It's like a full-time gig

Navigating the unemployment system is no easy task ... for people seeking jobs, hiring, or even those advising the applicants. Anybody need a professional hoop-jumper?
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Georgetown relief depot, 1932

Navigating the unemployment system is no easy task ... for people seeking jobs, hiring, or even those advising the applicants. Anybody need a professional hoop-jumper?

My first moment of doubt came in the spring. New to the rolls of the unemployed, I earnestly walked into a mandatory orientation at the Rainier Avenue WorkSource office. I expected — or hoped, at least — to get some good job-hunting tips or resume-writing advice. After all, I had worked at The Seattle Times for 20 years and hadn'ꀙt had to look for work in all that time.

I told my job counselor I was concerned because I had to have surgery in May. I knew that in order to collect my unemployment check each week I needed to complete three 'ꀜjob search activities'ꀝ — either applying for jobs or attending state-sanctioned workshops.

What should I do after surgery? Was there something like a 'ꀜsick pay'ꀝ clause for people like me? Would I have to stop claiming my money while I was recuperating?

My counselor gave me a puzzled look, like she couldn'ꀙt fathom my worry. 'ꀜWell, you can apply for jobs from your couch,'ꀝ she coaxed. 'ꀜEverything'ꀙs done online now.'ꀝ

Hmm. I expected to be on narcotic painkillers, sleeping a lot, fuzzy-brained at best. Could I craft a good sales-pitch cover letter in that condition? Dozing off through some old Seinfeld episodes sounded more like it.

That'ꀙs when I began to realize: For all of the good intentions behind the three-a-week job-search rule, it'ꀙs often viewed dismissively — as a hoop to jump through with the least possible effort. Not just by job-hunters but by people doing the hiring, and sometimes even by the people charged with enforcing it.

On any given week in Washington state, there are roughly 200,000 people claiming unemployment benefits. Federal law requires every state to enforce the job-search requirement for anyone collecting benefits. Job-seekers must keep detailed logs of their efforts and be ready with proof in case they'ꀙre asked.

In August, the state audited 5,603 people and found 146 of them had incomplete job-search logs. They were referred for further investigation to see whether their benefits should be cut.

The requirement makes legal and moral sense: It lessens the risk of fraud by helping ensure that people collecting unemployment really do want to be working. And it reinforces the ethic that you can'ꀙt get something for nothing. After all, $611 a week, the maximum benefit, is real money.

Practically speaking, though, the rule is problematic.

This is the worst economy the U.S. has seen in decades. In Washington, 9.3 percent of people officially are unemployed. There simply aren'ꀙt enough jobs to go around.

For job-seekers, that can make it tough to find three suitable openings to apply for every week for months on end. And it sometimes leads to nuttiness. Corporate CEOs apply for entry-level office jobs. People with no experience apply for executive-level positions. A journalist friend of mine seriously considered applying to be a train conductor. His initial thought: He does like trains.

'ꀜIt'ꀙs natural. In these times, people are going to try for anything,'ꀝ said Sheryl Hutchison, communications director with the state'ꀙs Employment Security Department. 'ꀜSome might be trying to game the system. Others, I think, are making a genuine effort and they'ꀙre willing to try anything.'ꀝ

At the Seattle Repertory Theatre, an opening in August for an information systems coordinator, a position that pays less than $35,000 a year, drew more than 300 resumes. 'ꀜIt was insane,'ꀝ said human resources director Katrina Miller, who has just one assistant, a volunteer. A lot of applicants were 'ꀜvastly overqualified,'ꀝ she said, citing former chief technology officers looking to make $100,000. 'ꀜAnd a lot of them are uber-educated. We weren'ꀙt even requiring a degree.'ꀝ

On the other hand, Miller has seen applicants who are clearly under-qualified. One senior-level opening for an 'ꀜexternal relations'ꀝ director drew people with no fundraising experience even though the posting spelled out that requirement.

