Dialing for Dollars

Shortly after he returned from a month’s vacation to Greece – and just before taking off for Palm Springs – a young Harvard M.B.A. had some business to attend to: He needed to call the New York Department of Labor to register for unemployment. The task filled him with some trepidation.

“I thought the people I’d be dealing with would have no idea what investment banking was,” says the laid-off financier. “I thought they would be encouraging me to read the want ads and take a job ringing a cash register.” Instead, a nice woman signed him up, told him how to file for benefits by phone, and sent him on his way.

Has the government made it too easy for some not-so-needy recipients to collect unemployment? With the fall of the New Economy (and of much of the old), many former execs are discovering that not only are they eligible for benefits, but – thanks to the Labor Department’s telephone service – they don’t have to wait on an Oliver-like line to get them. In fact, if the system weren’t so simple, some money might well go uncollected by New Yorkers who until very recently were pulling in hefty salaries.

“The phone call takes 30 seconds,” raves one journalist who was earning six figures. “It’s easier than a lot of voice-mail systems.” To receive benefits – which top out at $405 a week for a maximum of six months – all one has to do is hit 0 or 1 in response to basic “Did you work this week?” questions. Dan Goor, a 26-year-old Emmy-winning comedy writer who used to work for The Daily Show, calls the process “painless. I only messed up one time. I tried to do it while I was watching TV. I got all the 0’s for yes and 1’s for no confused and had to call back because they thought I’d changed my address.”

So would waiting on an actual line deter such recipients from picking up their checks? “I would’ve bitched about it a lot and maybe looked for a job a bit harder,” says a Web designer who used the money to help make mortgage payments on her Hamptons summer home. “But I would’ve gone nonetheless.” Others are not so sure. “It depends on how big a hassle it was. If you saw $400 on the street, you’d bend down to pick it up,” says a journalist. “But if it was some all-day yucky line, then maybe not.”

Of course, that answer could change as time goes on and money gets tighter. For now, though, the weekly cash has mostly helped soften the psychological blow of losing a job; it’s almost a perk, if not quite as fulfilling as those gravy-laden expense checks of yore. “I am an Ivy League graduate, I’ve been working for ten years, and I was making a high-six-figure salary. To lose all that can leave you feeling worthless,” explains a former advertising executive. “But the pleasant experience of collecting unemployment has mitigated the experience of actually being unemployed.”

Dialing for Dollars