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 V.21 No.37 | September 13 - 19, 2012 

Bear With Me

Unemployment Blues

The late Bill Call, a colorful Texas journalist-friend of mine, once said emergency management agencies were a solution looking for a problem. The words “solution” followed by “problem” bear special meaning to me, after months of form letters and sullen, vaguely threatening phone calls I have endured from the ironically titled Department of Workforce Solutions.

Some relevant background: I have been convicted (a very serious word indeed) of unemployment fraud, for underreporting part-time employment. The underreported amount was ... one dollar. I have been appealing, unsuccessfully, for six months.

I swear that I am not a crook, just incredibly incompetent with paperwork involving numbers.

Like millions of other Americans, I lost my job. Not because the Republican Party destroyed the economy. No, I was actually fired for insubordination. I like to think that I was disobeying an unjust boss, which makes me a patriot. My mom prefers to say I was fired for writing, which makes me an artist.

I am pretty sure I would have gotten a warmer reception if I were to walk naked and flailing into a 7-11 and ask to use the phone.

The benevolent state of New Mexico agreed with my mom, and awarded me unemployment. It turns out you need a reason to fire someone. Things were looking back up. Maybe I wouldn't starve after all.

About two months later, I took a part-time job. I like to work. Truth be told, I would have made $10 more per week suckling the government teat and writing bad poetry.

But the gig was a welcome relief. Dealing with the folks at Workforce Solutions was proving to be quite a drag. I am pretty sure I would have gotten a warmer reception if I were to walk naked and flailing into a 7-11 and ask to use the phone.

What I've learned: I would sooner sleep under a bridge than go on unemployment again.

There was a problem: I made $250 a week. Gross. About $220 a week after taxes. I claimed what I now know is called “net pay,” the amount of money you actually have to spend on food and used paperbacks.

I was supposed to claim $250, which, it turns out, is $1 above the weekly limit for income.

I claimed the wrong number. Anyone who knew me when I was crying over first-grade math or crying over basic algebra would not doubt my sincerity when I say that math is not my forte.

Eventually I left the part-time job to embark on a series of personal tragedies too hilarious to list here. Let's just say that it was like Knocked Up re-imagined by an Italian neorealist director.

Because I left my part-time gig to seek full-time work in another city, I no longer qualified for unemployment. After 18 more months of watching 18 hours of MSNBC a day with my stepfather, I landed a job. Happy ending, right?

Well, guess what? Soon the mail started coming. Form letters from Workforce Solutions. Two words caught my eye: “fraud” and “investigation.”

Once I recovered from feeling pretty deeply offended, I wrote a letter proclaiming my innocence. There had to be a mistake. I am compulsively honest. It's like a goddamn disease.

No luck. Guilty. Pay us $2,257. You have 30 days—or we suppose you can appeal.

I appealed. I got a chance to speak with a real live judge. I told my side: the lost job, moving home, making a mistake because I was under a lot of pressure, finding a new job, the fear that getting my check docked would wipe me out and make me lose said new job. I told the judge that I was a reporter, that my word was all I had, that being called a liar and a cheat was, well, horrifying to me.

Maybe I was a little frantic. But I was polite and respectful.

I thought I had been given an advantage by the investigator from Workforce Solutions—the “prosecution,” if you will. She was rude, insolent even. At one point she said huffily, as if I were not present and she were clairvoyant, “He knows what he did.” The judge had to have heard this and would save me.

I was denied. Then my appeal of that denial was denied. So I gave up. I submitted. Like Chief Joseph finally concluded, I would fight no more forever. I called the number to arrange payment.

No one replied. For two weeks.

I called again. This time, a gentleman manning the phones said I had to pay $249 a month or Workforce Solutions would take me to court. I said I can't pay that much. He said I had to pay $249 a month or they would take me to court. I said fine, and that I hoped he and his coworkers were having a chuckle. He said this was no laughing matter, Sir, and assured me that no one was having a chuckle. Not a big sarcasm guy, but he has a bright future in collections.

What I've learned: I would sooner sleep under a bridge than go on unemployment again.

I think of all those people who have lost their jobs in this economy—not because they have a problem with authority figures—and who may also have other folks dependent upon them for the basics. Are they also treated like shiftless scumbags if they take a wrong turn in the complex maze of Workforce Solutions?

John Bear is a backpack journalist, which means he writes, takes photos and edits. He blogs at johnbearwithme.wordpress.com. He lives with his cat, Scoop.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
 
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