A lot of people know me as a hip-hop artist. A rapper and producer and radio DJ. But like most entertainers, I need a year-round job to feed my family. And like a whole lot of Americans, and rappers for sure, I am currently unemployed.
Some people are embarrassed to be unemployed. Not me. And so I have been pretty vocal about recent struggles with the Department of Unemployment Assistance. A trip to the Registry of Motor Vehicles pushes the limits of human patience. The DUA, meanwhile, makes the RMV feel like TGIF.
I first considered this topic to be too obvious to write about. Clearly, I thought, the state’s joke of an unemployment system has been covered and gutted. But it hasn’t been gutted enough. And so I’m sharing my own nightmarish experience, as well as some that I’ve collected from my equally perturbed Facebook friends.
My first check arrived two weeks after I applied. Not bad. All I had to do was visit the DUA website every Sunday, request my benefits, and report my work search activity. It seemed simple. On the first Sunday, though, I found a perplexing error message: “DUA Online is currently unavailable for scheduled maintenance. Please try back again later.” It’s not a complicated site, but the state shuts it down every night. The same is true for its career portal, Job Quest.
The madness was just beginning. Three weeks after receiving my first check, I was randomly selected to participate in a job training class and something called a Reemployment and Eligibility Assessment (REA) review. If I didn’t participate, I would lose my benefits.
At the job training class, the first thing we learned was the infinite P’s of the job search: Positive, Punctual, Progress, Participate, Precipitate, Perspiration, Proper appearance. We then spent an hour mastering the art of the handshake and greeting each other: “How do you do?” I guess some people need to learn such skills, but my resume suggests otherwise.
At the end of three hours, the instructor actually gave us a multiple choice quiz with questions like, “What is the most appropriate way for a man to dress for a job interview? A) Shirt and tie. B) Shorts and T-shirt. C) Summer attire. D) All of the above.”
But at least I can keep my checks, right? Wrong. I still had to go through an REA review, which requires me to log at least three examples of my job search every week before I can be paid. But when I attempted submit my info on the DUA page, I clicked the link and nothing happened. Over and over. I tried my wife’s PC, my Mac, and my kid’s iPad. No luck.
The next day I went to my review at a job assistance organization that works in conjunction with the DUA. There I explained that I could not access the required data and was in turn told that the organization’s career center couldn’t access the work search log I had successfully filed anyway. She said I couldn’t be reviewed as a result and that I’d lose my benefits without my logs. Which I’d already sent to DUA. Bananas.
Next the DUA rescheduled my REA class, but for a day on which I had a job interview—which the department told me to reschedule! Isn’t the point of this entire runaround to find a job? I asked, “Do you want my first impression with a potential employer to be me canceling a job interview?” She stared at me blankly. “Don’t bother coming in if you don’t have your work logs.”
When it came time for the new REA appointment I had the flu, and I still couldn’t access my logs, so I emailed and was informed that I could reschedule. But a few days later I received notice that I was kicked off of unemployment. This is when I filed an appeal and took to social media. Turns out I’m not alone. I was bombarded with posts and messages from friends who are afraid to use their real names. People who fear the DUA like it’s the DEA.
“I ended up giving up on unemployment a couple months ago after a month of trying,” one guy lamented. “I could never get anyone on the phone and the website was zero help. Luckily I had friends or I would have been homeless.”
My appeal was on the phone with a sympathetic fellow who admitted that the DUA site has issues. I begged for mercy, and he told me that people who use Safari or Internet Explorer have a hard time. Isn’t that almost everybody? Two of the most popular browsers in the world don’t work!? It’s like a practical joke. To quote another Facebook friend, a former Lowell School Committee member, “They were absolutely horrific to deal with. They spoke down to you like you were ignorant.”
Google Chrome worked, but the appeal didn’t. The sympathetic guy decided against me. No real explanation, just they win and I lose. Stunned, I filed an appeal to the appeal.
I lost the appeal to the appeal. There was no conversation, no meeting, and no transparent process. Paul Fitzgerald, chairman of the state Board of Review, simply dismissed it. Sort of like he denied my request for an interview for this column. I never got to give my side. I simply lost. Again, because access to these resources is inadequate. I can’t feed my family because the Commonwealth can’t build a working website in 2016. I now have one last option for appeal. I can take the DUA to civil court. At this point I am owed over two thousand dollars.
Out of options, in a moment of despair I reached out to my state rep (and the former president of my high school) Tom “Tipa” Golden. He got right back and referred me to the clandestine-sounding Office of Constituent Services, where somebody was actually able to reschedule my class and get me back on track. No owed checks, but she got me current and answered some questions. A miracle.
But the checks stopped after a week. Turns out I was randomly selected for a resume-building class, which ended up being taught by a singer who literally said “literally” 50 times in an hour, not once correctly. She also used the phrase “references refurbished upon request.” Twice.
The singer saw that my resume was mostly radio and journalism experience and found me a job listing at RadioShack. I explained that this wasn’t the same thing as an actual job in radio, but she made me go anyway. The manager at RadioShack looked at my resume and said, “You’re going to quit in a week.” Then pretty much asked me to leave.
I got the stupid REA certification, but was told that if I lied about anything I would be forced to pay back all the money. Plus interest! Like another friend noted under one of my rants, “They treat you like animals. It’s degrading.”
Not everyone chimed in. The DUA and Gov Charlie Baker declined to comment for this article, but maybe if enough of us scream out, we can at least get their attention.