Waiting for unemployment

October 19, 2010

Rory Fanning describes a dehumanizing experience at the unemployment office.

SWALLOWING BUCKETS of pride, I walked into the unemployment office for first time, after a month-long job search that began when the bar I was managing shut down.

Every seat was filled, and the line of those waiting to sit streamed out the door. All age groups and ethnic backgrounds were well represented. The eyes of the unemployed were glazed over with embarrassment, resentment and fear. In spite of what was brewing below the skin, there was an odd, civilized, almost eerie silence hanging in this room with bone white walls, rigid blue plastic chairs, florescent lights and grey linoleum floor.

Two women in their mid-sixties, one with silver hair and red-rimmed glasses and the other in an orange silk blouse, were stationed behind high-chaired desks fielding the frustrations of the standing-room-only crowd, by number.

After taking my ticket, I found a spot in the corner next to the Pepsi machine. Number 80 was called, and I looked to my left and saw someone holding ticket 169.

I asked the woman to my right how long she had been waiting, and she said, "Two hours." She was holding 133 and pointed to the phone number, posted in big, black print on the wall, recommending we call the IDES (Illinois Department of Employment Security) hotline for updates on claims. She said, "The number has been connecting to a busy signal, nonstop, for a week."

A packed unemployment office in Michigan
A packed unemployment office in Michigan

A man wearing a navy blue security guard uniform, matching the color of the plastic chairs, yelled, "Anyone parked in the Burger King parking lot? You will be towed." A guy wearing a tan cowboy hat, sitting next to the window yells, "Yep! They're snatching cars right now!"

A woman whispered, "Shit" and began dragging her toddler out the door.

My grandfather who opened up a shoe store in Oak Park, Ill., used to say, "The first rule of business is: Find a need and fill it." In that room, I was seeing lot a need--for more people to answer our unemployment questions; and there were plenty of us willing to fill that need.

I realized then that the unemployment office isn't about employing people. Like the U.S.-moderated Israeli/Palestinian talks, it is about pretending to work on a solution for as long as possible. Because, of course, a solution would become the problem for those who depend on keeping things broke.

I CAN hear the lady in the red wire glasses say, "Sir, I understand...I understand, sir." The man she is talking to throws his pen on her desk, wheels around and storms out.

A few minutes later, a man in his late twenties with blonde hair, khakis and an IDES lanyard around his neck emerges from a checkerboard of cubicles and yells, "Who here needs their Tele-Serve number changed?" Seven people walk up to him. The lanyard yells over the seven: "I said Tele-Serve only. If you don't have a Tele-Serve question, please sit down." I waited for the words "boys and girls" to follow his command. Six sat down, and the seventh followed in short.

I pulled out my copy of Revolutionary Rehearsals and begin reading. I was holding ticket 177.

I soon lift my head and watch a woman power-walk, with relief, up to the orange blouse after hearing her number. Sixty seconds later, she turns around to leave with her head down.

The orange blouse walks back through the cubicles. Now only the red-rimmed glasses lady is answering questions. I bite my teeth and return to the book.

The labor theory of value tells us that profits depend on exploited labor. The more people we have waiting to sit down in uncomfortable, blue plastic chairs in unemployment offices, the more employers can squeeze labor for profits. This is why JP Morgan can post a 23 percent rise in earnings when there's a real-time unemployment rate of 17 percent.

An hour after I sat down, 102 is called. The women in the red glasses must have said, "I understand" two dozen times. I can't take it any longer and get up to leave, knowing I have a few months of reserves left in my savings account.

I walk by a DeVry Institute recruiting table, almost trip over a stroller, hold the door open for a priest, and ask myself how long will this eerie silence will last.

Further Reading

From the archives