Over 3 hours without answers

The guy sitting across from me is on his third unemployment extension. He names the company he used to work for — you’d know it, you probably have its products in your house — and tells me he got a giant binder full of unemployment information on The Day. The Day he had to let go his entire department and then himself.

The official name of the overheated office in which we’re sitting is Employment and Training Resources. I wrote about it when it opened back in the 1990s. The office manager touted it as a place for the temporarily unemployed to hone their resumes and learn computer skills — I don’t even think the Web was even in the mix back then. It was an office for the people who were temporarily without an office, he said.

Technically, I can call the unemployment assistance line to get an answer to the question that brings me here today. The state says they’ve added extra workers to the phone lines. I can only tell you that today in March, just like when I was laid off back in October, I call on Monday and hear a recording that tells me to call back Thursday afternoon and then disconnects. I call back this morning, just in case a human decides to answer, but it still tells me Thursday is my lucky day.

Of course, I’d really like the answer today. The website is rather vague, as is my unemployment folder. Here’s the question: I may be starting a part-time gig. It may not even be equal, at times, to my unemployment benefits, but there’s potential for growth. Rumor has it that I can get an unemployment stipend to cover the difference. Is there a form? Is it something that automatically happens when I fill out my online form? If I fill out my online form and indicate I worked that week, are they going to spit me out and make me go through the entire application process again if I happen to make more than my benefits?

I peer over my sci-fi yarn at a woman pecking away at a computer terminal. Her head is wrapped in a bandanna and her skin has the unhealthy pallor of chemotherapy. There has to be a special place in hell for an employer who cuts the job of a cancer patient.

A woman at the next table got there a little before me at 10:30 a.m. Together, we were told to leave at 11 and return at 12:15 p.m. while the one woman who is taking claims and answering questions today takes her lunch break. We both roll our eyes at two women in the corner who are gabbing about vacation plans, completely oblivious to the waiting crowd of unemployed. One of the waiting dares to interrupt their conversation with a question and is told tersely to wait their turn for the one woman who is dealing with claims that day.

We pass around bits of newspaper. I haven’t laid eyes on a MetroWest Daily News in months. It’s like running into an ex-boyfriend. I tell my friend with the third extension that I’m an unemployed journalist and we share a bitter laugh. His industry might come back. Mine is in its death throes.

I’ve finished my book. I’m on my upteenth round of iPod solitaire. Possible business plan: set up a Gameboy rental station right outside the unemployment office. You have to do something while waiting. I’m looking warily at the clock — surely, she’s going to call my name soon.

She doesn’t. The clock’s ticking. I have 2o minutes to get home to catch my third grader’s school bus. I leave the office, questions unanswered.

I bet she still hasn’t called my name.

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