Journal of the Plague No. 11: Layoffs

You can’t apply ONLINE (or as they put it “on-line”) for unemployment insurance after 6:30 pm in Iowa on weekdays.

As many of you already know, I was laid off from my job of the past nine-and-a-half years yesterday. I’d planned, when I moved back to Iowa, not to stay for more than five years, but, as the song goes, life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans, and thus instead I’ve been in the same house for nine years (five years longer than I’ve ever lived in a house or apartment or trailer in my life), I have an eight-year-old kid, and I spent almost a decade at the same job. It’s a strange world.

We will (thanks to the cycle of upper middle classness, which is much like the cycle of poverty, only you don’t really have to worry about much because you have a savings account and home internet and computers and family who will help you out if it comes to that, and you are generally—at least if you are white—treated as if you have money even if you only have the accoutrements of once have had it) be okay, but the tiny glimpses I am already getting into the world many Americans have always inhabited (and that many more are experiencing for the first time) are eye opening even for me.

Take, for instance, the Iowa Workforce Development’s unemployment insurance online application. It requires, I believe, nineteen screens of information. Late yesterday afternoon I’d gotten through about fourteen of them (it’s true that some are easy, e.g. “Are you a veteran? Yes/No”) when I had to abandon it for several hours for various reasons related to having a child and a dog and some cats and a mother who all variously needed dinner and walks and to have me watch eighteen minute riddle videos on YouTube and so on. By the time I got back to the application, I got the message at the top of this post. When I went back today to finish up, the fourteen screens of information I’d entered were all gone.

One of the things I’m proudest of at the job I held until yesterday morning was making faxing free. It came about because people were always coming to the desk needing to fax timesheets for something called Promise Jobs. I’ve always tried not to look too closely at things people are faxing or scanning, as they often contain confidential medical or financial information, but one day I finally sat down and looked up Promise Jobs and learned it’s this outfit you have to sign up with in order to get food stamps in Iowa. And you have to turn in a timesheet, and they were usually six pages, so we were charging $6.00 to people who were trying to get food stamps.

By comparison, unemployment is relatively easy—I have to make two “job contacts” per week, which doesn’t sound too bad until you start reading the handbook of all the other things you have to do and fill out. Add in figuring out your health insurance, updating a resume you haven’t thought about in a decade, and caring for your child (because of this whole global pandemic thing which means there are few to no options for childcare), and you can see why just plain unemployment could be a full-time job—and as noted before, I’m extremely lucky.

A year after I started my most recent job, I was quoted in a dated yet still relevant book by my friend Jessamyn West called Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide:

I love the internet. I love that libraries are one of the few places in the world that provide free internet access. But when we talk about electronic resources and the wonders of the web and putting the world at people’s fingertips, I think it’s good to remember that for a significant number of people, we’re giving them an hour of that world at a time, quite probably on Internet Explorer 6.

Laura Crossett, “at your fingertips,” lis.dom: March 25, 2009, quoted in Jessamyn West’s Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide, Libraries Unlimited 2011.

So yes, I’ve had better days, but fifteen years in public libraries have made me realize—or start to, I hope—how good I have it.

I don’t know what’s next, except that regardless of anything else, I will continue to advocate for the underserved, do my best to practice solidarity, not merely charity, and work in whatever capacity I can to help end the systems that perpetuate a system where an unemployment rate of 13.3% is devastating for so many and survivable for only a few.