Last week I attended a New York State workshop for unemployment-benefit collectors who are interested in starting their own business. The presenters made no feint about the purpose: To discourage us.
Indeed, it’s identified in the provided literature as the Cold Shower session, “the single most important event in The Self-Employment Assistance Program.” The objective was to scare off all but the most determined and realistic would-be entrepreneurs. Never in the history of government, from the rise of city-states in ancient Greece through the American Constitutional Congress and countless revolutions, has a ruling power delivered so completely on a promise.
The session started with that the presenter, herself a recovering entrepreneur, called a harsh reality: Continue in the program, and you forfeit any right to extended unemployment benefits. Instead of getting possibly 33 weeks of financial assistance, you’d get 13.
That meant many of us who decided to stick it out would face a complete halt in income. The rest of us faced an equally sobering choice. Presumably we were there because our weekly $405 benefit wasn’t enough to sustain our households. We could either resign ourselves to that plight until the economy fosters hiring again, or take what the presenter termed “a gamble” on a start-up. She followed that up with the observation that 90% of ventures fail, and most don’t make any money for five years.
Four people immediately stood up, handed in their evaluations, and left.
“Does anyone make it through?” one attendee shouted out.
“I’m supposed to sound like a naysayer, to make you think this is not for you,” the presenter explained.
And she was just getting warmed up.
Starting your own business, she said, could mean a critical strain on relations with a significant other—and an about-face if you’re already at the point of reconsidering ths partnership. Because New York’s approach to divorce is splitting everything the spouses have, “it might be cheaper to keep her,” she remarked.
Similarly, she asked everyone to consider their kids, and how a complete stop in income might affect their schooling or experiences.
And consider the situation of having an ailing parent, or an elderly parent who might take a turn for the worse. If you have siblings, the speaker explained, they’re going to look at you as the one with time to take care of Mom or Dad because you’re “not reporting someplace everyday for work.”
As she’s speaking, more and more people are handing her their evaluations, which were more or less mandatory, and bolting for the exits.
You can appreciate the state’s efforts to discourage the half-hearted from taking the life-changing and potentially disastrous move of launching a business. But Nordstrom’s isn’t exactly studying the Department’s methods to pick up service tips. Indeed, the experience underscored how desperately the whole unemployment program has to be updated.
For instance, after the presenter dropped the bombshell about having to forego possibly 20 weeks of unemployment if you proceeded with a stab at a start-up, someone asked why. “Because,” she said. Period. That’s how it is. End of issue. It’s not subject to appeal, so just accept it, she pointedly responded.
The question seemed completely reasonable to me. And since it was posed by a taxpayer to a government employee, I guess I expected a little more than that. A lot more, actually. Like an answer, not, “None of your business.”
But, beyond the way the rules are presented, changes are most emphatically needed in the policies themselves. The speaker stressed that any steps toward starting your own business would be grounds for denying all benefits, regular or extended. And if you’ve received benefits, the state might come after you to get back what it’s paid. “Just three little letters, people,” she said. “‘any’.”
And those signs you’re starting a business? Creating a website, or carrying business cards, she explained. “Calling cards are okay,” she said. “You should be giving out calling cards to anyone who’ll take one.”
What the hell is a calling card? Turns out it’s a business card that doesn’t include a business name. The first is fine; the second is grounds to demand all benefits be repaid, the speaker emphasized.
I’m stuck on the website prohibition. As someone who hopes to land a job generating editorial content for web pages, my most powerful marketing tool could be a site I set up and maintain to demonstrate my skills. I’ll have to consult with unemployment authorities now to determine if that’s okay.
Similarly, we heard from a representative of a program that was formed to help small businesses. He detailed the resources that would be available to us if we enrolled in the self-employment program, including free classes.
Could we avail ourselves of those programs to strengthen our resumes if we decide not to pursue self-employment? After all, the asking attendee suggested, a brush-up on certain skills might make us more hire-able.
Not if you’re collecting unemployment, the speaker responded. The classes are open to anyone else, since they’re government-funded. But not to anyone collecting unemployment benefits.
We, apparently, are second-class citizens.
More clarification is also needed in regard to freelancing, the hope of any journalist in these shitty times. I’ve asked for some definition from unemployment authorities, but have yet to get a response. A call to Albany was also less than satisfying.
I wanted to get a sense of how to handle situations like subscribing to controlled-circulation publications, an important resource for freelancers. Most require you to list a company name. What do I put down without jeopardizing my benefits?
I’m reasonably sure the state regards freelancing as part-time employment, not self-employment. But it’d be good to get that verified.
And why should there be any questions about freelancing in the first place? If you can’t survive on $405 a week, and jobs aren’t out there, shouldn’t our government encourage and facilitate the pursuit of spot work? Why all these ridiculous safeguards to make sure we’re not gaming the system, when all we’re trying to do is survive?
In case you’re wondering, I’ve dropped any notion of starting a business. There’s just too much to lose, even if small companies are an important driver of the economy. The unemployment rules just make it too much of a gamble.
It’s a shame the system doesn’t function as more of a safety net, since that would make the most sense to the economy and any individual who’s currently out of work.
An overhaul of that system couldn’t come soon enough.