Apply Yourself

Why the state's unemployment requirements need to change.

Nobody likes the idea of paying hard-earned money for other people to get a free ride. So in a way it makes sense that Washington’s Employment Security Department announced a crackdown last week on people who are collecting benefits without meeting the requirements designed to make sure they’re actively looking for work. Nine thousand people now have to pay back a collective $23 million in benefits.

Many of us know people who have used their period of unemployment to take up scuba diving or catch up on their reading before jumping back into the slog of work. (Some of us are those people.) Just as many of us know conscientious job seekers who regard the state’s requirements for a “proper” search, as the department’s press release put it, as a joke.

According to the state, such a search entails applying for at least three positions a week. That might work just fine if you’re looking for a job flipping burgers. But what professional, especially in this economy, can find that many openings? Most would be lucky to find three a month.

Even state job counselors seem to know this. In a piece for Crosscut a few years ago, former Seattle Times editor Michele Matassa Flores described the reaction of her job counselor when the unemployed journalist wondered what she should do given an upcoming surgery: “My counselor gave me a puzzled look, like she couldn’t fathom my worry. ‘Well, you can apply for jobs from your couch,’ she coaxed. ‘Everything’s done online now.’ Hmm. I expected to be on narcotic painkillers, sleeping a lot, fuzzy-brained at best. Could I craft a good sales-pitch cover letter in that condition?”

Of course not. As the state well knows, most people meet their three-applications-a-week requirement by firing off perfunctory letters for unsuitable and unwanted jobs. It’s no surprise, then, that the state found tons of people who’d fudged their job-search logs. (It’s puzzling, though, how investigators could ascertain this by their method of calling listed employers to ask whether they were really contacted. Don’t most applications disappear into the black hole of automated online systems?)

If the state wants to clean up the unemployment system, it should change its rules. Without that, this seems like just another cheap way to find revenue. And from the people who can least afford it.