A Babe in the Bureaucracy.

by Regan McMahon



Friends of mine who had left the newspaper in previous buyouts had warned me: Dealing with the unemployment bureaucracy can be a real hassle. My company even offered a meeting with unemployment benefits specialists to explain how to navigate the system. I took some notes, but smugly thought to myself, “How tough can it be? You fill out a form and money comes to you each week. What’s the big deal?


I was a babe in the woods on the whole unemployment thing. I hadn’t looked for a job since 1983, and I hadn’t filed for unemployment benefits since two jobs before that. The last time I filed, you had to appear at the unemployment office every two weeks for an interview with a counselor and give names and addresses of the places you’d applied for work. Now it’s more streamlined, but I still had a lot to learn.


I walked away from the meeting with two main points: 1) File as soon as you leave the company, because there’s a one-week waiting period after they get your application before the payments start; and 2) apply by phone with a live person rather than online. I promptly forgot the first piece of advice, and the second turned out to be a quaint remnant of life before the economic downturn.


After carelessly letting a week go by, I finally phoned and got a recorded message, saying due to the unprecedented volume of calls, filing could be done only online or in person, “Goodbye.” Hung up on by the unemployment robot! Things were not off to a good start.


I filled out the long online application and the mandatory resume/profile so the state unemployment agency could alert me when jobs that suited my skills became available. So far the only emails I’ve gotten are more akin to a late-night TV ad: “Enjoy a new career in Web design! Make money at home!” Nothing for a writer/editor/book critic.


When I finally got my first envelope from Unemployment — four weeks after I’d left — it contained a notice telling me I’d incorrectly filled out part of the form and would need to re-submit it. I did, and finally, five weeks after I’d left, I saw the first actual check addressed to me. Well, almost. They had spelled my name wrong. That took another couple of weeks to correct.


When I wasn’t doing the unemployment tango, I was dealing with deciding on my health care coverage via COBRA, investigating whether to carry over my long-term disability insurance and life insurance, and consulting with my union rep at the Newspaper Guild over a snag in my separation papers, which I had not yet signed.


The normal procedure for buyout takers was to sign papers and get your final paycheck and lump sum “incentive” the last day of your last week before walking out the door. But my last week at the paper was anything but normal.


On Monday, the HR lady gave me my separation papers. When I noticed the snag and asked my union rep about it, she said we needed to go back to HR. But on Wednesday, the entire HR department was fired! You never know where downsizing will strike next. I didn’t get my lump sum until many phone calls, meetings and weeks later. No wonder I was having trouble feeling closure!