On the Dole Again: Lament of the Unemployed

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

A few months ago, I received a letter from the California Employment Development Department (EDD), indicating that I might qualify for yet another federal extension of unemployment insurance (UI). As I wondered at this amazing government largesse, my dear, darling and gainfully-employed husband reminded me of the hundreds of thousands of dollars I have paid into government coffers over the last thirty-six years, taking the fun out of what had heretofore felt like a gift. Killjoy.

GorpAnyway, the letter said if I were to qualify for the next extension, I could just sit tight because EDD would process the claim for me and keep on sending those bi-weekly claim forms and checks, so I could continue eating my chocolate-laced gorp; watching my lineup of soapy, scripted lives portrayed by unexceptional actors who forsook Hollywood hopes for the joys of regular paychecks; and ordering monstrosities made by enslaved children for other unexceptional actors to model on the shopping channels.

Impressed with the ease and respectful nature of the UI process (I had previously jotted notes of heartfelt thanks on claim forms, even though a heartless computer scanner was the likely recipient of my gratitude) and well aware that I could not get a live UI representative on the phone (I spent three hours and forty-seven minutes one morning when the cable TV was down hitting the redial button to no avail), I assumed a wait-and-see attitude and returned to my activities of daily living.

Shortly thereafter, I received the final UI check from the previous federal extension. Knowing it might be the last, I debated whether to spend it on Christmas gifts for everyone on my list who had not said anything idiotic in at least a fortnight or for everyone on my list who had voted for Barack Obama. The debate concluded when it became apparent the two lists were mutually inclusive. However, some weeks later, having received no communication from EDD — no bi-weekly claim forms, no checks, no love notes, no nada — I realized I had not qualified for the next federal extension.

That last check was indeed the last. So, in a fit of pique I took it to one of the many local casinos and blew the whole thing on five-dollar slots.

Not really. Although I’m pleased at least some tribes have figured out a way to be reimbursed for the lands the white guys with bigger guns took from them, I cannot condone gambling. No, no, no. In actuality, I went the Obama voter Christmas gift route.

Nope, didn’t do that either. In a burst of self-indulgence, I spent it all on slinky lingerie.

OK, if you knew me, you’d know that’s a joke, and you’d know just how absurd — and unbecoming — a thought it is. In fact, I put the check in the bank. And then charged a plasma screen TV. Just kidding — you have to find cheap fun when you’re on the dole.

A few weeks later, out of the blue, I received three bi-weekly claim forms from EDD for the next federal extension. Yippee! I resumed counting UI a nice benefit of these great United States, completed the forms, signed them and was about to stick them in their envelopes, when I noticed I’d filled in a “Yes” box on one form where I should have responded “No.” I distinctly exed out the “Yes,” solidly filled in the “No,” and dropped the forms in the mail, once again duly impressed with the ability of a vast bureaucracy to serve little old me with such relative ease. Then I waited for the checks to restart.

In the meantime, I spent my days dining on a healthier gorp blend (heavier on the blueberries and almonds for their anti-oxidant benefits and lighter on the chocolate); watching a new lineup of those humiliating judge shows, because they made my paltry unemployed life feel so exquisitely superior; and flaccidly cruising eBay, yearning — inconsummately, due to the delay of my UI checks — to purchase such gems as a collection of three vintage, mint-condition Cowsills albums that Cowsill Flyer NEWwould be just perfect to take to Bob Cowsill’s upcoming concert in my little town of Fallbrook, along with my Cowsills fan club membership certificate and signed poster from 1969, if I could just find them.

One hot and sticky afternoon, with my tushy in the air and my head submerged under the bed, fruitlessly searching for my Cowsills memorabilia, I heard the faint opening and closing of the mailbox. Spitting dust balls and frustration, I retrieved the mail and found another EDD letter, hidden in a haberdashery catalogue. Unlike lingerie catalogues, clearly designed for the male audience, I find the intended target of haberdashery collateral mystifying. Nonetheless, the EDD letter was clear and direct. It indicated a telephone interview had been scheduled for me and firmly stated I had better be prepared to answer questions pertaining to why I had been unable to accept full-time work. “Or else” was strongly implied.

I cursed the computer that had neither noticed my appreciative comments nor my corrected “No” response to question number 2, “Was there any reason (other than sickness or injury) that you could not have accepted full time work each workday?” Then I added a bag of Ghirardelli chocolate chips to my gorp, turned on a novella (I figured I could at least practice my Spanish while losing myself in the soap’s misery), put the Cowsill’s album collection on the credit card, and awaited my interview to right the computer’s inhuman wrong.

