- Thom Glick
This is a basic love story. We've all been through it. I want them, they're ambivalent. I call, they never answer. I play hard to get, they act like I don't exist. I finally break down and write them 147 emails, they never reply. You know, LOVE!
Our story all started when Vermont schools closed and I was laid off my part-time job. My first reaction was mild, considering the more pressing dangers: fever, respiratory failure, loss of essentials like toilet paper and the NBA. Then I glanced at my bank statement, the calendar and my landlord hulking outside my window, and started to worry. Without any income, what would I do?
I felt a sudden need to find someone, anyone who could provide a little support to tide me over until things turned around. Ramen and stolen Netflix weren't going to get me through the coronavirus crisis.
It was my friend Bob, yapping through my iPhone as I lay facedown on my pillow, who first suggested: "Thought about unemployment?" Hmph. No. I hadn't. I thought unemployment moved to D.C. and got tweet-fired like everyone else.
Sure, I knew a few people who had been "involved" with unemployment, but it was always just a casual thing — a tryst to tide them over in a time of ... wait! That's just what I need: a tide-me-over tryst! But did I have the energy for a complex bureaucratic romp? And was unemployment a safe partner? What if they had a disease? Or worse, COVID-19!
Nevertheless, I felt inspired by this new prospect. I pushed my pillow aside and sat up to meet the challenge. And like so many soon-to-starve lovers, I headed down the mysterious path of risk, intrigue and possibility guided only by the mantra: It's not a handout; they're earned benefits.
My first encounter with unemployment happened through a web portal that seemed technologically reminiscent of the 8-track era. The page was sparse, with tiny lettering in sections, like little villages of text with the words "IMPORTANT" and "REQUIRED" stamped above, overwhelming the lesser letters. Despite the chaos, I could make out a series of questions with just enough blank space to fit my answers.
I told them all about me: age, job history, my preference to remain fed and housed. They took it all in but didn't offer much in return — the quiet, questioning type. I was taken aback when they brazenly asked for my Social Security number, but then I remembered financial information is always safe on the internet. I was fully forthcoming. Not a time to be coy, I thought, wanting to see where this digital flirtation would lead.
When I was done detailing my life story, they abruptly announced they were finished. And then they crashed. Literally, the site crashed. This pattern felt sadly familiar, and I wondered if they'd remember me in the morning. My concern was quieted when I got an email thanking me for my "application," a term I found curiously seductive. The email said they'd be in touch, but the message was vague, almost cryptic.
I analyzed every word. Why a confirmation number? Were they seeing other people? They were clear about one thing only: They weren't ready to make a commitment. Still, my heart fluttered as my stomach growled. This might be the one to feed me!
Two days later I got a letter from the Vermont Department of Labor. I was relieved to know they had survived the crash. The letter was just one page — a printout of what I had reported on the portal. They still weren't offering anything of themselves, no hint as to their interest or availability. Yet something drew my eye: a strange symbol set smack at the center of the page. It looked to be in the shape of a heart. It was so prominent, I was certain they were trying to send me a message.
My own heart raced. Was this a signal of future comfort and care? I couldn't be sure, because the letter was blurry, like a dot-matrix printer had printed it during an earthquake. I lingered on the visual long enough to feel ill, and retreated to my bed.
The next day I got the exact same letter, minus the earthquake font. It was sweet they reconnected so quickly, and I felt confident I was being pursued. Then my new confidence took a hit: I could see that what I naively thought was a heart in the middle of the page was actually a big zero. Three of them, actually, with a dollar sign: $0.00. This didn't seem encouraging. Still, I was intrigued by the candor of their reductionist valuation of me. I decided to google them.
The first thing that popped up was a site that claimed to be related to Vermont DOL, but it was slick, clean and cheery — no indication of the organizational trauma implied by our initial communications. I looked for more reliable clues: anecdotes, rumor and hearsay from anonymous internet sleuths. The feedback was mixed. Some said DOL gave great benefits and came quickly, which seemed more like an ex-lover's musing than a reliable review.
Others suggested DOL was a conspiracy by the deep state to vaccinate the unborn. I set that theory aside to be reexamined never. Most complained that they had no way to reach the agency by phone or email, that they hadn't received any financial support in weeks, or that they were deemed ineligible for being too poor or not working enough. All this negativity from the competition made me feel a rise in my own stock.
Then I noticed the others had received the same mark of inadequacy that I had: three goose eggs.
The pure volume of online feedback told me I wasn't Vermont DOL's only squeeze — they were squeezing half the state! I also discovered that DOL had recently changed its name. Sneaky, but I stayed on their trail. They were now going by the name PUA, which, sounded out, is "poowa" — making the new DOL even more adorable. I also found their phone numbers — they had several and randomly changed them up, probably to keep suitors at bay. I called them all, over and over.
They never answered, but on every call I was met by an alluring computerized voice urging me to call back. I imagined this was the voice of the ancient web portal if it spoke. I found the consistency in archaic technology reassuring, a sign of authenticity.
I took the invitation to call back as a positive sign and did so — 127 times that afternoon. I reached them on zero calls, but at about 100 it seemed like the computer voice was taking a slight pause before rejecting me, perhaps gasping for air, which inspired me to keep at it.
The next day, I stepped it up to about 200 calls and kept that pace for a week. It was draining, but I stayed hydrated and rested well at night. By week's end I had booked more than 1,000 calls — all failed. I realized I hadn't called anyone so much since I broke up with Comcast.
A month later, I'm still trying to reach DOL, or poowa — whatever they call themselves. When I'm not calling, I go back to our first encounter on the '70s web portal, mostly for nostalgia — to keep the embers smoldering. When I enter my login info, I'm usually told I "don't exist," which could be a setback for some but I see as a challenge.
When I do get past the intro screen, I'm told my PIN has expired and I need to change it. I then attempt to change my PIN and I'm told, "You already have an active PIN, please call." Oh, dear DOL — your coy lover's games do nothing but compel me further.
I've been relentlessly trying to discover something about this mysterious agency. I know I'm not the only one out there with poowa on their minds — I hear the masked whispers when I go to the store to buy ramen and search for anything resembling tissue. Still, I'm determined to connect with them, to turn this relationship into something solid and cashable.
I'm not too proud to admit I even emailed their boss — some guy named Scott — but that seemed a little creepy, so I didn't reply to his "don't reply" reply. I also reached out, casually, to some contacts in my community, starting modestly with my state representatives. Unlike DOL, these kind folks did respond to my emails, but because they were busy keeping their constituents alive, their relationship advice was limited.
As I write this, I am burdened with existential questions. What if DOL could provide me with things I can't give myself, like food, heat or a roll of two-ply? If they ever do acknowledge my existence, will I still be available, or living in my parents' basement? Are they the kind of agency that withholds love, or just taxes? When we finally consummate our relationship, will it be an endless flow of richness or a one-time drive-through deposit?
All I know is, I'm going to be so nervous if I ever make it past that computerized voice and actually am put on hold! I can hardly even imagine it. I'll bet they play jazz on hold — they seem like the jazz type. Always improvising.
Jesse Putnam is a writer living in Brattleboro. Poowa is Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: labor.vermont.gov/pua. Good luck out there.