Unemployment Benefits: What They Are and How to Get Some
I’m going to put the moral of the story first, because if you’re anywhere near as thick as I was, you will need to hear it more than once.
The moral: If you lose your job, file for unemployment immediately. I had Unemployment mixed up with Welfare in my head in a soup of Armageddon-type options that I would never be pathetic enough to need. I was wrong.
My Actual Stumbling Efforts:
If you’ve been reading my column here for the last couple of years it will probably astonish you that it took me this long to figure out Unemployment. It didn’t occur to me to file for unemployment benefits when I lost my part-time job. I was about to start an intensive class on teaching high-school, after all, and was going to get a job posthaste.
Except that I didn’t get a job.
I had met with Darien social services and then, when I was exiled from my home, with the Hartford-area social services agencies. None of them suggested I apply for unemployment benefits; they said I probably wasn’t eligible, I think. But it might have been Welfare we discussed. It’s all a bit of a haze, now, frankly, what with the foreclosure and the moving and the ex-husband going to jail and enrolling my daughter in a new school with only temporary housing and getting Medicaid and packing and putting everything in storage and sobbing in a ditch.
And, of course, I was about to be employed, any day now.
So sometime around September, when the school year started and I was still unemployed, I went to the Department of Labor to see if I did qualify for unemployment benefits.
Now, just to be clear, Unemployment Benefits are not Welfare. As Wikipedia so eloquently says:
“Benefits may be based on a compulsory para-governmental insurance system. Depending on the jurisdiction and the status of the person, those sums may be small, covering only basic needs (thus a form of basic welfare), or may compensate the lost time proportionally to the previous earned salary. They often are part of a larger social security scheme.
“Unemployment benefits are generally given only to those registering as unemployed, and often on conditions ensuring that they seek work and do not currently have a job.”
In other words: you pay into Unemployment when you pay your taxes, and you are entitled to the insurance if you lose your job.
I knew that even if I did qualify for Unemployment Benefits it wouldn’t be for much, because I had only been working part-time. But I had had the job for a couple of years, while finishing up grad school.
So, last September I waited in line at the Department of Labor, and when I got to speak to a person they told me I had to call on the phone to register for unemployment.
Thus began a series of calling the DOL on my cell phone and waiting, on average, forty-five minutes to initiate my claim and then file updates on my claim. I made an appointment to have a phone interview with someone regarding a retroactive claim, for all the time I had spent unemployed, looking for a job, not finding a job, and sheepishly sponging off my mom and brother and withdrawing money from what was left of my 401k instead of wisely looking into unemployment benefits.
Meanwhile, no money came in. My claim was under investigation because the company I had worked for was in New York, and they had reported the earnings in New York State, and I lived (and worked) in Connecticut.
Then I got a temp job for two weeks and then worked as a substitute teacher a couple of days. This complicated the whole unemployment claim filing process. I had been employed, here and there. Since no money arrived from the DOL, I stopped doing the pointless phone filings. My claim languished and died.
Until a few weeks ago, when I got a letter saying they had successfully investigated my wages and confirmed them. I was indeed eligible for unemployment benefits, but for only a small amount – about $160/week (I’m not complaining!). But still, no money arrived.
I called the DOL again, and talked to a live person who said that my claim was frozen for some reason. He told me to call the next week, when the “freezing” of my account would expire. These are the kinds of bureaucratic hoops that you must be able to doggedly jump through to qualify for Unemployment Benefits.
So I called the next week, and he said the account was unfrozen, and that I would get some benefits, but because of my failure to file after working temp and substituting I would have to have another “hearing” to determine retroactive benefits (now for two different time periods).
So, months of effort and I finally got a Debit card with about $400 on it. Of course, I was thrilled but $400 is not much for a family of three to live on. When my appointment for a phone “hearing” came I waited dutifully at the appointed hour but no one called.
Anyway, I still file for unemployment but haven’t seen anything since that first payday.
On a more psychological level, persistent unemployment is like having a chronic disease. There’s nothing like applying and applying for jobs and never getting one. Going to graduate school to increase your options and still not getting a job and then taking an expensive and intense condensed credential program and still not getting a job. You start to wonder, is it your age? Your gender? Your time off for parenting? Your bad credit due to the ex-husband? Could it be because of the things you write and get published on the Internet? Could there be a typo on the résumé? Why do Web sites report back that you’re “underqualifed” for a job for which you are clearly overqualified? Is there such a thing as being overqualified?
Or, the horror, perhaps you are socially inept. Perhaps you are somehow abrasive or boring. Perhaps you smell.
I sometimes ask my kids (both of whom seem fairly normal and well-adjusted), if they’ve noticed something off about me. Am I too somber? Too full of hilarity? You know how people who are off don’t know they’re off. If you ever smoked pot, way back in the early 1980s, perhaps, and had one of those bad trips, you may know the feeling I’m talking about. One minute you are confident and laughing, and the next minute you are wondering if everyone in the room thinks you’re a lunatic.
My kids answer that I seem normal to them, but how would they know? They’re used to me.
The moral: If you lose your job, file for unemployment immediately and relentlessly.
 “They” are the bureaucrats.
 I never discovered the reason.
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