Dealing With the Unemployment Office

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

Technical people are not always aware of how to deal with unemployment. For one thing, we tend to be a bit driven - and a bit proud. Some people are actually confused about the difference between unemployment insurance and welfare, and are too proud to collect. Remember, unemployment INSURANCE - would you NOT collect your car insurance if somebody hit your parked car?

Another reason is lack of knowledge and/or understanding of how it all works. Losing your job is depressing and frightening, even if it's through no fault of your own. Talk to your unemployment people, figure it out.

1099 Consulting

A friend was offered a short consulting gig (about 10 hours) but wasn't sure if he could take it, for fear of it screwing his unemployment up. Talk to the people at your unemployment office and ask them about it.

A few years ago I asked about this topic at my local unemployment office - remember, the organization and rules vary from state to state, so talk to your local office. They told me that if I took a consulting gig, it would only temporarily suspend my unemployment - i.e. if my benefits were $300 a week and I gross $900, I would notify the unemployment office and they would skip three weeks of checks, then on the fourth week I'd start getting checks again, without any extra hassle. My unemployment benefits would be extended by three calendar weeks as well.

Of course, I've never actually TRIED this. Because I got an offer damn quick last time. But my point is, talk to them, ask them about it.

The lesson is, check into it, and try. There are all sorts of good reasons to do so - also, learn to work with your unemployment officials. More on that below, but first a short digression into why you should try for short-term gigs, even if it seems silly to work for the same amount of money you could be getting from unemployment.

It seems silly to take that $900 contract when you add it up, but there are all kinds of reasons to do it. First, it keeps your hand in. Second, it keeps you thinking in terms of working, which is essential when you're job hunting. Third, it's good for your confidence. Fourth, you learn a lot by working on your own - a lot about yourself, about work habits, about dealing with people. Fifth, hey, it does extend your unemployment (but check on this with your local unemployment people). Sixth, it keeps you in motion, which always looks good to potential employers.

Some people may be relucant to talk to their unemployment office about this topic - they may be afraid of invalidating their unemployment benefits, or something. My advice is to be careful what you say - you want to avoid inadvertantly giving the impression that you're already consulting, or that you have a job in hand. But do go in and talk to your unemployment people. If you take the right approach, present yourself the right way, and respect them, you'll find that you can learn an amazing amount, and they can be incredibly helpful.

Just go in and say, "Okay, so I'm job hunting, but you know about the tech slump, so it may not be easy. This is not like looking for a job flipping burgers. But what I want to know is, should I be looking for quick gigs, a few hours here, a few hours there? Or will taking something like that screw up my unemployment?"

Well, you don't say it exactly that way - you want to sound a bit more professional about it. But that's the tone you want to have.

Bear in mind two things. The first is, the people working these jobs are basically human beings. They want to help people, but they're overburdened and overstressed. They also may be in a bad mood when they get to you, because of somebody before you. So your attitude will count for a lot. Also, persistence (diligence) counts for a lot.

Be sympathetic to them, try to at least empathize with them, and as much as possible make their job easier. Try to make dealing with you a pleasent experience for them. Much of the time they're dealing with chronic losers. I'm not saying that people on unemployment are chronic losers. But I'd say it's a safe bet that the chronic losers are probably trying to get money from unemployment.

This brings me to my second point, which is that you have to convince them that you are not a loser and are worth them putting their time into. I mean, think of how you feel about projects. You're tired of putting your time into loser projects, you're actually EAGER to find good projects to put time into. So are they.

So how you do this is, besides your attitude and persitence, is how you present yourself to them.

Do your homework. Have it all with you. Get a folder of some sort - not a file folder, something bigger, more like a portfolio, but at least a little professional looking. (Not too professional, don't want them thinking you're privileged or that you're putting on airs.)

Not only will it help you keep your shit in order, it will impress them.

Always, ALWAYS treat a trip to unemployment like a low-key job interview. Don't wear a suit (unless you notice that most everybody in your unemployment office waiting area is wearing a suit), but dress nicely, office casual, clean, if you're a guy with long hair, tie it back neatly.

Don't miss appointments and don't be late, but also don't go in if you can't go in looking nice. If you are going to be late, or have to miss an appointment, always, ALWAYS call and tell them. Call them beforehand, even if it's only five minutes beforehand, but call them anyway, even if you're already late. Have a good explanation - they understand that you have a life, and they know that your primary job is finding a job - the best excuse is being asked to go to an interview during that time slot :-). Second best might be that you had a phone interview or a call about a job.

When you do go to unemployment, bring something to read - something technical. So a) you can wait patiently and b) you can look digilent while waiting patiently. I prefer O'Reilly books, though I also bring along printouts and the occasional programming magazine. Rarely bring a magazine along, however, it looks too lackadaisical (even a professional magazine). I do this for job interviews as well (although at job interviews I'm less worried about looking too professional).

Seriously, the other thing is, besides the issue of how much time they have to spare, these people often have a LOT of lattitude. And they will use it if they are convinced you're worth it. And if they personally don't have the lattitude, they often know how to work the system.

And that's something else you have to do - part of being persistent and diligent. Ask questions, follow up. So they say, "Can't do that." You say, "Hm, okay, so are there any other options? Is there anybody I can talk to?" Play upon their pride in their expertise.

Pay attention and keep notes - standard interviewing-for-knowledge approach. It's the difference between somebody just doing their job and somebody making it their personal mission to help you succeed.

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