calls while the claimants used the bathroom. Sure, it seems gross, but waiting for us to pick up the line was an all-day event, so I can’t blame them. You don’t hold that long to hear there’s nothing we can do.
Sadly, for many people, that’s the answer they would get. I could hear their frustration. People think the government is this system that you can call and your issue is just magically handled by the person on the other end. But the person you’re speaking with likely has extremely limited power. We like helping, but the sad fact of the matter is that in many desperate cases, there is very little the low-level civil servant can do. This is maddening as a worker because what you hear every day from the callers is that they are against “big government” and they make claims that we don’t care because of our cushy positions. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Some callers were making more a week in unemployment compensation than me.
Despite the toll of angry call after angry call, the painful reality of what people live through would often hit me. It hurt not to be able to help them.
One woman called me and I had to explain to her that she could not collect unemployment because she had quit a job and was deemed ineligible for her reasons for leaving. And then she hadn’t earned enough wages at her next job to clear the original determination.
Her reasons for leaving job one and getting fired from job two? She had to flee the area she lived in to escape an abusive relationship. Her ex found her a few weeks after she settled into a new job and beat her so badly she was hospitalized for more than a week, and her new job fired her. And I had to tell her there was nothing we could do to help her. A good day was a day I didn’t have to take a call like that.
This isn’t how America is supposed to work
The frustration of dealing with a system that is not equipped to help you is one thing. Dealing with a world you are no longer suited for is another.
During this high time of unemployment, workers who had been very gainfully employed before layoffs were finding out that they were overqualified for one set of jobs and completely underqualified for others.
I had a gentleman call me who was moving into the last stage of extended benefits, which was a hassle because the claims were filed on paper instead of online or over the phone. There was also a work search requirement. As I was explaining how he was to file, he stopped me.
“There are no jobs to apply for,” he said.
I fired off a canned line about putting in applications everywhere from Walmart to grocery stores, and he laughed because none of them would hire him. He had been a skilled worker at a manufacturing company. He was overqualified for everything that was left in his neck of the woods. A separate caller pointed out that even the jobs left in their field were at much lower pay than what they were making before.
There was no real advice for these people. We encouraged them to return to school for more education or training in other, more relevant fields. Some callers were already in the process of doing so. One gentleman had taken on an apprenticeship in welding to move into other types of manufacturing. One lady was working to learn medical billing. That’s all great, but school takes time, and it does not solve the problem of needing funds for right now.
Although there were callers who had been fired from their retail and fast-food jobs after a few months and were filing for claims, there were many people who had found themselves unemployed after working for years in established careers. These people, the ones who had been settled in a field or office for many years, were the ones on long-term unemployment. The fast-food and retail folks just found another job.
People who had been in what they thought were solid positions with companies found themselves in a territory they never thought they would be in.
I had one woman who had worked in the same office for 14 years in human resources and could not find a job after being laid off. She lived with a disability that limited what she could do, and she could not find anything because everything around her was retail. Besides being overqualified, she physically couldn’t work in retail.
She was not alone. I took calls from cancer survivors and people with other complex health issues who had work restrictions that did not impact their previous jobs but made retail, food service, and manual labor all impossible. Many people who had such restrictions were just old, and they had not counted on losing their jobs in the eleventh hour of their lives. Although it’s illegal to discriminate against the elderly, very few companies are willing to hire people, especially women, in their late 50s and older.
Ostensibly, these people had done everything right. They worked hard. They bought homes and had families, stayed faithful to their companies, and then were let go. They weren’t jumping from job to job, they weren’t being overly picky, and they were still losing.
And short of pointing them toward a CareerLink office (our state’s work program), there was nothing more we could do for them because the current economy was not built for them.
We’ve got to do better
After the Great Recession, we all found ourselves in a new world when it came to employment. Even as late as 2015, the job market was still floundering, with 822,000 fewer full-time jobs available than before the recession. On a macro level, we were starting to see the rise of the “gig economy.” These types of jobs might be seen as fine for people just starting out but tend to be predatory, as they offer little to no employee protection, no room for growth, and zero stability. This philosophy is a nightmare for people who have been working for years.
Mortgages are not easy to keep current when your job is unstable and your pay drops from six figures to below $20,000 a year. You can’t move to an area with better work when no one will buy the house you can no longer afford. Foreclosure was a very real issue for many of my callers, and the number of homes that were lost didn’t drop to pre-recession levels until 2015. So it is no surprise that the housing market is still struggling.
There were more jobs in the market by the time I left the unemployment office in late 2011. I took another position in the government, this one with benefits and few phones. Eventually I left that line of work altogether to write full time. I could see nothing was “safe.” I figured, why waste my time being miserable? We were just as likely to be laid off from the government during a bad year as anyone else.
But all too little changed for the type of people who used to call me. The jobs available were underpaying, and they lacked stability. The jobs that paid well were in fields that people would need additional training to access.
Creating jobs is only half the equation. The working economy of today has no security for many people, and American life in rural and suburban communities is built around stability. There are not enough opportunities in the areas outside of a major metropolitan city for people to constantly change jobs and keep their bills paid.
Even more than that, though, most people are simply not that well suited to change. Historically, the unemployment compensation system was built for people who specialized in one trade or set of skills. The first “unemployment” systems appeared in 1789 and were sponsored by trade unions. That workers would return to the same work that requires the same skills after a brief period is just not reflective of the world we live in today.
What working in unemployment taught me, more than anything, is that the key to “fixing” the economy isn’t to flood the market with more jobs. There are always jobs. What we need is jobs that offer stability. The reward for company loyalty shouldn’t be wondering if your skills will transfer to another position so you can keep your home. The old rules of work don’t apply anymore — and we haven’t come up with any new solutions.
Every call I took while I worked for unemployment was different, but 90 percent of them wanted me to answer the same question: “What am I supposed to do now?” There was nothing I could do. All I could say was, “Some job will come through.”
As I uttered the words, I knew they might be lies.