Job Hunting On Unemployment Benefits Can Seem Illogical

by Rachel Goldfarb

It’s Monday morning, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing a cover letter for another job application. This is a pretty typical Monday for me right now: I was laid off a couple of months ago. I’m on unemployment, thank goodness, and those benefits are the only way I can pay my bills. I’ve got three tabs open with jobs that I should apply for, and a giant Excel spreadsheet that lists all my job search activities, which I’m required to track to maintain my benefits.

I’m looking at my spreadsheet, and looking at my calendar, when I make the decision that I’m only going to apply for one of these three jobs today. Why? Because on Wednesday, I have a mandatory appointment with the unemployment office to confirm that I have, in fact, been job hunting, and I need to show three “work search activities” on three different days each week. Just in case there’s nothing else good this week, I’m going to stretch these three listings out: one per day.

Never mind that I’m already planning to hit two “work search activities” today alone, since I have an interview in the afternoon. And never mind that it’s a good idea for me to apply for as many jobs as possible. If I want to be sure that I hit three days worth of “work search activities” this week, I should hold off on those two applications. I’m going to wait.

The state of New York’s required “work search activities” aren’t exactly difficult. In fact, I’m allowed to list just looking online as a work search activity! According to the Claimant Handbook, “using the telephone, business directories, internet or online job-matching systems to search for jobs, get leads, request referrals or make appointments for job interviews” counts. Just spending some time digging around Idealist and other job search sites isn’t actually going to get me a job, but apparently it’s good enough for the Department of Labor.

But I’m frustrated by working within this system, which straight-up discourages me from applying for more than one job on a Monday or finding part-time work to supplement my benefits. If I work at all on any given day, I lose one-fourth of my benefits for the week. That means unless what I’ll make exceeds those benefits, I lose money by working. I used to teach SAT prep, and could go back to that, but at the rates I was paid by my company it just isn’t worth my time.

I can’t even figure out how I should account for my freelance writing, so I’m just not. I worked on my last Billfold piece over the course of four different work days: writing the pitch, writing a first draft, editing that first draft and sending it out to be edited,, and looking over the edits for the final copy. Does that mean I should lose a week of benefits? Or should I lose benefits for the day the piece was published, or the day I get the check in the mail? Who knows! I’m just pretending it doesn’t exist and hoping for the best.

By Monday afternoon, I know I’ll hit three days of “work search activities” with ease this week, because I’ve scheduled another interview for Wednesday afternoon. As soon as I’ve applied for one job on Tuesday, I’m all set for the week as far as my benefits are concerned. I can breathe easy.

That doesn’t mean I’m done for this week, or that those activities are enough. Preparing for interviews doesn’t count as a work search activity, but I spend at least an hour doing research before each interview. Writing a thank-you note isn’t an official work search activity, but I send one after every single interview. I’ve attended to some kind of conference, training, or networking event nearly every week since my layoff, and those don’t count either. And three “work search activities” per week is never all I do: I’ll apply for at least two or three more jobs before the week is out.

I’m grateful that I’m eligible for benefits, that I can still pay my bills and stay in the city where I’ve built my career. My professional network is all here, and so is the volunteer work that keeps me sane and connected. But I just wish the system made more sense — allowed me to pick up part-time work, counted my work search activities in a more logical way, and actually helped me get a job.

Rachel Goldfarb is a writer, editor, social media strategist, and activist in New York City. She doesn’t get a salary for any of that. Follow her on Twitter@RachelG8489.

Photo: ericntvnr