'ꀜThey'ꀙre just blasting their stuff out there,'ꀝ Miller said. 'ꀜThey'ꀙre not even paying attention. You think to yourself, are you even reading the job description?'ꀝ

While Miller feels the burden of slogging through hundreds of applications, she stands by the state'ꀙs requirement for job seekers. 'ꀜIf you'ꀙre going to draw unemployment,'ꀝ she said, 'ꀜyou probably should be looking for a job. I can'ꀙt think of another way to do it.'ꀝ

The state recognizes the burden all of this creates for employers, especially small shops. So as part of WorkSource — a public-private venture that serves as the state'ꀙs job-assistance center — businesses can find help learning how to filter out applicants who aren'ꀙt qualified.

For some people, online job postings can lead to work. But for others — including professionals, who have been hit hard by this recession — applying blindly over the Internet is not the best way to find a job. It'ꀙs all about personal connections.

Even WorkSource counselors say networking is the key to getting hired. Naturally, then, they should count it as a job-searching 'ꀜactivity,'ꀝ right?


'ꀜYou can'ꀙt be just meeting with a friend of a friend of a friend,'ꀝ Hutchison said. 'ꀜThose are valuable. That'ꀙs probably how you'ꀙre going to get a job. But ultimately your contact has to be with someone who has the power to hire you.'ꀝ

So what does count? Finding an answer to that question proved maddeningly difficult.

The state'ꀙs booklet for job-seekers, called the Unemployment Claims Kit, says, 'ꀜA valid job search contact is a contact with an employer to inquire about or apply for a job.'ꀝ

One WorkSource counselor told me last spring that to record "job-search activities" I had to send applications in response to advertised openings. Another said it'ꀙs OK to cold-call employers and ask if they have any openings.

The people at my orientation had received similarly mixed signals. So had others I bumped into through the summer.

So I donned my reporter hat and called WorkSource officials, something most unemployed people can'ꀙt do. What counts as a job-search activity?

Margret Graham, spokeswoman for the agency that oversees WorkSource, said that question would typically be referred to the Employment Security Department. When I told her I'ꀙd gotten conflicting interpretations from WorkSource counselors, she agreed to ask around. She got back to me two days later and said she hadn'ꀙt been able to get any feedback on the issue from counselors.

I called Hutchison at Employment Security, too. She didn'ꀙt know the answer. With me on the phone, she looked at the state'ꀙs website and found nothing. After reading the Unemployment Claims Kit, she interpreted it to mean cold-calling is OK.

Then her communications manager, Mark Varadian, called me and said the opposite: 'ꀜYou need to be applying for a certain opening for it to count as a job-search activity.'ꀝ

Finally, Varadian called me again with what he dubbed his 'ꀜgrand unification theory'ꀝ: 'ꀜIt'ꀙs all true. Because it all depends.'ꀝ

He used me as his example: Say you want a job as a technical writer and you don'ꀙt know if ABC Technical Writing company has any openings. You call the company, and that can count as a job-search activity for that week — as long as you'ꀙve talked with someone who would know about the company'ꀙs hiring, not a receptionist.

If the company has an opening and you apply, then you can'ꀙt count your application as a job-search activity because you can only count one contact per company. And if the company is not hiring, you can'ꀙt keep calling them and counting those calls as contacts. Also, if you'ꀙre a writer by trade you can'ꀙt call a medical clinic and ask if they have openings for medical assistants, something you aren'ꀙt even remotely qualified for.

'ꀜYou can'ꀙt game the system,'ꀝ Varadian said.

OK, I thought, I'ꀙm finally feeling a little more informed.

Never mind that for many weeks, I'ꀙd been diligently applying only for official openings just to be safe. For a little while, including after my surgery, I took a class that exempted me from the job-search requirement. But there were other weeks when I'ꀙm sure I applied for openings I had no business applying for. There just aren'ꀙt that many jobs for onetime newspaper editors.

In fact, I should go look at my job-search log. I'ꀙve got a nagging feeling I was one of those horribly under-qualified applicants at the Seattle Rep. If so, Katrina, I'ꀙm sorry. But if you ever need a writer, I'm available.


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