False Starts and Blind Alleys At the Employment Agency

CAUGHT IN A MAZE

January 05, 1992|By Ralph Gervasio Jr.

The Annapolis branch reception area of Maryland's Department of Economic and Employment Development office is set up classroom style. Regardless of the time of day you enter through those doors, someone is sitting in those chairs. There is no receptionist at first, but huge black arrows point to "Job Service" (arrow to the left), and "Unemployment Claims and Problems" (arrow to the right) which, appropriately, leads down to a lower level.

I find myself in the lower level, waiting in line to see the receptionist. The line moves quickly, and after explaining that I was terminated the day before, I hear the same words as those before me, and am given the same forms and a number. Then back to the classroom. I try to be attentive to the forms, but become distracted by a monotonous video that voices the truth and consequences of filing unemployment claims. The TV monitor sits atop a high stand, and on the stand is taped a handwritten sign, "Please do not touch." It's the same video, the same sign I had seen almost exactly one year ago. Now it is two days before Thanksgiving.

I wait at my desk among 40 or more other misplaced people for what seems to be forever. That's how I'm writing this piece -- sitting and waiting. Thoreau's words, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation" come to mind. I look around me at the other blank faces: faces of quiet resolve; of quiet desperation -- like mice ready to be released into a maze. My number is 38, and it is 1:15 p.m.

I look up from my pad and glance around the room again. Where's the job opportunities bulletin board I had seen before? Oh, the board is there, but instead of posted job listings, I see an illustrated, color-coded chart entitled, "The World of Work." No listings, just the "world." Hammond would be proud.

Nobody here is comfortable. Nobody wants to be here. It's not a pretty sight. To the left of me are racks of magazines, a display of Army recruiting brochures, National Guard brochures, and a stand holding college brochures. Get the message? A separate easel holds a yuletide "Seasons Greetings" plastic wreath. A voice bellows out a number from below, and a desk occupant rises to begin his maze march. His number is 35.

About a half hour later, my number is called, and I am pointed in the direction of a young lady with wide-rimmed glasses. She's busy finishing data input at her terminal, and although she doesn't look at this next body sitting before her, she knows I'm there. Automatically, and without a word uttered, she reaches for my forms, which she scans, and repeats the information I had sketched with my stubby, eraserless pencil. "Job eliminated," she says as a statement.

"Yes."

"Was this the only one?"

"No, there were six others eliminated besides mine."

"Now about the dependents," she says dryly, "do you have copies of their birth certificates?" (Somehow I knew she'd ask for them, since they were the only items I had forgotten.)

"Ah, no, I don't have them with me, but you should have that information already in your computer from the last time." At that she stops, looks down at her desk, then faces me with a pasted smile saying, "Yes, I'm sure I do."

"Well," I say, squelching impatience, "nothing's changed at all with my dependents' status. Can't we just . . . "

"No . . . you don't understand," she states flatly, "you . . . "

"Oh, I'm sorry, I guess I have to verify this each time."

"R-i-g-h-t."

"OK," I say, playing along, "what do I do now?"

She slips back into her set of routine responses. "Here," handing me the forms, "take these up to the employment receptionist for processing."

I meet a middle-aged man who asks me if this is my first time there, and when I respond that I had been in last year, he thumbs through a drawer full of cards (no computer here), and says that I'm fine for today, and that he will "take care of the rest."

"Good, I guess," I say turning away.

A few days later I receive by mail a notice that my unemployment claim is denied, due to insufficient moneys paid in from my previous employer. I see on the carbonized form that they have listed the wrong employer, based on my last filing from a year before. The notice says I have 10 days to appeal. Now I feel like a cornered mouse. I rush immediately back to the office, and, noticing that the classroom is overflowing (usual for Monday, I am told), I attempt to expedite my appeal.

The receptionist gives me an index card with the letter "K" written on it, and I sit in the classroom. After about 45 minutes, in which time I hear people's names, not numbers, called, and no letters called at all, I go back to the receptionist for some insight into the process. "Excuse me, I was given this letter by you, and I haven't heard any letters called. Could you tell me what letter they're on now?"

"I have no idea, sir. Sometimes they call letters in between the numbers. But you'll be called when it's your time."

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