Standing in Line in Oregon

by Greg Baysans

or "What's Wrong With Unemployment?"

An old saying goes, "Experience is the best teacher." I've been experiencing unemployment for over two years and would like to share what it has taught me here in Oregon which continues to have the nation's highest unemployment rate.

Although I've been eligible for food stamps for over two years, I've been able to avoid the unpleasant stigma which I learned as a child to attach to food stamps, applying for or using them. Tired of voluntary fasting, I bit my lip last week and entered the community services building to apply. The first thing I learned is that there is a waiting list and an orientation process to go through. The woman behind the counter put my name over someone else's which had been covered with wite-out. 

Today I returned for the orientation.

A young woman in street jeans and sweatshirt spent fifteen minutes describing new and old acronyms for various programs and agencies. "They tried to simplify things by adding all these new ones," she said.

After describing the programs, she took questions. An  applicant asked why unemployment was so high in Oregon.

"Because there are so many of you out of work. That means there are less taxes being paid," she explained, wonderfully shifting the blame onto the victims. 

Asked why the application process took so long and included a waiting period between signing up and first getting information, she explained that many employers statewide, including hers, were not replacing retiring or departing employees. "Plus, there's always people out sick, like I was the entire week last week," she continued.

Having been a temp employee off and on for these past years, it has been a long time since I've gotten paid for a single day of sick pay, so I asked if she had been paid; she had been -- all five. Do I need to mention that temp agencies aren't likely to pay vacation pay or provide health benefits either?

The second step of the three-step process was to wait for a one-on-one interview with one of two employees sitting at adjoining desks and maintaining a merry banter with each other that occupied as much of their time as their conversations with us applicants. 

(Unfortunately, I was called before being able to finish the last hundred pages of Atlas Shrugged which I'd brought with me to read. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, is a 1,000-plus-page fantasy eventually about a place where people work at vocations for which they have aptitude and abilities. Imagine!)

Soon after I sat down, the other interviewer asked my interviewer for some wite-out to cover an error she'd just made.

"I can do that for you," the applicant being interviewed beside me chirped. "I've been out of work for three months and I need something to do!"

"You can volunteer," she was informed. "There's a list over there. That's how I got my job here. I worked for six months without pay as a volunteer."

"So did I," my own interviewer remarked. "It's a great way to learn skills. I didn't have any before I came here." She then looked over my résumé. I looked over my shoulder at fellow applicants with professional office training. They were commenting on the lack of efficiency in the on-going proceedings.

"You could, um, add the word 'great' here," my interviewer suggested for my résumé after pondering it in silence a good minute or two, "in front of 'customer service skills.' That would, you know, tell an employer that you can handle difficult customers, you know. It's something employers especially, you know, look for." 

I believe too much in efficiency to waste my breath telling her that I've been preparing professional résumés for twenty years. Or that the résumé she's looking at was suggested and approved by the hiring specialist at BCTI.

BCTI is a (Portland-suburb:) Beaverton technical institute I attended for seven months in 2001, hoping a $10,000 investment would show my seriousness about finding a job that acknowledged specific skills and experience. Imagine my surprise when the Dean of Instructors, Chris Butler, can't compose a business letter although it's a practice drilled into students from start to end of the curriculum. Imagine my surprise when the job placement assistance consists of suggesting the services of a few temp agencies. (The dress code encouraged by placement staff at BCTI is certainly not what they're wearing here at community services.)

"Make sure to register with a lot of temp agencies," I was being told as she handed me a small sheet of info to carry to the last station. "It's the only way anyone in the area is hiring."

I got in the last line; luckily there was only one person in front of me. As I waited, however, the line behind me grew to four, then six, then eight.

Standing in line, I had time to reflect on how I ended up in this line.

In 1993, I arrived in Oregon with over ten years experience as a typesetter and eight years experience as editor of a literary publication. 

In January of 2000, I was hired at the DJC (Daily Journal of Commerce), a local business/trade newspaper. The typesetting (production) supervisor, Ali Hassannia, despite thirty years "experience," was (and is, still employed there) English-illiterate. Industry practices that are standard elsewhere are unknown (and unwelcome, I quickly learned) there.

Understand I have nothing against foreign-born Americans. I firmly believe what we've been taught by our visionary forefathers, that we are all "created equal."

That's not to say we are the same equal after years of life experiences and training. I was a good student of English in school for a purpose. I was taught that in America it's your abilities that get you where you are, not your money or parents or brute force.

Multi-cultural exposure is something I value. In 1999 I worked at a small Beaverton printing company (owned by an Asian woman, not that it matters), where one of the only other white males was a Croat refugee. I was proud to say I worked at "the Beaverton branch of the U.N."

"Next?" I was called out of my memories. I stepped forward, handed her the info slip.

 "Is this information correct?"

I told her it was, and she began to slowly copy it into a ledger in front of her. Done with the first ledger, she closed it, put it away, took out a second one and repeated the exact copying into this next book.

Realizing it was the wrong one, she had to look around for her wite-out. I learned it takes as long to cover something with wite-out as it does to make the errant entry.

While she painted, I wondered if I was feeling bitter because of personal reasons. I guess being in line and applying for food stamps is personal.

Am I being unreasonable in expecting an English-speaking newspaper to require language skills of staff with editorial control? Some tiny knowledge of typography? Shouldn't a Dean of Instructors (and the instructors themselves) at a school that finds people business jobs know how to write and punctuate a business letter? 

Why do both these people have their jobs and I'm getting food stamps? Was I lied to as a child when I was taught that learning leads to success? Who changed the rules and when?

It's not bitterness that makes me include names but the fact that these are all... facts, easily verified. I wouldn't point out a problem without offering a solution: can a competency test ever be a bad thing?

One of these days I will learn; I will realize I've been going about this the wrong way: In Oregon, with my experience as a typesetter and editor, I need to be looking for work as a nuclear physicist. Anyone know of any openings? 

Perhaps I should buy some stock in wite-out.

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