A Visit to Seattle’s Unemployment Office
by Markham Lee
During a stretch of post-tech crash unemployment in ’03, I caught a scene from the movie Renaissance Man on TV. In the scene, Danny DeVito goes to the unemployment office, and they basically just assign him to a job. Watching the scene, I remember thinking, “It would be cool if I had some place like that to go to,” because, at the time, dealing with a depressing government office that gave you a list of jobs you could just “have” sounded pretty sweet.
At the very least, it was better than living in the New York City area with no money, and thinking, “It’s a good thing Mariah and I stalled, because I can’t afford to date anyway.” It was the last place a healthy single person in his 20s and 30s wants to be. “I need to conserve my MetroCard money for interviews only.”
Seven years later, I was back in Seattle and on unemployment again. I received a letter in the mail telling me that I had to report to the local WorkSource, Washington State’s unemployment office, in two weeks to have my resume reviewed, take classes on resume writing, looking for work, interviewing, and other training courses. My day at the unemployment office was mandatory, and if I didn’t go, I’d lose part of my benefits for the week.
My reaction to the letter was what I’d describe as “negatively ambivalent,” but I decided to look at the bright side, and see it as a way to break up my current routine of working out, looking for work, and possibly warping my mind watching the twisted Brit sitcom Ideal.
I was in an especially foul mood the day of the class, because, two days earlier, I had been rejected for a job because I was considered “over-qualified.” This was a job for which I had agreed to take a 20 percent pay cut on top of the three pay cuts that had been forced upon me over the course of the last three years. Don’t get me wrong, I understood the reasoning, but that didn’t change the fact that it felt like having my desperation smacked down and laughed at.
The WorkSource office was located down the street from a graveyard in a nondescript suburban office park that was behind a Target and a defunct Mervyn’s — a setting that seemed oddly fitting. It was the kind of place you might film a dour sequel to Office Space because of its stark contrast to the gleaming, inviting office buildings housing Seattle’s tech companies.
Upon entering the building I noticed that a lot of people seemed to be avoiding eye contact with each other. I checked in with the receptionist, and was promptly scolded for arriving only five minutes before my class was to start. The letter I had gotten had said to arrive 30 to 45 minutes early because the slots in the class go quickly, but I had assumed that, “in this part of town,” hardly anyone was unemployed and I wouldn’t have to worry about there being enough space. It turned out that between mandatory attendance and people signing up voluntarily the classes were quite popular, and I had received the second to last slot.
After signing in, I was pointed towards what looked like a second-tier corporate classroom. It had a series of long veritable catering tables, a high school-style TV in the back, and computer projector in the front. The room evoked the memory of my old, musty sixth grade classroom, and the overheads my teacher used for math lessons. I used to look around that classroom and wonder if my teacher had changed anything in it since he first set it up 40 years prior to my arrival.
We sat down and were treated to a PowerPoint presentation around the services they offered: resume help, job listings, computers and printers, and even potential funding for people to go back to school, or get professional certifications. We then got an hour-long lecture on how to use Monster.com, LinkedIn, the importance of networking, and using the wide reaches of the Internet to look for work. It all seemed very condescending: “Your problem isn’t the economy; your problem is that you’re dumbass who doesn’t know how to look for work.”
It was like they thought everyone in the room wasn’t already trying everything under the sun to find a job.
The video they showed after the lecture was even worse. It looked like they had taken the sets, clothes and music from a 1980s employment video they’d show in a bad high school class, and just re-mixed it to include information about the Internet.
The rundown: A woman in a 1980s Lifetime movie outfit looks for jobs in the newspaper, writes a resume, and then goes on a few interviews, and because her friend proofread her resume, she gets a job. Many of the people in the room were rolling the eyes and stifling chuckles. I would’ve joined them but I noticed other people furiously taking notes, which stopped me from cracking jokes because I was too busy feeling like an elitist asshole.
Maybe the advice they were giving wasn’t so condescending after all.
Sitting next to me was a, shall we say, “bespectacled and comfortably built” guy who had the words disgruntled and frustrated stapled to his face. He was the kind of guy you don’t want to have any casual conversations with at work, on the train, or well, ever, because he’ll turn anything into a long-winded treatise on how persecuted he is. He sat down in the classroom right after me, and had spent the time before the class started sighing and muttering, “I shouldn’t have to be here.” Let’s call him Nerdy Peter Griffin, or NPG for short.
NPG’s persecution complex first revealed itself during a discussion on working with recruiters:
“I’m tired of these companies firing Americans to hire people from IN-DEE-UH to work as recruiters,” he complained. “I’ve told some of the local firms that if an Indian guy calls me I’m hanging up.”
He then regaled us with a delightfully racist story about how someone called him about a database administrator’s job, and when he called back, he was directed to an Indian guy so he told them never to call him again and hung up.
I’d guess that 40 percent of the people in the room worked in the tech industry, and we were all looking at each other like he was nuts, because while the industry in Seattle is predominantly white and male, it’s still not a place to work if avoiding South Asians is your goal in life. Besides, what kind of moron turns down job leads just because you hate someone’s accent?
About 30 minutes later, the instructor told us about a program people could use to pay for college while they were on unemployment, and how there were extra funds available for people who had lost their jobs due to outsourcing.
