Adventures in growing up: unemployment insurance


I'm realizing, now that I am once again gainfully employed and looking back on my several months of unemployment or very little employment, that there are quite a few things I didn't blog about having to do with the whole unemployment experience. In truth, the reason for that is that I've been a very uncomfortable combination of embarrassed and worried, and nothing I tried to write, or even thought about writing, came out sounding anything but whiny. I think the experiences were important, though, and worth writing about, both for my own information and for an audience. So, I'm going to attempt to give them their due with a little retrospect.

Probably the very weirdest thing, for me, about this whole experience was navigating the unemployment system. I went about it all wrong, which resulted in my getting only a few weeks of benefits, which didn't start being paid out until I had already secured another job. Next time I'll know better. In the meantime, for the sake of public service, here are some things I learned:

1. Yes, unemployment IS for you.

I never thought unemployment was for me. Growing up, I had a parent who was quite often unemployed seasonally, for weather or job availability reasons. He drew unemployment during his laid off periods. I was totally aware of its existence, and of the safety net (limited as it may be) that it provides. Why, then, didn't I think to apply for it the moment I found myself without full-time work? I have no idea.

2. Apply at the beginning.

Or maybe I do have an idea. Maybe it wasn't that I didn't think of applying, but that I thought I shouldn't apply because I might not be eligible, or because other people needed it more. Certainly by the time I was a month or so into my job search, I knew I could apply, but made the decision not to because I was afraid of being or seeming greedy. That's stupid. The unemployment insurance system is one my employers have been paying into since I began working at 14. It is available for everyone who meets the criteria (has the necessary working hours, wasn't fired for cause, etc.). I really wish now that I hadn't been so stupid and waited so long to apply. For the sake of full disclosure: my full-time employment ended August 31, I didn't apply for UEI until December 5. I did work some hours during some of those weeks, so I can't tell you exactly how much money I was entitled to and didn't get, but had it been 13 weeks worth of full-time benefits, it would have totaled over $5,300. Could I use $5,300 right now? You bet. Would that take care of the credit card debt I've racked up while being unemployed? It certainly would, and then some. Instead, I ended up drawing six weeks' worth of benefits, only two of which were not reduced due to part-time hours I worked, for a total of just under $1,700.

3. Be patient.

Another reason to apply at the beginning is that it takes a while to get approved, and, at least in the state of Texas, your first week's benefits are withheld until you've received three full weeks' benefits, or until you go off the insurance. I have no idea why. In my case, my claim was complicated quite a lot by the two days I worked for a new company in November, and it was sent out for review, the employer was contacted, etc. Since I wasn't fired for cause and didn't really quit, I was never rejected, but the decision making process was lengthy. My original application was on December 5 and I didn't start receiving benefits until the first week in January.

4. Read the rules.

This isn't something I'd do differently if I could go back, but if one was depending on unemployment to live on (i.e. wasn't relying on a combination of partner's income and savings, with a bit of credit card), it would be important to know that you are allowed to draw unemployment while working part-time, but that above a given threshold, your part-time earnings will reduce the amount of your weekly unemployment check. I suspect the rules vary by state, but in my case, if I worked more than four hours a week, my $415 weekly benefit started to go down.

5. Expect to pay taxes.

Unemployment insurance is taxable income. You can choose to either have the taxes taken out when you receive your benefit or pay them at the end of the year. In my case, it's not going to make a huge difference, since the total amount isn't much. However, if you were on UEI for very long, it would change your tax status, so that's something important to plan for.

The real lesson for me in this unemployment insurance adventure, though, has been a smaller part of the whole larger lesson of being unemployed: things are really really rough out there. When I think about what a hard time I've had, being unemployed for what amounted to four months, with a ton of support and resources, I can't even imagine how bad it must be for those who have been without jobs for much longer. And for those who have to make unemployment into something to live on. The $415/week benefit I received was the state of Texas maximum. That's just not much money. As is the case with pretty much all the safety net programs we have in this country, UEI isn't enough, it doesn't go far enough, and it doesn't last long enough.

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April 2012

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