Unemployed Workers Flood Calif. Job Centers
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
While the national unemployment rate is bad, at 7.6 percent, in California, it's worse. The rate there is a whopping 9.3 percent. On top of that, today, more than 200,000 state workers were told to stay home from work without pay. It's an effort to save the state money.
Department of Motor Vehicles offices are closed, so is the Department of Consumer Affairs. Still open: employment centers that help people file unemployment claims, and they are swamped with new applicants. Nancy Mullane has the story.
NANCY MULLANE: It's not quite 8 in the morning and already, a dozen people stand waiting outside the front doors of the downtown Employment Development Department. Then, from inside, a security guard unlocks the doors. People dressed neatly in business suits push a little and elbow forward. A man at the front desk tells everyone to form a line and sign in on a clipboard.
Unidentified Man #1: We do not do unemployment insurance here, but we can let you use the phone.
MULLANE: He hands Kristen Sardina(ph) a small, square piece of paper. It has simple instructions on how to use the phones against the wall to call the Unemployment Insurance Office. She tried to call from home, but says she couldn't get through.
Ms. KRISTEN SARDINA: The agency is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but even when you start calling at 7:45, it's already overloaded, and they can't take you at all.
MULLANE: Sardina walks over to one of the phones. By 8:15, every phone's taken. They're all on hold, waiting for the automated prompts that will eventually get them through to a live person who will process their application for unemployment benefits. Back in line, 25-year-old Paul Hewish(ph), an unemployed banker, is frustrated.
Mr. PAUL HEWISH: I've come here for four days, dude.
Unidentified Man #2: Sir, don't, don't start with me now.
Mr. HEWISH: I know it's not, it's not your fault. I know it's state rules.
Unidentified Man #2: It's state law, and I'm treating you with respect.
Mr. HEWISH: Sorry I raised my voice.
MULLANE: Stepping back, Hewish says it's a bad combination.
Mr. HEWISH: Unfortunately, the people who are dealing with the people applying for unemployment are overwhelmed as well. So they aren't really too willing to help because, you know, they're completely stressed out and overworked.
MULLANE: Unlike in the past, when filing for benefits meant you had to go to the unemployment office, today it's all done by phone or over the computer. This office is all about support, helping people initiate and work through the unemployment process.
Eventually, after filing a claim, they'll come back for what's called the Initial Assistance Workshop. That's over in a smaller room to the side, where 24 people are sitting at two long tables.
Mr. JACK CHARNLEY(ph) (Employment Counselor): Now, you people are all here because you're collecting unemployment insurance, and you got a letter of invitation saying come on down…
MULLANE: Employment counselor Jack Charnley stands at the front of the room. Everyone's pretty tense. Some look dazed, others like they've been crying, their eyes sore and red. He reads his audience and makes some jokes. He even offers to cut the class short.
Mr. CHARNLEY: Those in favor of the down-and-dirty short version and getting you out of here before 10 o'clock, signify by saying, aye.
Unidentified People: Aye.
Mr. CHARNLEY: All those opposed…
MULLANE: Charnley holds up a copy of the 35-page "California Guide to Benefits and Employment Services," and goes through the process of how to keep your unemployment checks coming, and avoid dealing with the unemployment insurance folks unnecessarily.
Mr. CHARNLEY: Every time you talk to them, your claim is at risk. That means…
MULLANE: They listen for just over an hour. Some take notes. Sarah Wall(ph) listens intently. At 32, she lost her job in Internet marketing last December.
Ms. SARAH WALL: It's a little depressing. You're surrounded by people who, like you, are kind of down on their luck. It's hard to be positive but sometimes, that's all you have.
MULLANE: She turns and walks back out into the main room. By now, it's packed with people.
For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane in San Francisco.
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