NPG grumbled about the program from the start, but the mention of outsourcing led him to another rant about how a major Seattle tech firm had a secret plan to fire all the Americans and replace them all with Indians. He tried to get a couple of us who had worked at his (ours really) former employer to co-sign his conspiracy theory but to no avail.
I was bored, so I decided to argue with him.
“They fire Americans and then bring Indians over here for a third of the price,” he said.
“They actually get paid very similar if not identical rates,” I said. “Even if they’re contractors, ***** doesn’t want the bad publicity from underpaying folks; besides, haven’t you noticed that many of the Indian employees have American accents because they were born here?”
(Note: The Company we used to work for had a lot of rules that the vendors had to follow, and they didn’t really save money on bringing their Indian employees to America, or hiring Indian vs. American contractors. I’m sure some contractors were paid less due to the cost of the visa or sponsorship, but the company paid the vendor equally regardless.)
A conversation with the instructor around some of the training they would fund proved frustrating. I needed a short bootcamp-style class so I could test for a Project Management Certification, but they would only fund classes through colleges, and those choices were limited.
“The classes on this list are either for novices and/or would take several months to complete,” I said.
The instructor responded: “But it’s still Project Management training, and it counts towards the education credits you need for the certification,”
“I can pass the test now, I just need to take one more class to meet the education requirement,” I said. “It makes more sense for me to take a short bootcamp class.”
“I’m sorry, maybe in a few months after we’ve expanded the list of training organizations we’ll work with, you’ll be able to do that.”
I wanted to argue more, or at least vent at how ridiculously things were setup, but I let the matter drop. The woman I was talking to seemed tired and overworked, and it was only 11 a.m. on a Tuesday.
NPG, who was convinced we were friends, overheard our conversation and struck up another conversation:
“You’re a project manager?” he asked. “My friend is a project manager. He owns his own business and every aspect of his life is super organized. He even gave his wife a list of things that she had to accomplish within two to three years — things like getting more education and a better job. If she didn’t do it he would divorce her.”
“What did she do?” I asked.
“She got mad at him and refused to follow the plan, so he divorced her.”
“Huh? No, he divorced her.”
“She’s a lucky woman.”
“No, he divorced her, and married a woman who listens to him.”
“That’s a damn shame, sucks to be her.”
“The first wife? Yeah.”
“No, you’re not getting it. I think your friend is an asshole and his first wife is better off, I feel sorry for the second wife for not having better options.”
He started mumbling something about his friend not being an asshole, but I was tuning him out at that point. It was around two in afternoon, and I didn’t even feel like making a sarcastic comment about his friend not hiring him. I was too busy regretting not staying home, and just taking the hit of losing a day of unemployment money.
During an open discussion, it was revealed that one of the women in the class was homeless and had taken the bus from the poor part of town because our WorkSource office provided better services. It turned out she wasn’t only the homeless or near homeless (couch surfer) person in the room, as a couple of other people raised their hands and admitted they were in similar situations.
It goes without saying that NPG and a few others grumbled. I was reminded of this horrible classmate from one of my AP classes in high school who complained that the special needs children got so much funding. “The smart kids in the AP classes should get the most funding, not them,” she loved to say as if she was rallying us against oppression.
The homeless woman had a lot of questions, and her spirits picked up as the discussion went on because it was probably the most help she had received in months. NPG wasn’t amused. He shouted at the woman to shut up so we could get through the day faster.
“You’re holding everyone up — we can get out of here faster if you stop wasting everyone’s time.”
I hate to admit it, but part of me wanted EVERYONE to stop asking questions so we could get to the last lecture of the day because we were more than hour behind schedule. After spending several hours marinating in a stew of unemployed, frustrated people being reminded of their situation, as opposed to working to fix it and/or trying to make the best of it, I just wanted to get as far away from these people as possible.
Being reminded that there are others like you, many of whom have it worse is simultaneously enlightening and depressing, but at 3–3:30 PM it’s mostly the latter.
I gave NPG an exasperated look and said: “I’m sick of hearing your constant complaining. We’re all frustrated and are here to find help, and your incessant whining isn’t helping things.”
NPG finally figured out that we weren’t friends.
Despite all the grumbling, the open discussion was helpful for many of the folks in the room, and a couple of them even made connections and plans to help each other. More than anything, people got to vent in an environment that didn’t result in employed people being given condescending advice: “Have you tried that really obvious thing I’m assuming you’re too lazy or stupid to have tried?” Still, it would’ve been more fun but admittedly grossly fiscally irresponsible, accomplishing all of this in a pub.
Walking out to the parking lot, most people kept their heads down and didn’t make eye contact. It was like that time I had to serve lunchtime detention in high school, and was surprised to see a teammate from the track team in the room. We never talked about it, we just knew: I would never mention seeing her, and she would never mention seeing me.
I went home, returned to my job search, and found a job two months later. To this day I still hate driving by WorkSource and hate shopping at that Target.
NPG crosses my mind from time to time, and I always hope that he found a job that requires him to work with an Indian call center that’s located right next door to an Indian restaurant.
Markham Lee is a freelance writer based in Seattle who has spilled pixels on topics ranging from music, relationships, television, and those instances where life is stranger than fiction. He’s also working on a science fiction novel he hopes to finish before 2020. His work has been published by Nerve.com, The Frisky, Pop Matters, and Seeking Alpha. You can find more of his writing on his blog, and some of his more random, yet semi-intelligent thoughts on Twitter. Photo: skilledwork.org