Unemployment Isn't "Easy"
July 29, 2021
By Natalie Shaak, Operations Manager
Many articles and editorials have blamed the current labor shortage on expanded COVID-19 unemployment benefits, with employers lamenting that no one would give up the “easy” life of unemployment to go back to work.
When I read these sentiments, I am brought back to the time in my life when I had to depend on unemployment benefits to get by. Nothing about that experience was “easy.”
In 2018, I had been working a restaurant industry job for about a year when I showed up one day after Thanksgiving and was no longer on the schedule - no notice, no reason - just zero hours. I wasn’t being fired or let go. They just stopped scheduling me, right before the holidays no less.
I immediately had a bit of a break down. I was already barely getting by on the $12.50 per hour I was making in the kitchen. But without that income I would definitely not be able to make my mortgage or utility payments. I had gone through most of my emergency funds and savings during the past year when I took this job in the hospitality industry. I did not have a safety net. But at least, I thought, they were continuing to provide my health insurance.
I scrambled, trying to pick up shifts that my coworkers didn’t want. I ended up with only one or two per week, if any. I broke down and applied for unemployment and began applying for other jobs.
The application itself was not overly complicated, but I could imagine it would be a bit more so for someone with less technology experience or lower reading comprehension than me. I filled it out, hoping I would not need it and continued looking for other jobs. I heard back a week or two later and found out I would be receiving some unemployment compensation but not as much as I would have made working full-time at my restaurant job.
I had been offered a stage shift (tryout) at another restaurant around the time I applied, and they offered me a part-time position. Before I could even get on the schedule, I realized they wanted me to the work the same shift as the one or two I was getting at my other job - the job that was providing my health insurance. If I accepted the new job, it would mean I was quitting the previous job which would make me ineligible for even partial unemployment and I would lose my health insurance. So I ended up not accepting that position and went back to applying for other jobs, documenting each application in case I was audited by the unemployment office.
Unfortunately I had listed that new job on some unemployment paperwork. The Department of Labor interpreted the situation as me turning down an employment opportunity, which would make me ineligible for benefits. They said I would have to pay back the benefits I had received to that point. I appealed twice and ultimately had to go to a hearing about the situation. The hearing officer was not kind or understanding in any way. She treated me as if I was trying to use the system. I felt like a criminal on trial, not a person down on her luck just trying to get by. It made me feel even worse about myself than I had before.
I was lucky I was savvy enough to even navigate the appeal process. Letters were received with required responses deadlines a day later with only the option of mailing or faxing my reply. Yet when I went to a print center to fax my required paperwork, the fax number would come back as busy, and I would keep having to try for hours to get through. Calling the unemployment office often involved sitting all day hitting redial every five minutes hoping to get through. Instructions were complicated, but I was fortunate to be able to figure it out. I can’t imagine others were willing or ale to put in the effort I did, which is likely why the system is designed that way.
They ultimately ruled that I was responsible to pay back the money I would have made from the part-time job I couldn’t take. I appealed again and they changed it to an overpayment through no fault of my own. I was given two options: 1. Pay back the overpayment now or 2. Do not pay it back but if I had to apply for unemployment anytime in the next three years, they would deduct that amount from the benefits I would be eligible to receive. I ultimately went with the latter as I had just started my new job at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities.
But a cloud of unease has followed me since. I worried that if I lost my job I would not have that safety net of unemployment to fall back on and could lose everything including my house. Especially as COVID-19 hit and so many people, including my partner, had to go on unemployment, I worried what would happen if I lost my job again before those three years had passed.
Being on unemployment impacted my confidence much longer than just the three months I received benefits. For most of my life, society had sent me the message that unemployment is for lazy or useless people who can’t find jobs. I was a well-educated, hardworking woman who felt like a complete failure because I had to apply for these benefits. The fact that it took me three months to find a job made me question my skills and start to think I was a drain on the system because I was not good enough to find a job.
I can’t help but wonder how many people who had to depend on unemployment benefits during COVID-19 felt the same way I did. My partner certainly would rather have been working than be laid off from his job, no matter the amount of benefits he received. To call the emotional and financial impact of having to depend on unemployment benefits “easy” is to show no empathy or understanding of how employment and work can be tied to a sense of self.
I remember someone telling me later when I recalled my experience with the unemployment system that I should never have felt bad about applying for benefits. That is the point of unemployment. It is meant to be there for people during a tough time. It was something I had been paying into for my 18 years as a working adult. They compared it to an insurance policy that I pay into each month. After 18 years without an incident, I had to tap into that insurance policy. People are not made to feel bad when they use their car or health insurance to cover them in an accident. Why should people be made to feel bad about using their unemployment benefits when things outside their control impact their employment?
We need to stop looking at unemployment or other public benefit programs as the “easy option.” They are not easy. The systems are complicated and can have a major impact on the emotional well-being of those who are forced to use them by circumstances outside their control. We must change how we view unemployment benefits.
The one good thing that may come from the pandemic is the number of people who experience unemployment for the first time during the past year and a half. Hopefully they can now see this program as an important way to support the health and well-being of our fellow citizens and themselves in time of great challenges - whether personally or on a larger scale. It is time that we view unemployment compensation as what it really is - an insurance policy, not a handout.