Facing an Unemployment Hearing?

With so many people losing their jobs and dealing with our unemployment system for the first time in their lives, I thought some might find this useful…

I spent about a year unemployed from 2002-2003. I couldn’t even get a secretarial job at a 25% paycut (from an already low salary) despite 10 years’ experience and wayyyy too much education. Temp work was incredibly thin on the ground. I wasn’t too worried at first because I knew I could live perfectly well on unemployment benefits and had 39 weeks to find something. I got $405 a week and my rent was $500/month, my COBRA was $320/month, my MetroCard and utilities were another $100/month…and I had no debt.

The BackStory
Three months into my jobless stint, I finally got a trial-basis job offer doing something fairly lame in publishing. At the end of the first week, the boss said she wanted to extend my trial period by a week. Fine, no problem. Along comes payday at the end of those two weeks, and they sprung some nasty financial suprises on me: I’d be paid on a 1099 (self-employed/contract basis), and I’d continue on this basis for an indefinite period of time, sometimes not even full-time. In other words, a very cheap temp. I asked for $2/hr more than we’d originally agreed on to cover the extra Social Security, etc. that I’d have to pay on the 1099 arrangement, and got laughed at. Not prone to rash decisions, I waited until Monday to quit. She bullied me into two weeks’ notice, and then I left. I figured if nothing else, it helped extend my unemployment benefits by 4 weeks.

The Problem
You don’t qualify for unemployment benefits if you quit. However, I felt I’d been duped into a job that was worth far less than promised – no health insurance because I wasn’t an employee, I paid all payroll taxes, I had no guarantee of hours, and it paid an unbelievably crappy $15/hr, but really $11-12/hr because of all the stuff I had to pay for that my employer should have.

The Hearing
Unemployment administration court was really just a small office with a conference table and a judge. I didn’t have a lawyer, and neither did my boss and her boss. She asked me questions, I asked her questions. She claimed to have no recollection of me asking her daily about handing over my W-2 (she was avoiding telling me I wasn’t a real employee), but was otherwise pretty honest.

The Verdict
Bad Employer – Shame On You, Pay Up. Because they had unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of my employment (that’s verbatim), I was under no obligation to remain in the position and therefore retained my unemployment benefits – for which they were now responsible.

The Result
I had gone nearly 3 months without any income or unemployment benefits. Within two weeks of the hearing, I got 11 weeks worth of benefit checks…$4455.

The Lessons Learned

1)  Get a written contract for any job, no matter how reputable the company is. Thank god these folks rather obviously didn’t consult a lawyer and weren’t very bright, because all they had to do was lie and say “we never offered her benefits or implied there was an actual job on offer”, and I might not have won.

2)  Having no debt and a lifelong habit of living below my means meant that I could make it just fine on 2 weeks’ severance from a $40K/year job and then $405 a week for 10 months with health insurance and without incurring any consumer debt. And during that time I spent a week in Brazil, a long weekend in San Francisco & Las Vegas, and a week in Germany. Also, in the 3 months preceeding my getting the sack, I spent a week in Aspen (off-season) and a 5-day weekend in Paris.

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6 Responses

  1. “…Brazil, a long weekend in San Francisco & Las Vegas, and a week in Germany. Also, in the 3 months preceeding my getting the sack, I spent a week in Aspen (off-season) and a 5-day weekend in Paris.”

    Darn girl! You’re doing something right! lol!. And you proved a very valuable lesson. 🙂

  2. The last paragraph fills me with a sense of admiration, jealousy and…jealousy. (But at least the admiration is still there.)

  3. I too traveled during unemployment, though it is technically a no-no. If you are gone then you were not available for work. I almost got caught and had to head home early for an in-person interview. If I hadn’t returned home my benefits would have been terminated. Mr M is on unemployment and it is such a hassle, all to get a lousy $160 a week. He gets paid as 1099 usually so it doesn’t count in the benefit calculation.

  4. Thanks for the 411 of the whole unemployment interview process. It’s definitely something that many of us may go through soon. 😦

  5. So many employers think they can just roll over employees, wether they quit or get terminated. Like you said, get it in writing to CYA! Good for you for sticking to your guns!

  6. This is a very interesting article and I learned quite a bit since I’ve never had to face anything like this before. I’m curious, though. The system really seems to be based on a he said/she said agenda. I assume this is sort of an arbitration situation, but if your employer hadn’t been somewhat dim-witted, it might have gone very differently just because the employer said so. So, what – besides the contract – does the judge look at? Is this process really serving justice and helping those who, like yourself, are lied to by their employers?

    Despite all of that, I’m actually quite jealous that you’ve gotten to do so much traveling! The best part is that you were unemployed and fully capable of enjoying it! LOL. One of my goals is to keep my travel fund fully funded so I can take vacation and go see the world. I’m really excited about that. While I’m not complaining by any means, I do have a job to come back to, so I tend to feel my vacations are very rushed a lot of the time.

    Anyway, thanks for the tips!

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