What I’ve Learned About Unemployment in Massachusetts

by Dave Atkins on January 22, 2009

in Advice to Unemployed,Best Writing,Building Community,Essay,Local to Boston,Work/Life

This article provides advice and tips for residents of Massachusetts who are unemployed. It is the most popular post on my blog. Please read the related posts in the category “Navigating Unemployment” and the comments below. I closed comments and have moved on–employed for over 2 years now. This page still gets over 1000 visitors per month, and perhaps there is still some value in the story, but please consult the Mass.Gov website for improved information regarding unemployment benefits.

No legal advice. This blog post relates my experience only and the information I researched in January 2009.

Text of original post follows…

Top 7 Tips for the Unemployed in Massachusetts

My purpose here is not to tell you how to find a job. It’s just about the hoops you need to jump through to get the insurance benefits you are entitled to receive while you are looking for work. I recommend you just do these things and don’t get hung up on lots of questions or debates about why the system is the way it is. We have a pretty good deal in Massachusetts compared to other states, so check your attitude at the door and don’t let the bureaucracy and cesspool of negativity you may encounter distract you from finding a job.

1. Go stand in line. Or, more accurately, sit in your car holding a number. Do not bother with the phone; it is busy. There is no way to register online and no forms to print out. So rather than call and wait on hold for hours, what you should do it go down to your local “walk in center” in the middle of the day and ask them when the line forms, then come back the next day at 7am or so to get a number. Then go get a coffee from Dunkin Donuts and come back at the right time. Make sure you bring all the information you will need to fill out the form. When I filed my claim, the center was experimenting with a group filing approach; we all filled out our forms together and I was out of the building within half an hour. Then, later that day, I received a call from the intake person to confirm he had registered me in the system. Easy. Painless. No frustration.

It would be nice if the form were online so I could fill it out in advance, submit it online, or even just mail it in. It seems ridiculous to have to stand in line to get a form that you fill out and hand to a person, then leave.

2. File your Medical Security Program application ASAP. If you are receiving unemployment benefits, you may be eligible to participate in the Medical Security Program. Download the application form, fill it out, and send it in before you file your initial claim. If you are eligible, MSP will reimburse you 80% of your COBRA premium up to a monthly maximum of $1080 for a family plan or $440 for an individual plan. My COBRA plan would cost me $1312.92 per month for Blue Cross HMO Blue Enhanced Value.

Are you eligible? Probably, especially if you have kids. But the determination of eligibility is complicated so rather than try to figure it out, just get the application completed and filed ASAP along with any required supporting materials…like the letter you need your wife to write saying she is a stay at home mom.

Download the brochure and application form and read them carefully. The website itself does not give the details you need. But get the application in so have it ready if you need it. If you fail to submit the application right away and find you need health care, the state will not pay retroactively; a friend I know is already in for $2600+ with the state refusing to reimburse the COBRA payments he made before his application was processed. You can file an appeal–another great use of your time when you could be looking for a job.

3. Wait for your first unemployment check to arrive before you try to call MSP. I burned through 45 minutes of cell phone time (I do not have a land line) before I got to a person who said she could not help me until I had received my first check. It will probably be a month before you get a check and maybe 6 weeks before you learn anything about MSP. In the meantime, you will be hoping you don’t get sick, avoiding going to the doctor, and not electing to use your COBRA “benefits.” You have 2 months from the date you are laid off to elect COBRA and it can be retroactive. So, if you have an emergency, you go to the doctor then pay COBRA.

If you do qualify for MSP, you will have to front the money for COBRA premiums and get reimbursed. And I do not know how part time work affects your eligibility for participation in MSP, but I suspect it is not good.

Please see my more recent posts on health care

4. The Commonwealth Care program is irrelevant to you. If you are eligible for MSP + COBRA, you are not eligible for Commonwealth Care. You can use the Commonwealth Connector web site to shop for private insurance, but you will not get the low-cost or free health care that is available for people who did not just lose their jobs.

5. If you find part-time or consulting work…manage your time strategically. It is a crime to fail to report that you worked and earned money while unemployed, and you are allowed a pittance of earning (1/3 of your benefit amount, e.g. a couple hundred bucks), but what typically happens is if you make any significant money, you lose your benefit for that week. So if you do manage to find some freelance work, make sure you do it all in one week. Don’t do something foolish like work 10 hours a week for 4 weeks. Schedule your work so that if you have a 40-hour project, you can do it all in one week.

6. Stay positive. It is easy to get upset when you are on hold forever and then the phone hangs up on you or the person who answers refuses to help you. It is frustrating to click on website links that claim to give you information on how to apply…but then don’t link to the forms. And it is terribly frustrating to listen to repeated hold messages telling you to go to the website…when the website is telling you that you have to call the phone number. But just do what you need to do and get back on track looking for a job!

7. Don’t feel like a scumbag. I try to laugh at the movie Office Space and recall the line from one worker who is afraid of being laid off:

I’m going to be the first one they’re gonna lay off. Just the thought of having to go to the State Unemployment Office and having to stand in line with those scumbags!!!

There is no shame in collecting unemployment. We’ve been paying into the system for years–or at least our employers have been paying for us. It is social insurance, designed to cover just this situation. It’s not a government handout.

In the 1930s, perhaps our grandparents gave up their dreams to provide for their families during the Great Depression…they put their college degrees away and found jobs doing laundry or whatever it took to keep their families fed. There was no safety net and dreams were deferred out of necessity. But that generation enacted social protections to help prevent that kind of thing from happening again. For a few minutes, the lucky among us who had good jobs, stand in line with the laborers and attorneys, ironworkers and accountants, in these challenging times, and focus on building a better future with a least a few months protection from losing our homes and freezing in the cold because we were only a paycheck away from disaster. If there are some hoops we must navigate, we do it, and we move on.

If you have specific, useful tips on what people should do to make their experience with the Unemployment Insurance go more smoothly or constructive suggestions for how to improve the way these services are delivered, please comment here. Don’t post links to business opportunities. Even if they are well-intentioned, I will delete anything that is not directly relevant to the topic of navigating the unemployment bureaucracy.

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