On the appointed day, I received a call from a fellow with the singsong speech of a technical support person laboring in the bowels of Mumbai. I thanked him for the call, explained I had no tech support requirements, and tried to get off the phone. He was persistent and a little difficult to understand, but after my third “Excuse me?” I realized he was introducing himself as “Ben.” It seemed an interesting choice for someone working in an IT sweatshop in India. Perhaps it was a nod to Ben Franklin, a man of many accomplishments worthy of such sweet recognition. Or maybe the fellow was delivering some veiled commentary on our economic woes by assuming the given name of Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Bernanke.

As it turns out, I never learned why he chose Ben, because I suddenly recognized the words “Employment Development Department,” and I swiftly pedaled to correct our inauspicious start. “Ooh, I’m so sorry. I couldn’t quite hear you. How are you, today?”

“Fine, thank you,” and Ben proceeded to ask me if I were available for full-time employment. “Yep,” I said. He asked if I were doing anything that would preclude my accepting full-time employment. “Nope,” I assured him. “Because,” Ben said, “if you were offered full-time employment, you must be able to accept it.” “Well, of course,” I said. “You are certain,” Ben asked, “if you were offered full-time employment you would be able to accept it?”

This was a confusing interview, and I worried it might not end well. So, despite a sense that as a beneficiary of UI, I should embrace my Southern roots and just follow Ben’s manly lead, I decided to take a more directive approach.

“Oh, sure, I’d be able to accept it. But you know, I think the problem here is simply that I checked the wrong box on the form. If you have access to my claim forms, you’ll see I corrected it. That’s why you’re calling, right? But it was just an error, and I fixed it, and you know how computers are,” which statement caused me to stop short because, of course, he was not the tech support fellow I’d first assumed and perhaps he didn’t know how computers are and maybe I was a racist pig to have made the original assumption. Rats, I thought, and I wondered if I could cancel the Cowsills order.

“No,” Ben said, “we are calling because you reported that you had earnings. I see here you had earnings in April. What did you do to earn this money?”

I had written the answer to that question on the form under his nose, but I explained anyway. “I write occasional book reviews for a newspaper, which comes to about seventeen cents an hour, but I figure it saves the government a few dollars.” And then I waited for his expression of heartfelt appreciation for my honesty.

Instead, he said, “Please explain the work you did to earn this money.”

“Explain book reviews?” I was even more confused and began my typical diarrhetic nervous spew. “I read books and then I wrote critiques of them. You know, what I thought of them, as, like, books.” And then I rallied a bit. “Actually, I haven’t been particularly impressed by the authors so far — they certainly aren’t Salman Rushdies or Jhumpa Lahiris — but stringers can’t be choosers.” Nice touch on the Indian authors, I applauded myself. Sadly, it had no effect.

“Was this full-time work that you did?”

“No, I’m a stringer, a freelancer. It’s similar to piecework.”

“Did this work prevent you from accepting full-time employment?”

“Excuse me?”

“Did you sign a contract for this work that would prevent you from accepting full-time employment?”

“Ah, nope.” This was weird.

“And this work you did, it does not prevent you from accepting full-time employment?”

“I sense you think I did something wrong by doing freelance work?”

“No, but you must be available to accept full-time employment. Are you available to accept full-time employment?”

“Yes, I am available to accept full-time employment.”

“You are certain you are available to accept full-time employment?”

I was certain of nothing at this point, but, in flailing defensive mode, I resorted to fabrication. “Yes, I am certain.”

“OK then. Thank you for your time. Good day.”

And that was it: The UI checks had stopped for ten weeks because I reported earning one hundred dollars for a couple book reviews — self-published books at that! I wondered what EDD would do when it laid human eyes on the teaching income I reported in May, then I contemplated the dismal descent into the hell fires of self-publishing and fretted that I might one day face the excruciating choice between that and full-time employment, and then a worrisome thought occurred to me.

What about the people who don’t have working spouses? What about the people who rely on unemployment insurance to feed their kids, to keep roofs over their heads? What are they supposed to do when they report a bit of income and their checks are stopped until their names pop up on the call list of flagrant abusers of the UI system? What about them?

Images of The Full Monty’s dancing dole line flashed before my eyes and I realized my hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone to a bureaucracy that only works if you don’t really need it. This epiphany was more than I could bear in my flustered state. I reached for the gorp.

Love, K-B

©2009 Kit-Bacon Gressitt

(Photo "Gorped Out" by Stephen Cummings via a Creative Commons license.)