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Voices From These Times: Employment Inferno

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kenneth_hagans-250x288The entrance is rather mundane. It has a dark red brick front with metal- framed, smoked-glass doors that lead me into its government offices. Such places are little talked about and, as direct providers of services to citizens, are funded even less. Now, I have arrived here at this place to turn another page of my life.

The hurt, pain, and embarrassment still sting like it happened yesterday. I step into the line to sign up for unemployment compensation. Although it’s been three weeks since I was called into the executive director’s office and given my separation papers, only now, with monthly bills due and no meaningful employment on the horizon, have I ventured into this place.

The line has not moved once, giving me ample time to review my surroundings. Every wall seems to be covered with full-color posters, pastel handbills, and stark black and white newspaper clippings. These signs are notices for cooks, clerks, dishwashers, and hotel staff. Other signs note retraining opportunities and the latest government regulations on what you must do and have for this dubious “benefit.” The drab gray cubicle partitions have frayed edges and dents in their metal corners. The lighting hangs from the ceiling from metal poles painted a cream color that does nothing to enhance the brightness in the room. It is a huge open space, filled with divided places and shattered lives, where no one gets the dignity of privacy to tell their story or learn if they even “qualify” for this benefit.

I fight the urge to walk out, ignoring the thought whispering in my mind that I can always come back tomorrow. Suddenly, the person in front of me speaks to the lady behind the counter: “My job didn’t last; I wasn’t fired…” She replies, “Use the phone system every two weeks to qualify…” The time starts to have a slow-motion feel to it. The smell of fear fills the air like stale cigarette smoke wafting up from the carpeting or long-discarded butts. This smell gets into your hair, clothes, and skin as you try to neutralize your awareness of the seriousness of your plight. But then the despair becomes apparent as you listen to the questions and reactions of those around you. It is in the faces of men and women who, like myself, have studied, worked, and lived sometimes hard lives for tens of years or more and now find themselves and their families subject to the whims of the market forces far beyond their daily lives.

I stare at the faces around me for answers. The dejection and pressure facing these unemployed people is palpable. The practiced indifference of the staff is a painful sight that you can read on any face of the personnel behind the counter. Day after day these state employees gamely try to placate and process hundreds or even thousands of honest, working Americans whom they can neither point to new, suitable employment (read as “make as much as the job you were laid off from”) nor offer appropriate compensation that will meet their families’ basic needs.

At a long desk I, along with five other applicants, struggle to complete the forms and answer questions to get the benefits. First, any part-time work is counted against the amount of unemployment money received. So, that extra job you were working nights to help make ends meet is now deducted from the 40% maximum of your previous full-time salary that you would have been eligible for as the rate of payment. Some men shake their heads in disbelief, knowing that they are already at the brink of financial meltdown.

Soon, a young woman comments about continuing to study to get her nursing assistant certification while she receives unemployment. “No,” the clerk quietly replies. “If you are attending school, then you are not available to work, and thus are not eligible for benefits.” The young woman gasps and says, “But I’m only six months from completing my courses. I have been working and going to school and…” “It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry,” the clerk says firmly. The clerk looks sincere, but the young woman is becoming increasingly distraught. A gray- bearded man who almost looks homeless leans across the table and in a low voice says, “Look, that’s a self-reporting item. If you are in between classes now, you can answer no to get at least some benefits.” She pulls herself together a little, and I am reminded how people often have to help each other get through this process, learning the ins and outs of the bureaucratic rules. The government is not always there to assist you. It often gives an image of aid, only to prescribe a method and a box to live in that many of us could never fit into.

Lastly, you are asked if any potential employer offered you work and did you refuse. Of course, if you had refused, your benefits would be terminated. This is true no matter how unsuited the work or pay is to your life.

After completing the forms, getting copies of my documents, a phone number, and procedure to follow, I stumble to the door. Numb and carrying an armful of legal forms and papers to document my job search, the walk back to the car is a lonely one. The terrible reality is that the means to provide for your family are precariously hanging in the balance of apathetic state employees and a government increasingly unconcerned with those left behind by corporate mergers, downsizing, and the movement of manufacturing plants to places ranging from Mexico to Malaysia.

All you want is a decent job to support your family. Now you have to deal with the global economy. I head for home or the local bar. And I never want to come to the unemployment office again….

This piece, the first of an ongoing biweekly series, originally appeared in the Journal of Ordinary Thought, published by NWA. Find more stories and voices at NWA’s blog.

