A month without unemployment benefits? How robot customer service answering systems made being unemployed worse

I’m unemployed. That happens. Jobs don’t work out. Sometimes it’s no one’s fault. Most of the time it’s the fault of greedy Wall Street hustlers whose lone way to goose profit margins for the past 30 years is cutting jobs.

This was the case at the end of my newspaper job. It wasn’t at the end of my TV job. That one was on me: I was bad at the job.

Regardless, this is why we have unemployment. We decided as a society that it was better to give people a cushion when these changes happened than to increase the homeless population and give foreclosure departments and repo outfits more work.

I’ve used unemployment a few times in my life. The teachers warned us as freshmen at Drake that we wouldn’t spend our whole lives in one job. I tried anyway. I failed often.

Most of the time, applying for unemployment is a breeze.

This recent attempt was a disaster.

I made a mistake, which fouled up the works from the start.

Government bureaucracy is less forgiving of paperwork errors than retired English teachers are of typos.

The suggested means of dealing with problems on the Iowa Workforce Development webpage, which is the fancy name for the unemployment office, is to email. You’ll get a response in a business day, they say.

That seems simple. But bureaucrats have very rigid interpretations of that sort of thing. Does the day start the moment the email lands in the inbox, or does it start the moment someone opens the message, or does it start on alternating days following a new moon? It’s impossible to tell, but there is likely a webpage filled with rules longer than most religious texts with less sex and violence.

I’m old-fashioned. I like to talk to a person on the phone. The unemployment office recommends against this. They have a very high call volume, they say. This makes me feel better. I’m not the only person who wants to talk to someone on the phone.

So, I called with my question. My question was: “Why am I not being paid unemployment benefits?”

It turns out the mistake I made was applying too late in the week after my final paycheck from the previous employer. I should have filed on the Sunday or Monday after that, but I filed on Friday.

The problem is there would be a 10-day waiting period to evaluate the claim, check with former employers and so on before I could be paid. That seemed reasonable.

Ten days came and went. I checked the status of my claim and it was still in review status.

I called again.

I should mention that each time one calls the unemployment office, you must navigate one of those robot answering machines that requires you to press buttons and sometimes talk to a machine that cannot understand spoken language.

Here is a partial transcript of my recent call to the unemployment office:

Robot: I know you want to speak to agent. Please tell me what problem you are having so I can route your call to the appropriate person.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry I could not be of assistance. Goodbye.

Now that’s a mean trick. The robot said “goodbye,” but there’s a pause. Then it says, “Please stay on the line for the next available agent.”

I’m not making up the repetition. I counted it. It took five times for the robot to admit it was useless and route me to a person, which is all I ever wanted in the first place.

If McDonald’s sold burgers and fries this way, they would be out of business by the end of the week.

I was placed in queue. Music played.

I don’t know what section of the music store businesses and governments select music from, but I am fairly certain they either send someone who is legally deaf or whose misanthropic attitudes toward their fellow humans is so great they want to exact whatever suffering necessary to make the process of seeking customer service so painful people just won’t bother.

The music played for a few minutes until another robot came on the line. Employment opportunities abound for robots.

This robot offered me the opportunity to have the unemployment office call me back when it was my turn in queue. I took them up on that offer and dug into my schoolwork.

A man called back about an hour later. I forget his name. I am going to call him George.

I asked George why I wasn’t getting paid.

George said my claim was still under review.

I asked George why that was.

George said it could be lots of reasons.

I asked George if he could pick one just for fun.

George looked at my claim. It seems that I filed late and the 10-day waiting period for the claim had not passed.

I told George the 10-day waiting period passed Friday.

George said sometimes it takes longer than 10 business days.

I asked George why the unemployment office says it takes 10 business days if it’s more of a willy-nilly-whenever-the-spirit-moves-us kind of deal.

George was unamused. To be honest, I wasn’t feeling very amused either.

George said the earliest I could expect to receive benefits was the middle of April. 

I reminded George previous agents had said it should be sometime this week.

George said the problem was my claim came at the end of a benefit year. (I applied for unemployment in March 2020 during a furlough.) I needed to open a new claim for a new benefit year.

I got the sense George was not engaged in customer service but instead choosing from a set of flash cards designed to end the call as quickly as possible.

I told George I had already applied for a new claim, but that should be irrelevant to the previous claim for which I have not been paid.

George said the unemployment office would want to contact my employers for both claims and would prefer to do this all at once rather than two separate times.

I found this difficult to believe. These inquiries are done by form letter. The employer has 10 days to contest a claim. If they do not contest the claim, the benefits are paid. None of my former employers were going to contest the claim.

Further, when has a government agency ever balked at sending computer-generated form letters?

I said goodbye to George.

The line between a worried mind and a mind overrun by anxiety is thin for those of us who live with certain brain chemical disorders. I panicked at the prospect of going a full month or more without income.

I called my friend Randy. He suggested I call the unemployment office back and talk to someone else. Randy gives good advice. He’s also good for gab at lunch. If you get a chance to have lunch with Randy, do it.

I called back. I went through the five times of the robot not understanding me and the other robot offering to have an agent call me.

The woman who called me back was named Anna. Anna was an angel.

Anna found a glitch in my paperwork. She corrected it and went to talk to someone to make sure the review could be taken off.

Great, I said to Anna.

She asked if she could place me on a brief hold.

Sure, I said. Then the line was disconnected.

Oh goddamint, I thought. I found the one person who was actually going to help me and my cell phone service decides to drop the call.

Defeated, I dialed the number for the unemployment office again, but before I could finish, Anna called me back. She told me she had fixed the problem and I should see the review status change in the next day or so.

I still wouldn’t get paid on Friday, but I would likely see benefits – including back pay – early next week.

I thanked Anna. She was the first person at the agency that made me feel like I was a person rather than an annoyance.

I am sure lots of people are upset and cruel when they deal with customer service people at the unemployment office. I understand this. The prospect of going nearly a month without benefits you’re entitled to can be vexing in the extreme. I’ve certainly gnashed a few of my teeth in this ongoing process.

But a person like Anna can actually help.

I hope that for every George, there’s three Annas, but I think the math is more like for every George and Anna, there are three robot answering machines, some terrible hold music and one or two more reasons for people to give up due to overwhelming irritation.

I am glad I worked with Anna. I repeat: She was an angel.

Angel is the appropriate word, because getting answers out of the bureaucracy takes nothing short of divine intervention.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. Venmo: @newsmanon. PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.


  1. Kim L Heimann says:

    Boo to The Georges in our lives and hurray for the Annas!!!


  2. Patti Brown says:

    I want to be placed on the notice list for when your book of life’s observations is due to be published. Oh, and I want to attend a reading.


    1. People only buy books by celebrities. Nobody buys them from fat, unemployed journalists.


      1. Patti Brown says:

        I just saw this note and you’re wrong. I think you have a story to tell, or rather stories to tell. And your story can reach others. You write honestly and humorously about angst, about the human condition. I hope you will pull your writings together into a reflective memoir of musings and observations on anxiety, depression, grace, and perseverance. I didn’t contribute to your surgery to be told “no can do!” I hope to see your book in print. Patti


  3. diannemoritz says:

    I feel your pain and actually rejoice when a real person answers any of my phone calls.


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