I recently attended a mandatory employment session at my local job assistance center. I arrived at the session in a foul mood, partly because I was unable to find parking, but mostly because the notice I received informing me that I was required to attend the session was nothing short of menacing:
“You have been selected to participate in a mandatory program called the Reemployment Services and Eligibility Assessment Program (RESEA). Failure to participate or show good cause reasons for not attending by 09/16/2016 will result in a denial of benefits.”
There was no indication of what the session was for or why it was important that I attend, only the threat of what would happen if I didn’t.
I arrived that the center a few minutes late. There were ten people sitting at desks, watching a slide show. I sat down and scanned the first page of the packet I received. It was a calendar of job training and professional development classes, with titles like “LinkedIn Workshop” and “Interview More Effectively.” At the bottom of the calendar was a blue banner with a notice that a red asterisk next to a calendar event indicated it was a “great workshop for Mass Talent Connect.” This was a helpful tool. Any of these courses could be incredibly beneficial to a person looking for a job, especially an older person with a dated skill set. Every day of the calendar was full of free workshops with upbeat titles designed to give people confidence and improve their chances of finding work. It was a dramatic and refreshing change in tone from the registration email.
The instructor went through the agenda, reading bullet points from the slides. I looked around the room. We were evenly divided between men and women, and I guessed the age range was from early twenties to late fifties. One black woman sat in front of me, the rest of the room was white; a fairly representative sample of the population of Berkshire County, statistically speaking. I noticed a sign taped to the wall: NO CELL PHONES. I was keenly aware by this time of my hypersensitivity to the tone of government documents, but even this sign seemed unnecessarily accusatory. Couldn’t we be trusted to make or take a phone call if we needed to? We were there because we didn’t have jobs, through no fault of our own. The DUA’s own website said so:
“DUA administers the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program which provides temporary income assistance to Massachusetts workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own and who are able to work, available for work and looking for a job.”
Why, then, did I feel so guilty? I didn’t think I’d made any mistakes on my weekly applications for benefits, but I began to worry that I’d forgotten to check a box or provide a timely response to a request, which would result in immediate termination of my benefits. Immediate termination. Maybe I had done something to deserve this. Maybe it was it my fault after all.
As we got to the slide with a list of phone numbers to contact, the woman next to me remarked that it had taken her a month to speak to a person.
“A month?” The instructor replied. “We’re getting better, then!”
The fallout was swift and unsparing. One man had waited eight weeks for his benefits to start. Another woman waiting for her benefits had been sent to the Springfield office an hour away to submit her application for food stamps for her three children, only to learn she qualified for a mere $15 a month. Almost everyone had been disconnected from the call center at some point. Each story was the same: I called but was disconnected; I went to the site but it didn’t work. The tone became sharper, more aggravated. The instructor was sympathetic, and gave us a brief backstory: The Department of Unemployment Assistance and the Career Centers, while both part of the Office of Labor and Workforce Development, don’t interface with one another. Budget cuts and mass layoffs at the DUA resulted in those people moving over to the CC, so ironically the DUA was underequipped to deal with the number of unemployment applications. When vacant positions were subsequently filled at the DUA, the new employees had little experience working directly with people, and the quality of service suffered. This seemed to be somewhat cyclical, with modest improvements inevitably followed by another round of layoffs or budget cuts in one department or the other. The problem was compounded by the botched rollout of the online claim service in 2013, after which the Secretary of Labor fired the senior officials involved in the launch. Somehow, the instructor’s sincere though no less frustrating explanation softened the tone of the room. He was honest with us, and that was all we needed. A sense of decorum returned to the conversation. He mentioned the cell phone signs.
“Usually the person sitting right under the sign pulls out their phone and starts texting,” he said. “The reason for these signs is that we’re concerned about the cameras in the phones. If someone took a selfie and checked in here, and another person was in the photo, that’s a violation of their privacy. It might cause a really uncomfortable situation for them, and ultimately we’re liable,” he explained. Again, knowing the reason behind the signs was enough for anyone tempted to stick it to the man to put away their phone. We could all understand someone not wanting her employment status being broadcast across social media without her consent. We looked at each other and nodded in agreement, as if to make a silent pact: Let’s be angry with the State, not each other.
The unemployment rate in Massachusetts is 4.1%, one of the lowest in the country. But, as the woman next to me pointed out, “that’s just a number.” It doesn’t mean much to someone who needs to pay for child care for three children so that she can drive an hour each way to apply for food stamps. However, that number takes on meaning when it represents individuals instead of a part of a whole. 4.1% of the total population of Massachusetts is just short of 280,000. I imagined 280,000 unemployed people in an unmarked room with NO CELL PHONE signs taped to the wall, after having just received a sharply-worded mandatory participation notice and being repeatedly hung up on by the department that exists to help them. 280,000 people who hadn’t done anything wrong but were treated with suspicion and contempt in every single interaction with their government. Even the photocopied signs taped to the wall sent a clear message: “We don’t trust you.” Putting this many people in this position not only creates conditions that heighten the collective level of anger and frustration, but it gives the man at the front of the room a great deal of power. The instructor of my class listened to us express our anger and chose to tell us what he understood to be the truth: that the department was stretched so thin it simply couldn’t handle the number of applications and help requests. We empathized with the people at the DUA call center, watching helplessly as their phones lit up, knowing that 280,000 people were on the other end, depending on them to process their claims, and knowing they were going to fail. We were then able to collectively direct our frustration in a more constructive way. How can we change this? Is there someone we can contact to express our concerns? Is the DUA hiring? (This was followed by chuckles). I couldn’t help but imagine what the reaction would have been if he’d chosen instead to name a scapegoat.
It’s impossible not to look at this as a microcosm of society as a whole. When a large swath of the population feels they’ve been stripped of the power to make decisions in their own lives, they become understandably frustrated. But when they’re given a set of tools that don’t work by people who don’t appear to care, this frustration quickly turns to anger. As John Lydon said, “Anger is an energy.” Energy needs an outlet, and those in positions of power to affect change have the ability to provide that outlet. It can be constructive or destructive, and that direction can be determined by something as subtle as the tone of an email.
The DUA, though underfunded and poorly staffed, could take some steps to improve their services. One would be to simply identify and communicate the role of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Its job is to serve the people of Massachusetts, but nowhere on the website does it mention its mission. Another step would be to rewrite boilerplate emails, introducing language that reminds and assures people that the department is there to help, and give them a clear path to reach a person if they need to. The current accusatory tone of state government correspondence is impossible to escape, and it permeates every form of communication, from writtern to printed to verbal. The third would be to audit the content of the online claim center, identify the goal of the site, and simply remove content that doesn’t support this goal.
These are dark times for public perception of government, especially at the federal level. Conspiracy theories abound; policy proposals are regarded with suspicion, cynicism, and outright hostility. There is an opportunity here, however, for state and local governments to focus on the micro instead of the macro, and see what small tweaks could be made to improve public services. Involve groups of people to be part of the solution, even if the solution is as small as redesigning a “no cell phone” flyer. When people are treated with respect, they make better choices. Good choices lead to bigger, better opportunities. The converse is also true. So in order to make positive changes on a large scale, we need to start small. Very small.
And anytime you see a “no cell phone” flyer, chances are it’s there as a reminder to respect the privacy of the people around you.