About The Author:Kenneth Hagans is formerly the business manager at Hales Franciscan High School, a parochial all boys school on the South Side of Chicago. Hagans, who completed his undergraduate studies at the Illinois Institute for Technology, writes to balance his analytical world of numbers and give voice to his life’s experiences. Currently unemployed, Hagans is active in several community groups including A Just Harvest, formally known as The Good News Community Kitchen.


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Millions Face Bleak Winter When Jobless Aid Ends Nov. 30

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Image: Mike HallMore than 1 million long-term unemployed workers a  month will lose their unemployment benefits—the weekly check that helps keep a roof over their families’ heads and food on the table—if Congress doesn’t act by Nov. 30.

That’s the date the extended unemployment insurance (UI) benefits program expires. But Congress does not return to work until Nov. 15 and then will adjourn again for the Thanksgiving holiday, leaving just a few days when lawmakers are in town to extend the lifeline that has been so vital as unemployment continues to hover near 10 percent.

Click here to sign a petition to Congress to act quickly and extend the UI program before it expires Nov. 30.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), says that in 2009 alone, UI benefits have kept 3.3 million American families— including 1.5 million children— from falling into poverty.

With the holiday season approaching, it would be especially cruel to families and bad for businesses to cut off these benefits. Any cuts would also be a drastic departure from how unemployment insurance has functioned ever since the Great Depression; Congress has never cut back on federally-funded jobless benefits when unemployment is so high.

NELP in recent days launched an online campaign—UnemployedWorkers.org—as resource to mobilize support and push Congress to act before the Nov. 30 deadline. That will be a big lift because for the past two years, Republicans have tried to block every extension of the extended UI program.  Says Owens:

Congress took seven weeks to reauthorize the extensions when benefits expired last June, and in that time, more than 2 million unemployed Americans and their families lost their jobless benefits.

Some Republicans and radio blowhards (see video) have even claimed unemployment insurance benefits—an average of just a little more than $300 a week—make jobless workers so comfortable, they won’t go out and look for work. Not that there’s much out there. Owens calls the claims “insulting and infuriating.”

In the video, Christopher J., a marketing professional out of work for more than a year, says:

There’s no such thing as pickiness when you don’t have a job. I have tried every job. I will go and apply for a maintenance position.  I have done that maintenance position when I was in college.

UnemployedWorkers.org features:

  • Fact sheets on the jobs crisis and the role of unemployment insurance in rebuilding the economy.
  • Weekly tracking of jobless claims data, national and regional unemployment news and other items related to the recovery.
  • Online actions, including a petition to Congress, call-ins and letter-writing to elected officials.
  • Workers’ stories, in blog posts and videos, and a forum for workers to contribute their own.
  • Real-time feeds on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
  • Expert advice for unemployed workers about jobless benefits.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO Now Blog.

About The Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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Unemployment Q & A’s

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Image: Brett BrownellI’m thankful for the opportunity to be part of a great organization like Workplace Fairness. We’re using online tools to educate workers about their rights and job-seekers about their search. But I’m no stranger to unemployment.

In the not-too-distant past my resources became limited and I hit a wall in my job search. So I made the tough decision millions of Americans have had to make: I decided to file for unemployment… But making the decision was just the beginning.

What I remember most vividly about the time that followed were two things:

1) The confusion, hassle, and frustration of the application process

2) My relief when I received the first ameliorating check

So, when I came across the The New York Times’ money blog “Bucks” and their series “Answers About Unemployment Benefits” I wanted to share it and hopefully save some frustrated job-seekers a few minutes, or hours, or dead-end research.

The answers are provided by Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project. All four parts in the series can be found here:

Answers About Unemployment Benefits: Part 1

Answers About Unemployment Benefits: Part 2

Answers About Unemployment Benefits: Part 3

Answers About Unemployment Benefits: Part 4

Among the topics the series covers are:

• COBRA health care
• Tip earners
• Temp workers
• How to determine eligibility?
• How to determine amount?
• New 2009 Recovery Act extensions
• Students
• Self-employment
• Independent contractors

I hope you find it helpful.

*For more information on unemployment insurance visit the Workplace Fairness Unemployment Insurance Information page and 2009 Economic Stimulus Package and its Effect on Unemployment Insurance page.

