16th June 2021
The Global Media Site for Entertainment.

My Unemployment Story

By Melissa Bondar

Ya’ll, I have been wildly naïve to the world of unemployment claims until this year. I had never tried to claim before. If it was just a few weeks between gigs, I planned for them – and I usually went to my parents’ house, so my expenses were minimal.

Clearly, the COVID world is a bit of a different beast though, so today I’m sharing my experience in claiming unemployment for the first time and some things I’ve learned in the last few weeks.

I was one of the very lucky ones in the arts and I actually held onto my job until the end of June. I was also pretty far into interviewing for a similar academic job when I came to the end of my contract at the previous one.

I thought, maybe this will pan out and I won’t even need to claim unemployment, but it did not.

I also thought, maybe we should just weather this storm with savings, but I had read several articles from folks who lost their jobs during the 2008 recession and the one thing they all repeated was that no matter what your financial situation is – file for unemployment immediately. You have no idea how long you might need it.

So with that in mind, I filed for NJ unemployment for the first time ever.

With literally no info about how unemployment works and years of listening to people complain about folks who mooch off unemployment, I had this crazy idea that unemployment would probably cover like my rent plus a little for food, right?

Which would still be less than half of what I was bringing in from my job each month.

Well the first thing I learned is you desperately need an emergency savings fund. I literally would not have survived this summer without one – especially paying all my usual bills. When my lease ended in July, I moved back in with my dad and if I hadn’t, I would’ve put a serious dent in my finances. And instead of calmly watching all the nonsense that has been my unemployment claim unfold, I would’ve been in a state of panic.

Here’s what happened.

The first week of July, I filed my unemployment claim. It took me about 30 minutes thanks to entering info for several employers. I got a confirmation email telling me my claim was pending.

Ok. No problem.

A month went by. I called to ask about my claim. I talked to a human almost immediately who said it was held up by one employer. They told me the employer. I contacted the employer. The employer told me they had responded weeks ago but would send a follow up email too.

I tried to call back. I tried to call back a dozen times over the next two months. I never spoke to another human.

I wrote a letter and mailed it in the mail the first week of August.

Still nothing.

I received a letter the last week of August, confirming my claim and telling me I qualified for $145/week and the letter was missing several employers.

Luckily, I opened it immediately because I had a whopping 5 days to dispute it by mail. So I made copies of a bunch of my tax papers from 2019 and sent them a letter refuting the claim.

At this time, now 7 weeks from the original claim, was the first time I learned that in NJ, your payment is based on your income from the earliest 4 of the last 5 quarters. I was totally unaware of this.

So while I thought unemployment would provide a little relief, it was calculating my claim like this:

I filed as of July 1st. Which was backdated to the first day of that week, June 28th.

So unemployment calculated that like I was claiming it in the second quarter on 2020.

So it used all of 2019 (my first 4 quarters of the last 5) and ignored the first quarter of 2020.

So, freelancer friends in the arts, can you guess what happened to my claim amount?

From January to June I worked a well paying W-2 job at a state college. Which was, naively, what I thought my unemployment claim would be based on.

Instead, my claim was based on the year of my life that had the highest 1099 amount I ever made (so totally useless for my claim) and was calculated on the idea that I make roughly $6,000 a year (from a short gig in Milwaukee and random days as a stagehand throughout the year).

Now, as part of that refutation I was able to write out when I sent back their initial evaluation of my claim in August, I said, hey, I’d like you to count quarter one of 2020, instead of the way you have calculated it, which you are allowed to request.

Keeping in mind, that by this point, I have not seen a penny of unemployment in two months.

And I got no reply.

I tried to call several more times. Most of September passed.

The first week of October, I finally got hired at two companies part-time. So I no longer needed the unemployment I had filed for months earlier.

I went to the site to try to figure out what to do when you don’t need the claim anymore and that was when I learned about certifying for your weeks (which I couldn’t do any time I checked in July or August, so apparently at some point in September it became possible for me, though no one told me).

And while I partially wanted to battle to try to get my unemployment claim closer to where I thought it could be, I was also so frustrated by the entire thing, that since the system now let me, I just went back and certified for all my weeks going back to the first week of July and now consider my claim closed.

Closing your claim is hilariously easy – just stop certifying.

So for three full months of unemployment, with some random days of stagehand work claimed and my freelance blogging income claimed, the state gave me $1,300.

That’s about $433.33 a month to live on.

Before the pandemic hit, my rent was $1295, my utilities were about $150, and I probably could’ve gotten groceries down to about $200 a month to survive on.

My health insurance now is just under $300 a month.

I also see now why every freelancer I knew was in a state of panic when COVID hit because we largely don’t qualify for insurance.

While you can’t turn up your nose at any money when you’re unemployed, that is really not a useful amount to get by on.

For July, I qualified for 3 weeks of FPUC (The $600/week payments) too, so I received $1800.

I don’t see how we can’t be headed for some economic nightmare if they don’t continue that for as long as COVID still has some industries shut down – especially industries that are full of self-employed and freelancers who probably have small, if any, unemployment claims.

I’ve also been struck by the fact that this must be creating a cyclical nightmare for some folks. Even if you did manage to budget down to that amount (bless), the state is so delayed in their processing, that if you’re putting those amount on your credit cards, it’s not like the state is reimbursing you for their delay and paying your interest.

How are you ever going to get back above water right now?

The whole thing is a mess and my heart goes out to those who didn’t have the savings to navigate the delays and bridge their budget gaps.

Also by Melissa Bondar:

Support the Arts Side Hustles #BeAnArtsHero

My Zoom Stage Manager Experiment

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