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You lose a job, you find a moron at the job office


Joanne Dorrett began her contact with state unemployment officials feeling embarrassed. She ended it feeling infuriated.

The embarrassment came from a frame of mind: She is a worker, not a taker. For 18 years, she's worked, she's paid taxes, and she's never had to ask the government for help.

The infuriation came from joining the ranks of Maryland's nTC thousands of unemployed and finding herself treated like a number instead of a human being.

Just before Christmas, Dorrett's husband, Paul, was laid off from his sales position. On New Year's Eve, Joanne Dorrett got her own bad news: her market research project was done, and the job was being eliminated.

"I felt really bad," she said yesterday, "but I figured, 'How long can it last? A month? Six weeks?' I mean, my husband's company cut back, but he's in sales and got another job pretty quickly. I figured I'd get one, too. And, in the meantime, I'm entitled to unemployment pay."

Early in January, she says, she drove from her northern Baltimore County home to the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development office in Towson.

She says she stood in line for five hours.

When she finally reached a state employee, the process took a matter of minutes: She filled out some papers, verified her work history on a computer, and was told she must go to at least two job interviews a week.

Two weeks later, she was told to return for a hearing, but on the morning of the hearing -- Jan. 24 -- she was stricken with the flu. She called to explain that she was sick and was immediately given another date, Jan. 29.

On the morning of the 29th, there arose a slight problem: Her child's baby sitter phoned in sick. But Dorrett thought, "No problem. It'll probably be a short hearing. I'll just take the baby with me."

She had to wait two hours before meeting with an examiner, at which point, Dorrett says, the following conversation took place:

Examiner: "Did you make $2,000 with your last company?"

Dorrett: "No."

E: (pointing to computer screen insistently) "Did you make $2,000 with your last company?"

D: "No, sir. There must be a mistake. I made much more than that."

E: "You're not listening to me. I said, 'Did you make at least that much?' D: "I'm sorry, but you didn't say, 'at least.' "

E: "Fine."

D: "Sir, I know you're a very busy man and these are difficult times, but this is the first time I've ever filed. If you could just be a little more understanding."

E: "You were supposed to be here on the 24th."

D: "Yes, I was ill. I called. I was given today."

E: "And what are you doing here with that baby?"

D: "My baby sitter's ill with the flu."

E: "What if I had a job for you to go out on right now? What would you do?"

D: "I wouldn't be able to go. I called my mother, but she has the flu. My husband's working. I have an excellent child care provider. She's licensed. But she happens to be sick."

The examiner made some notations on a form and sent her to a job counselor. Dorrett says she waited for 90 minutes. When she finally met a counselor, she told him, "I hope to be employed within a few weeks."

"It says here," the job counselor replied, "that you're UAW."

"What's that?"

"Unable to work."

"I am not."

"The examiner says you are."

"No, it's just for today," Dorrett explained. "My child has no sitter today because she's ill. Is that why he made that notation? Because of my child?"

"You got it," said the counselor.

Two days ago, Joanne Dorrett got an envelope from the unemployment office. Inside was a form letter, declaring: Benefits denied.

"Claimant was restricting her availability for work due to a lack of child care," the letter said. "Since this lack of adequate child care represents a substantial restriction on the claimant's availability, it is determined that the claimant is not able and available for work within Section 8-903 of the law."

Yesterday, Jane Howard, spokeswoman for the Department of Economic and Employment Development, said:

"People have to show that they're available and actively seeking employment. If they can't demonstrate that, our people have no choice but to make this determination [to deny unemployment benefits].

"The problem here is that Ms. Dorrett's child was with her that day. If they had found something, she might have picked it up on the spot. But if she comes back or sends a letter showing she has a full-time baby sitter, it could clear up the issue."

This message could not be forwarded to Joanne Dorrett yesterday afternoon, as she was on her way to Virginia, to a job interview.

Earlier in the day, though, Dorrett said, "What they're making me do is jump through hoops because I showed up with my baby. I've been out of work since Jan. 1 and haven't gotten a penny.

"Fortunately, my husband's working again, so we're not destitute. There's food on the table. But that isn't the point. They give you this booklet that says, 'We're committed to treating you courteously.' And, instead, all these scared, frustrated people come in, and they just make things worse for you."

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