About the Author: Brett Brownell is a new media fellow at the New Organizing Institute where he manages the Today’s Workplace blog and new media for Workplace Fairness. Brett served as deputy director of new media & videographer for the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania. He is also the founder of Worldwide Moment (an international photography project for peace) and the son of a 40-year veteran of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union.


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House Set to Act Fast Now that Senate Finally Passed Jobless Aid Extension

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Image: Mike HallBREAKING: The U.S. House of Representatives passed the unemployment insurance extension bill, by a 403-12 vote. The bill is on its way to President Barack Obama who could sign it as early as tomorrow.

After weeks of Republican stalling and obstruction that cost hundreds of thousands of jobless workers their unemployment insurance (UI)—the Senate last night approved extending UI to workers who have lost or will lose their benefits by the end of the year.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) promised to move quickly—as early as today—to ensure a House vote on the bill so President Obama can sign the legislation and get the checks moving again. Said Hoyer last night:

For too long, Senate Republicans blocked progress on extending unemployment insurance, which would provide immediate and tangible help to those who need it most, while also boosting our economy. Democrats remain focused on doing everything we can to assist Americans struggling to make ends meet and extending unemployment benefits is part of that effort. Now that this legislation has passed the Senate, I will bring it to the House Floor for a vote.

The bill also extends the first-time home buyers’ credit and some business tax credits.

Apparently Republican lawmakers saw little hypocrisy in blocking help for the jobless for more than a month, then voting unanimously (98-0) for the bill. It likely wasn’t a sudden epiphany that moved them, but simple political expediency—judging by the comments on our blog from angry workers, the Party of No Senators likely heard an earful about their obstructionism.

In September, the House passed a benefits extension, but several times last month Senate Republicans blocked votes on the bill. The bill that passed last night would provide an additional 14 weeks of benefits to employed workers in all states and an additional six weeks for jobless workers in states with a 8.5 percent or higher unemployment rate. Because the Senate made changes to the House bill, a second House vote is requited.

Nationwide, official unemployment stands at 9.8 percent and is expected to get even worse when October’s jobless numbers are released tomorrow. Some 26 million U.S. workers are unemployed or underemployed, and the long-term jobless rate is the highest since 1981. More than one in three people who are unemployed have been out of work for at least six months, according to National Employment Law Project (NELP).

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on November 5, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.


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14 Senators Urge Unemployment Extension

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Image: Seth Michals
Photo by Joe Kekeris/AFL-CIO

More than 1 million people hurt by the bad economy are at risk of losing their unemployment insurance by the end of the year. During the toughest economic crisis in more than a generation, 7,000 people every day are seeing their UI expiring—and it’s due to the petty obstructionism of two senators who are blocking the needed extension of UI benefits.

This afternoon, 14 senators from across the country joined together to urge swift passage of a UI extension, to give workers access to the system they’ve paid into and to keep families and communities economically secure. With unemployment officially at 9.8 percent and an estimated 26 million out of work or discouraged, we can’t wait any longer to extend UI.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said that the obstruction of desperately needed assistance to struggling families must end:

We can stand together now, pass this vital piece of legislation, and provide families with the means to stay in their homes and pay the bills as they look for work in these extraordinarily turbulent times. Slow-walking these benefits doesn’t just hurt individuals and families; it is bad for businesses and the broader economy. Helping people stay afloat is not a partisan issue—it is an urgent national issue that demands action now.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said that UI extension is necessary to prevent even further weakening of our economy:

The unemployment extension bill before the Senate is a great bill—one that will stimulate the economy and help unemployed workers across the country struggling to get back on their feet. Helping people who are about to lose a lifeline is the essence of what we do as public servants—that is why this delay is so disappointing. I ask those members who are holding up this urgent legislation for political purposes to do the right thing and pass this extension immediately.

The pending bill in the Senate would extend unemployment benefits for an additional 14 weeks, or 20 weeks in states with especially high unemployment. Unemployment benefits allow workers looking for jobs to continue to support their families and local businesses, providing a needed economic boost. Unfortunately, efforts to pass this bill have been blocked twice by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

Click here to tell the Senate it’s time to pass an extension of UI benefits.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on October 20, 2009.

About the Author: Seth Michaels is the online campaign coordinator for the AFL-CIO, focusing on the Employee Free Choice campaign. Prior to arriving at the AFL-CIO, he’s worked on online mobilization for Moveon.org, Blue State Digital and the National Jewish Democratic Council. He also spent two years touring the country as a member of the Late Night Players, a sketch comedy troupe.


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