Taking My Turn At Collecting Unemployment Or How To Drive Bureaucrats Batty

Haresh Shah



I am sitting in the front of the IDES (Illinois Department of Employment Security) officer Mr. David M. at their downtown Evanston branch. I have him  absolutely and positively flustered. He is almost on the verge of pulling his hair off his head – that is what is left of it. The few locks of  curls hanging around his neck from his otherwise bald as a water melon crown. He is a gaunt looking skinny man in his middle age. His eyes squinting behind his dense Coke bottle glasses. The shriveled frown on his face fits perfectly that of an accountant – overworked, underpaid and underappreciated, all of which he probably is. The more I answer his questions to clarify, the more confused and frustrated he looks. At some point he just smacks my paperwork down on his desk, kicks his chair back, jumps up like a Jack in the Box from a suddenly unlatched top and begins to walk to the back.

‘You’re driving me crazy!’

Nothing is amiss with my application. My paperwork is well organized and is in order. I am entitled to receive the unemployment benefits that I am applying for. Though I read a question mark on his face as to why it took me more than a whole year to get around to it. But that doesn’t disqualify me. No particular reason. I guess I wasn’t exactly hurting for the money and also because I had landed a week a month assignment in Florida. Procrastination? A bit of a discomfort and the false pride? I don’t think so. This after all is my second bout at collecting unemployment. But finally  my girlfriend Susan (Serpe) nudges me into it. You have paid into the system all your life. You’re entitled to it. Would you not claim what’s due you from an insurance company? Right! So a couple of days later I pick up the application forms, gather all the back-up paperwork and present myself in front of David M.

He looks at my application and studies it meticulously and checks off an item after another. Gives closer look to my work and the salary history. I can see him raising his eyebrows as he checks off my six figure salary, and lets out an exclamatory soft grunt followed by an intermittent comment.

‘Whenever possible, we try to help people find jobs in addition to what we post on the bulletin board. But in your case, I’m afraid, you’re on your own.’

Fair enough! After all, my kind of jobs are not exactly floating around like butterflies in a lush garden. Plus, in all honesty, I am not yet exactly looking for a real job. I still have my book to finish.

‘As far as I can see, everything looks fine. I’ll put through your paperwork. You will be receiving $321.- per week in two weeks’ instalments. Should you end up working during that period, you must report it. We’ll not pay for those times, but that amount would remain as credit to you. Your benefits will stop when you have run out of the total amount of the benefit you are entitled to.’

As if in a recorded voice, David M. rattles off the base information related to my application.

‘Any questions?’

‘Not really. I think you have explained it so clearly.’

‘Good.’ He says and then fumbles under his desk and pulls out a letter size pink form identified as Claim Certification. ‘Starting the week after next, along with your first check, you’ll receive one of these in mail with all your personal information already filled in. Fill in the info on the jobs you have been looking for during the period. You must list at least six in the columns provided, minimum three a week.’

Seeing my head lifted from the pink form, he meets my eyes, what? He asks.

‘How does one find six jobs worth applying for within two weeks?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘I mean, I hope you realize that for what I did for a living, isn’t exactly like being an accountant or an engineer, or even a construction worker.’

‘Yes, but there’s got to be enough to write to six of them every two weeks.’

‘To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t even total of six such jobs in the entire publishing industry that require someone running the international division of their magazines. The ones that exist, I know for sure are filled. It’s going to take some doing on my part to even find something that comes closer.’

‘I can see that. But unless we have evidence that you have been actively looking for an employment, we can’t possibly approve the payment.’

I should have left it at that, but I am in my ultimate being Mr. Honest mode. I venture!

‘To be honest, I would have to be making them up!’

‘I don’t think so. Whatever!!!’ I get a frustrated and the pointed look from him. He doesn’t say it, but what I read on his face is: why are you being difficult?  You don’t think we have time to go through them week after week, do you?’

‘Okay. I get it. I’ll do my best.’

‘Good! You can fill in this form and mail it back to us on Sunday evening. Thereafter, you will do it once every two weeks on the date indicated at the top of the form – but it must always be mailed on Sunday evenings.’

