Op-ed column: The long green line
Jobless benefit eligibility becomes years-long adventure
On Jan. 15, 2009, my unemployment adventure began when I was laid off at the peak of the recession from a full-time job with benefits. I was 50 years old and, as time passed and no replacement job could be found, I became what some have called a “beached white male.”
Collecting New York state unemployment benefits is more blessing than curse, but it is not an easy or a simple process. Still, the system works well in its own curious way, and the weekly reporting that produced weekly payments soon became a familiar ritual, as did the usually fruitless perusal of printed and online want ads.
Still, I was lucky — it was the start of the Obama administration, and two little-known elements of the stimulus package specifically benefited people on unemployment. Because my wife is self-employed, we had to rely on COBRA for our health insurance coverage — that’s where you retain your previous employer’s coverage, but pay for it yourself, which is cheaper than buying it on your own but still hard to afford with a maximum weekly benefit of $405 (mine was $398).
President Obama’s plan provided a 65 percent federal subsidy for those on COBRA who had been laid off during the peak — an arrangement that in a truly civil society would be as normal as government-sponsored firefighting services but, in this case, was a radical departure from the norm. With that subsidy, our monthly coverage cost a manageable $235. (It lasted 15 months and then the bill expired.) Another element of that package was a flat-rate $25 federal boost to the state’s weekly unemployment payment. This small bump became a bit of a boon to me, because my benefits proved to have a nearly endless life (details to follow), so I received that weekly $25 many, many times before it, too, expired.
So, let me tell you a little about how unemployment benefits work. First, your weekly benefit is structured as a four-day package. If you happen to work for a day or two, those days are subtracted from the original four, and you receive a pro-rated amount for the remaining days. If you work four days (or earn more than $405 within the benefit week), you will receive no payment for that week.
Yet, despite the concept of the four-day work week (a pretty nice idea if you ask me), the system requires you to be available to work on all seven days. If you don’t work at all, but are unavailable for a day or two (let’s say you were sick, or out of town for your sister’s wedding), the days you weren’t available to work also get deducted from your four-day total. In other words, you are given four days of credit per week but all seven days of the week can potentially cost you that credit. It doesn’t make sense, but you learn to live with it.
My own situation was more complicated. Before I had the full-time job, I worked for a long time at the same place as a part-timer and maintained my own small business on the side. This continued when I got promoted, but it was a very limited business and did not present a viable alternative to finding another full-time job,
especially in a deep recession. Fortunately, the Labor Department is OK with the laid-off being partially self-employed, so I was still able to claim my benefits — I just had to report the days worked in the business and deduct those days each week.
By the way, the deducted days are not lost forever — if you remain in the system, they get added on at the end, because the weeks you are allowed (up to the famous “99”) are counted not as calendar weeks but as four-day multiples of the allowed number of weeks. So the days that were deducted due to my part-time self-employment had the effect of extending the number of calendar weeks I would collect benefits.
In the meantime, while continuing to look for work, I went back to school, enrolling in the MBA program at The College of Saint Rose. This did not prevent me from seeking or being available for work (many of my classmates worked full time), so my benefits continued unabated. There is a program in the Labor Department system whereby a full-time student (12 hours or more per week) can receive benefits without being required to look for work if they can demonstrate that the course of study is likely to get them a job at the end, but my weekly course load amounted to 11 hours and 15 minutes, so I couldn’t qualify for that.
I’ve learned since that having an MBA is no guarantee of finding a job, and I’d bet the Labor Department already knew that.
A year passed, and then came the 2010 U.S. Census. I took a test, did well, took another, and was hired by the Department of Commerce for a temporary full-time gig as a crew leader. This was great — it got me off unemployment and gave me managerial experience with 16 subordinates. But it only lasted about two months, not even long enough to qualify for a new unemployment claim. But, with the lengthened eligibility my part-time self-employment caused, and the extensions available for my layoff time, I was nowhere near the end of my benefits.
When school resumed in the fall, I was awarded a graduate assistantship, which paid for a lot of tuition and required me to work 10 hours a week, spread out over three days. That left me with just one day of eligibility per week — or none on the weeks I had something going with my business — so I had to dip into savings to get by, while collecting very small unemployment payments, excruciatingly drawn out. But, on the up side, my original 99 weeks of potential continued to stretch out into time — which proved useful after I graduated in the spring of 2011 and still couldn’t find a job.
And then I got a surprise call-back to my former place of work, for part-time hours with no benefits, but better than no work at all. Meanwhile, the Labor Department also came calling and required me to file a new claim for unemployment benefits based on the graduate assistantship at Saint Rose. It didn’t seem to matter to them that it was just 10 hours a week, they were looking for a new source of revenue to support my never-ending claim to benefits.
In the end, the claim was thrown out because money earned at a college while one is enrolled there is ineligible for unemployment benefits. The result was that I was returned yet again to my original valid claim. The benefits from the month or so that it took to discredit the forced Saint Rose claim, however, will be lost forever.
Still, my seemingly immortal claim initiated in February 2009 continues. It has just ended its 86th week of payments, totaling just under $35,000 (before taxes — that’s right, unemployment benefits are taxed), while spanning 142 weeks on the calendar — and may yet qualify for another extension. Add the 80 or so weeks of the $25 federal stimulus I received, plus the COBRA subsidy, and the total value approaches $45,000. I have file folders of paperwork about two inches thick, and have logged countless hours navigating the system on the phone and online, but it hasn’t kicked me out yet. In fact, whenever I had a problem knowing what to do, the Labor Department’s agents always helped me sort it out. From the beginning, it was clear that they were there to help, and they did.
Now, the agent on my case thinks I’ve used up my eligibility, and he ought to know. But if the last extension I’m expecting does come through, and I continue to claim only one day (or none) a week, as I do most weeks now, this could continue well beyond the three-year mark. I’ll bet that would set some kind of record!
In the meantime I continue to look for work, and have several applications for full-time jobs out there right now. But interviews tend to be few and far between for a beached guy.
Still, it seems I’m pretty lucky, all in all. Soon, I’m sure, something will come through.
David Brickman is a part-time copy editor for the Gazette. He lives in Albany.