Getting unemployment benefits, a crusader’s battle

As the unemployment rate keeps soaring in the US, many jobseekers don’t get financial assistance. At times, the system appears obsolete.


Special correspondent in Detroit, Michigan

Livonia, a suburban neighbourhood to the west of Detroit. The car park in the shopping mall at 8 Mile Road – which inspired Curtis Hanson’s movie starring Eminem – is packed.

“They all go to the same place – the unemployment insurance agency,” said the manager of a local diner, while pointing at the office where dozens of people are sitting closely, waiting for their turn. Others are standing up waiting for a seat in the queue.

Dan Vandyke, a former engineer at General Motors, lost his job three months ago. According to the UIA he’s eligible for unemployment benefits, but Vandyke hasn’t received anything so far.

After calling the agency several times without getting an appropriate response, he decided to come to the agency in person.

“From 8am to 4pm they just keep playing the same message on an answering machine. What’s the use of giving out this number?” he asks. Vandyke arrived at the agency in the morning to sort out the problem but hours later, he’s still waiting in line.

Ten million unemployed, the symbolic figure reached in November

All benefits seekers had to register over the phone or on the UIA website.

“Personally, I thought the form was extremely confusing,” said Kristin Seefeldt, a researcher at the Michigan University for the Centre of National Poverty.

“Most jobseekers get their unemployment benefits within three weeks,” explains Shaun Thomas, one of the agency directors. He says the UIA is merely a last resort for those who couldn’t get their request through.

In November, the agency noticed a 28% increase in the number of registrations compare to the same period the preceding year.

“We’re used to have an unemployment hike at the end of every year,” said Thomas, who is expecting a new increase in December and in the coming months.

According to the latest figures of the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the number of jobseekers reached 10 million people and continues to climb. There are now 10.3 million unemployed Americans. That’s 2.7 million more than at the beginning of the year. According to the statistics, Michigan, along with Rhode Island, has the highest unemployment rate in the country with 9.3%, a figure which is expected to top the symbolic 10% in 2009.

“I’m number 830”

“Number 720 - come to the desk,” called out one of three councillors*.

“I can’t believe this!” said exasperated Vandyke. “I went for lunch and only 20 people went by. It’s no use waiting, my number won’t turn out today. I’m number 830.”

The UIA has only six offices across the state for 456,906 jobseekers.

“Why don’t they hire more people? Why are there only four computers when 150 people are waiting in line?” said Jason Middletown, an unemployed medical assistant who lost his job two months ago.

Middletown already survived a difficult year in 2003. Unemployed, he waited seven months before getting any financial assistance. He had to apply for public food stamps. “But then I was told that I should pay for the stamps because I was eligible for unemployment allowances. Do you think that’s normal?” In the end he turned down the stamp offer.

This year again, the UIA hasn’t given him the financial assistance he was entitled to.


“The system isn’t working,” he complains.

In the state of Michigan, the unemployed can’t get more than $362 per week. But that’s less than the national average.

Kristin Seefeldt, research investigator, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and assistant director, National Poverty Center, also argues that the system is not adapted to the employment market.

“It only fits for those who worked full time for long periods. If someone works part time, which is common these days, he or she cannot benefit from the system.”

“We have to eat, don’t we?”

Another setback is the length of time during which a jobseeker can get the allowance. It goes from 14 to 26 weeks, but there are more and more long-term jobseekers who remain unemployed for over 27 weeks. There are 2.2 million of them now in the US. That’s 65% more that at the beginning of the year.

President George W. Bush tried to help them out by extending the allocation period to 20 weeks and authorising a 13-week renewal. This new nation-wide system will be launched next week. 

“We come here for nothing. It’s a waste of time. You come but never make it to the front desk. What can we do? We have to eat, don’t we? And it’s nearly Christmas too,” said Middletown. The former medical assistant may have found a solution. He was offered a position as prison warder in Wyoming. “There’s no work in Michigan, we have to face the facts. The problem is that those who are desperately looking for work often don’t have the means to leave.”

It’s 3pm at the UIA agency. Jobseeker number 740 has just been called up to the counter. Only the extremely patient make it through here. Dan Vandyke and Jason Middletown have already left. But they’ll be back tomorrow.      


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