I recently found myself without a full-time job. The immediate effect of unemployment was like suddenly breaking free of a bad relationship: I still had the best years of my life ahead of me, and I was emboldened by having in fact been made stronger by an experience that didn’t kill me. Get ready, world, I warned. Here I come.
Then I filed for unemployment. What I assumed would be a series of straightforward questions about my current job status turned out to be an experience that can only be described as harrowing.
It was a Friday, and I had received a printout from the HR office that included information on how to file, so I scanned it quickly for a phone number or website. There was no mention on the printout of filing online, but the back panel was titled “Obtaining UI services by telephone.” “It’s Easy,” the headline announced. But there was no phone number listed anywhere in the six paragraphs of dense text, which described in detail the four steps one would need to take after dialing the number. Another section of the printout was titled “You have a choice. There are two ways to file your claim for Unemployment Insurance benefits.” One option was to file in person, the other was to call the TeleClaim Center. Again, no number. I finally found the number buried in another dense section of text on the back of the printout unrelated to the first two sections. I called, and a pre-recorded message informed me that the office was closed.
Hoping to get this out of the way before the weekend, and running out of phone battery, I decided to visit the site. Not knowing exactly where to start, I googled “Massachusetts unemployment.” The top hit was part of the mass.gov site, so I figured that must be it. The link took me to a page titled “UI Online for Claimants,” but there was no indication of how to apply for benefits or set up an account. My first reaction when I visit an unfamiliar site and experience confusion is usually to assume user error. I admit to having occasional noobish feelings of online insecurity that can keep me from noticing obvious calls to action, and there was probably a big button right in front of me that said something like “Click here to begin” that my nervousness was preventing me from seeing. I parsed the page title. UI must stand for Unemployment Insurance. Check. I’m a person attempting to file a claim, so that must make me a claimant. Check. I’m in the right place. Newly confident, I looked again for the button that had eluded me. But there was no such button.
I scrutinized the site. What could I be missing? The top navigation applied to all of mass.gov; there was no option to explore the unemployment section separately. Below the page title and description were a few links that appeared to be informational and unrelated to filing a claim. I went back out to my google search results and scrolled down. All the links went to pages within the area of the site I’d just left, and there was not a single mention of a phone number or email address. I went back to the original page. At the top was a link titled “Skip to main content.” Clicking the link simply skipped the search function and took me five lines down to the page title. I started to panic and began scrolling. Below the first list of links was a series of videos, one of which was titled, “How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits.” Could this be real? I hadn’t come this far to not find out. The answer, after agreeing to leave the site and open the video in the YouTube app, was not only yes, it was real, but that it was over eight minutes long, featured music, special effects, an actress, and a narrator, and only mentioned a url at the 7:55 mark, which turned out to be the same url I’d just come from. I started to imagine I had uncovered a massive state government conspiracy: tax dollars on yet-to-be-received unemployment income had somehow paid to produce an eight-minute video that described in excruciating detail how to navigate a site that seemed to not exist.
By this time it was nearing 8pm, and with no other option, I heeded the wise advice of Dory: “Just keep swimming.” Weary, I scrolled further down, wondering if I’d ever hit rock bottom, and just below the online hours (online hours??? Isn’t the Internet on all the time?), and before the standard IE10 disclaimer, I saw two buttons:
For a moment I didn’t move. I was afraid that this was some popup designed to trick me into believing I could actually create an account, and that clicking it might lead me to an online gambling site. But after a few seconds it was still there, and I tapped “Apply for benefits.” From here, it was smooth sailing. I just needed my social security number and I could finally set up my account and submit my claim. I waited for my confirmation email, clicked through, re-entered my social, and was brought to the password prompt, which struck me as vaguely threatening. I hadn’t even had a chance to attempt to commit insurance fraud, and it was practically yelling at me, in oversized red type, that I only had four chances to remember the password I worked so hard to get before my account would be locked.
But I didn’t forget. I carefully tapped in my eight-digit password, correctly identifying upper- and lowercase characters, selected “Login,” and waited to take the first step in getting on with my new life, with time to spare before midnight. Instead, I was informed that the site was unavailable, presumably because everyone had gone home for the day and turned off the lights. Except that this is not how the Internet is supposed to work.
At this point, there was nothing more to do. I went to bed and after a fitful, restless sleep I awoke the next morning to find an ominous message in my inbox, alerting me to a “time sensitive correspondence” awaiting me in my UI Inbox, to which failure to respond could result in denial of my unemployment benefits. Again, I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt that I had somehow sabotaged my amazing new life, before I even had the chance to apply for said benefits. It could all be over before it even began. I clicked on the link without wasting any time to make coffee or even go to the bathroom; I couldn’t risk it. I tapped the link; nothing happened. User error. I tapped again. Still nothing. Finally I copied the link, pasted it into my browser, and the result literally took my breath away.
As Albus Dumbledore once said, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” People who depend on public programs to feed their families, find work, and afford housing, choose to do so despite a system so poorly considered that it practically guarantees failure. They choose to follow the rules despite official language that clearly communicates suspicion of guilt. They choose to seek out answers when their questions and concerns are repeatedly ignored. Can we blame people for being angry and for looking for other ways to survive, even it if it means not playing by the rules? Not I, not after this. I spent a mere 24 hours fighting through a single page of a sprawling government website that itself only represents a tiny fraction of the whole system. Imagine being confronted with this level of inefficiency and confusion in order to go to the grocery store, look for a job, fight a parking ticket, visit the doctor, send your child to school, or apply for public housing assistance. On top of that, public programs are often so tainted with negative press that the rest of the world seems to think you’re probably guilty of something anyway.
Navigating the unemployment process has taught me something no amount of higher education ever could: choices matter. And the fewer our options, the more difficult it is to make good choices. So go back up to that instructional video link, and instead of watching it, spend those eight minutes, eighteen seconds in the service of another. Tell someone they’re doing a good job. Ask someone if they need help. Call your mother. You’ll never get that time back, so make it count for something.