I thought i'd take a unique opportunity to report to you live and direct from the warfront. No, i don't mean the war in Iraq -- or Iran -- or whichever oil-rich country the powers-that-be are trying to subtly re-industrialize this week. I mean the real war, the one we're fighting here at home, the war against the socio-economic demons we unwittingly loosed long ago, now come back to claim us. I'm in a strip-mall coffee shop in Livonia, Michigan.
I arrived at the Problem Resolution Office (PRO) of the State of Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) about ten minutes before opening this morning. The Livonia PRO is one of six such offices in the state -- normally, that is -- the UIA opened a temporary seventh location in Detroit last week to address Michigan's terrifying unemployment levels. The PROs provide walk-in face-to-face support for people who are having some kind of problem with unemployment benefits that cannot be resolved via the usual channels. And, when this branch opened this morning and started handing out numbers to the line of folks stretching nearly all the way down one leg of the mall in the Michigan January morning, there were about 150 of us.
Getting on line, i suddenly felt like i might be stepping into an image in some future generation's history book. I flashed back to blurry black-and-white photos in grammar school texts and filmstrip cells showing people in tweed caps and jackets waiting on sidewalks in cities nearly eight decades ago. There were people of all walks of life, all manners of dress, all ethnicities and plenty of both genders. Many bundled for the cold to be near the front of the line; apparently the first tend to arrive between 5:30 and 6:30 AM to minimize the wait. An unemployment advocate specialist -- apparently there is such a thing -- complete with "J. D." after his name, was handing out flyers to folks as they walked by. I took my place, and at 8 AM they opened the doors to let us in.
Thankfully, an impressive number of people fit into the office's waiting area, though by the time i passed through the door myself, more than half were standing and there wasn't much room for more. I took my number from the red dispenser: 689. I looked up at the "NOW SERVING" sign on the wall: 563.
I asked security how fast the line usually moves. "About 25 to 50 people an hour," he replied. I did the math, pocketed my precious slip, and thankfully found a cafe nearby with wifi, from which i now write.
Sadly, the guard's estimate may have been based on simpler times. A fellow person from the line spun through the cafe at about 9:40 to tell me they were in the 590s. New math says i'll be here most of the day. ...and, according to the barista, today wasn't so bad. Her reports were that past days have seen even longer lines. This report notwithstanding, the local media seemed to feel the event was still newsworthy. The Channel 7 Action News fan passed by at about 9 AM to cover the event.
As much as anyone, i wonder how the folks at UIA are doing. These must be marathon days for them. My own benefits issue is fairly simple, but resolving it may have a substantial impact on my family, and my drive to Livonia was necessitated by the agency's inquiry line being too tied up to get through. When calling back in the summer, i'd occasionally get a message apologetically saying, "we're experiencing heavy calling, your hold time may be more than 10 minutes". By fall, i'd have to call repeatedly to avoid getting a new message which only said, "we're experiencing high call volumes -- please try again later" before hanging up. This past week, the message was yet a new one: a standard telephone company error recording stating simply, "all circuits are busy now...". Earlier this week i even got the same message while trying to reach UIA's entirely-separate fully-automated system. Rumors on the line were that UIA would be boosting their own ranks later this month to handle the volume.
I half-jokingly wondered to myself: do they need any managers?
What's most interesting is the vibe i was getting from people. One certainly can't say spirits were high, of course, but there's definitely a feeling of camaraderie -- or at least mutual sympathy -- between folks on the line. I chatted with another patron at the cafe, who luckily isn't from the line at UIA, but who's been seeing a lot of folks similarly going through tough times. We agreed that as much as people are hurting, they seem all the more inclined to help each other out, often despite differences in background. We pondered if there's something about these uncertain times -- perhaps perspective, and the consequent realizations of gratitude and priority -- that incline people to look out for their neighbors.
Hopefully the current crisis is serving as a wake-up call to all of us. Maybe those driving by that line this morning are feeling a little more grateful for their otherwise-unrewarding job. Perhaps those on the line are thinking more about how close to the edge we tend to live in our daily lives. Hopefully those in government, industry, finance and labor are realizing the scope of the change that's needed in this country. And, above all, i hope we're all contemplating how much we need to put our differences behind us to move toward a better life for everyone.
At 10:37, another of my compatriots stuck their head in the door for me: 606. The barista and i joked that we should get a "NOW SERVING" sign put in the cafe to keep pace with the one down the mall. At this rate, i'll get my turn at about 3:30 this afternoon.
I guess we are all in it together.
For me, i suppose i can job search from here as well as anywhere, so i'm just settling in for the wait. I have a computer, network, power and a few bucks for lunch, and am grateful to be able to say that much. It's certainly not how i'd prefer to spend the day, but despite my own frustration and uncertainty, i, too, find myself thinking more about the other folks on that line, and then of those who don't even have the fortune of having a line to go to, or prospective jobs to search for, or any resource at all. In the end, i really do have faith that things will ultimately work out for me, and i can't help but want to pray for those who don't have the fortune of feeling so sure.