‘Fine. Except that as you may have noticed, I work part time on as needed basis in Florida and I am not always here every Sunday evenings.’

‘In such cases, you can ask your daughter to do it.’

‘I can’t because my daughter doesn’t live with me.’

‘Where does she live?’

‘In Minneapolis with her mother.’

‘But here you have her listed as dependent.’

‘Yes. She is. Because I pay child support.’

‘In that case, we need a copy of your divorce decree.’

‘There was no divorce. Her mother and I were never married!’

It’s at this point that David M. loses it and walks away from me. First mumbling to himself, then I hear him saying out loud to someone behind the partition of the cubicle.

Here is a guy claiming child support and his daughter doesn’t even live with him. Not married or divorced – no divorce papers. To that I hear some muffled conversation behind the confines of the cubicle. Soon I see a sympathetic face of a big black woman stepping out of the side of the cubicle, turn around and look at me. I acknowledge her by looking back and raising my hand in a greeting. She gives me a certain look, smiles back and disappears behind the cubical wall. I hear her say: He’s alright. Some more muffled conversation follows.

David M. Emerges from the cubicle a few minutes later. He stumbles over to his desk, plops himself back on his chair.

‘How long have you been making the child support?’

‘Almost six years now.’

‘Do you have any proof to substantiate the claim?’

‘Yes. The canceled checks.’

‘We need copies of those.’

‘No problem. How many do  you need?’ I think he wants to scream: okay there you smart Alec! But instead he manages to maintain his professional demeanor and says: ‘Just a few, several months apart would do!’

As I happily depart the IDES offices, I couldn’t help but notice David M. picking up my file and walking back, shaking his head. Relieved probably of ridding of someone like me who doesn’t quite fit into any of the slotted categories in their standard form. Little did the poor man know, or for that matter I did, he isn’t done with me quite yet.

A week later I receive my first check along with the pink claim form for me to report my job search and return. Everything goes smooth for a month and a half until I receive a payment for the week I had reported as being the one during which I worked. If I had any common sense, I would have just cashed in the check and waited to see if and when they would discover their error and notify me. Nope. Instead an honest citizen that I am, I call David M. and report to him the over payment and ask him what was I supposed to do with the check? But he doesn’t quite get it. Confused, he retorts:

‘You got the check and you got the certification. So what is the question?’

‘Shouldn’t I be returning the check to you for the week I worked?’

‘Return the check?’ I sense his voice spike by a few decibels. And then there is a pause on the line. I hear the silent tick of his brain. He is probably thinking: now what sort of an idiot am I  dealing with? He has doubtless never heard of anybody offering to return the payment already made. There is probably no provision in their system to accommodate a returned check. It suddenly occurs to me that I must have been a rare bird to want to return the hard cash to Uncle Sam. It also occurs to me that by attempting to do so means that I am pointing out an error someone in his office committed and therefore putting him in a predicament.

‘I don’t know anything about returning the check. Just hold on to it and we will get back to you.’ He says after a long pause.

A week or so later, I get a phone call from one of his supervisors – a Mrs. Lopez. I go see Mrs. Lopez and it seems everyone is confused about the over payment. She wants me to see her supervisor, a Filipino gentleman Mr. Lamagna.  He weighs in the situation and realizes that I am just being honest, and yet everyone seems to shake their heads at my simple mindedness. How naïve can you be?

Still not knowing what to tell me, Mr. Lamagna finally says: ‘I have made a decision that you should go ahead and cash the check. I will instruct our people to take money out little by little from your future checks.’

Everyone lets out a sigh of relief while I run to the bank. As far as I can remember, there was no such taking out of the over payment from any of my future checks.

Is it for the people like me that the expression honest to a fault coined?

© Haresh Shah 2014

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks



Related Story


You May Also Like





The Site





Hanging on the wall of my rheumatologist Dr. Harpinder S. Ajmani is the progression of a female figure from her childhood till ripe old age. Even though this chart is meant to show the deterioration of the bone structure, in my mind it conjures up the near mirror images of the three generations of beautiful women I once came across.