Those of you who have been following me (and I know who you are, because my Bothan spies are quite good), know that I've been unemployed since the first of February. I've been working pretty much continually since 1984, which the Social Security Office has been kind enough to remind me, and I've never been on unemployment before. Usually, I've never been without a job for more than a few days, which should tell you something about this recession. Only once have I had an extended unemployment experience, and that was the time between Wizards of the Coast eliminating my division and being hired by Decipher; at that time, I lived off of savings.
To say that I have an aversion to public assistance or government involvement in my life is like saying Darth Vader is evil, or Smurfs are annoying. So when I received a letter from the labor department of New York saying I had to show up to the unemployment office for processing I was not amused. See, up to this point, dealing with the unemployment office has been a breeze. You can apply for your benefits on-line. You can claim your benefits and check your records on-line, too. In short, you never have to deal with a government bureaucrat. Until you get the letter.
I suppose the governnment wants to make sure you're not scamming them in some way. If you want to take their money, they want you to jump through a few hoops. For example, they may send you a questionnaire, which if you fail to return results in the loss of your benefits. Imagine that; you don't fill out a survey, you get no money. What if it got lost in the mail? What if you have one of those psychotic mailmen who like to stash mail in their attic, and you never got the survey? What if your roommate decided to use your mail as a coaster and never gave it to you? Anyway, reporting to the unemployment office to sign up for their employment services is one of those things you have to do, or else lose your benefits.
Since I didn't want to become homeless over this (you have no idea the overhead on the Fortress of Solitude), I reported at 9am, as ordered, to the New York State Department of Labor. Now, if you know me, you know that for me getting up at 7am is like trying to get a toddler to sit still on a road trip, which is to say it's pretty damn near impossible. I don't go to sleep until 4am. So I trudged down to the office on about three hours sleep.
I always imagined the unemployment office to be a soul crushing experience. Sort of the best (or worst) of the DMV and the post office all rolled into one, along with the stench of desperation from cramming all those unemployed people into one room. I imagined those horrible institutional taupe walls, perhaps festooned with helpful government awareness posters. Long, snaking lines leading up to two bored government service types, who keep shouting out "can I help the next person?", and chattering to each other about what they did for the weekend. I envisioned a lot of stamping of papers and moving to the next line....
It wasn't like that at all. First, you have to go through a TSA-style security check, mostly because I imagine they get a lot of wackos with a grudge coming through there. You know; some guy just lost his benefits and he blames the government, so he stops on down with a Glock and a thousand rounds of ammo.... I'm sure the danger exists, so I didn't mind removing my belt and having my bag searched. I'm just glad they didn't want to do a full body cavity search (because I'm very particular about who searches my body cavities).
When I got to the office, it was really quite nice. It was still the institutional taupe walls (don't they know there are other colors out there? Blue? A nice green?). Thankfully there were no informational posters on the wall. And the people were quite nice. The guy who started my processing was cracking jokes at the office's expense all the time. The security guard was making everyone laugh. I guess everyone understood that we were all depressed and desperate and needed a bit of cheering up. And the processing was quite fast and efficient.
They took my papers and asked me to sit at one of those school desks we had in high school. I waited and read a book. My name was called. I followed Lev the Caseworker to his desk. Oddly, there were no personal effects of any kind on anyone's desk. Anywhere. I must have passed 20 desks, and none of them had anything personal on them; I thought maybe everyone had been fired (which would have been pretty ironic), except Lev the Caseworker didn't have anything on his desk either, and he was clearly employed by the unemployment office.
Lev the Caseworker told me my options pretty quickly. Too bad he had a thick Russian accent and I had to make him repeat himself. Over there was the job placement center, where I could use the internet and fax machines. He would put my resume on-line for employers to find. And he gave me a giant list of job websites broken down by industry. Basically useless, actually. I'd expected some kind of placement officer who would make phone calls on my behalf; send me out on interviews; recommend options. Hell, temp agencies do more.
Most telling, however, was what Lev the Caseworker told me on my way out. I said "I hear there are some 20 people on the rolls for every job you have in your database." He said that it had actually gone up since the beginning of the year. "A lot of newly unemployed lately?" I asked. "You have no idea," said Lev, "there is no recovery out there."
Read that last sentence again. This is a guy on the front lines of unemployment. And he says things are actually getting worse, not better. So for all that hoo-ha about a recovery and a dip in unemployment statistics, things aren't getting better on the jobless front. Lev the Caseworker says so. So I shook his hand and thanked him for his time, and promised to email him my resume. He told me he didn't think I'd be unemployed for long, which I think neither of us believed, but it was nice of him to say. And I left.