Mae Thao was born in Thailand and grew up in St. Paul. She is a young member of the workforce with two particularly valuable skills. She speaks Hmong and she knows how to navigate the unemployment insurance system.
Her coworker Jose Koehler, a Spanish speaker, has an MBA and a Masters of Public Administration with considerably more professional experience than Thao. At middle age, he has worked in construction, at non-profits and faith based-organizations, and as a real-estate agent. He has been unemployed at times and knows the frustration of getting squeezed out of weakened industries. Koehler also knows the unemployment insurance system and says, “I think you can empathize with people if you’ve been through it, and that helps.”
Koelher and Thao were both hired in December by the WorkForce Center in St. Paul in response to the growing volume of people applying for unemployment insurance.
The demand for unemployment insurance has grown so much that 15 employees have been added to the 85 who currently assist job seekers in Minnesota’s 47 WorkForce Centers.
The rise in unemployment insurance claims over the same period last year is striking. In January, 2009 138,700 people requested unemployment insurance, up from 80-85,000 in January 2008, according to Kirsten Morelles, Communications Director of MN Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
“This is the highest volume of claims that our system has ever seen,” said Morelles. “But the workforce is also larger than it has ever been in previous recessions.”
The recently hired WorkForce Center employees are witnessing the results of the economic crisis first hand. “We’re seeing a lot of people are losing their long time jobs. We’re talking about people who have been working for a company for 10,12,15 years,” Koehler said. “This is a real oddity because these people need the type of money that they were making in order to pay their bills.”
The ability of these clients to get unemployment benefits depends in part on their technological and language skills. Minnesota was the first state in the country to implement an online system for filing insurance claims. According to DEED, 80% of claims are filed online, while only 20% are still filed over the phone.
“The days of standing in line and getting your check cut, well that doesn’t really happen any more,” said Morelles. “At least not in Minnesota, but some people have that picture in their heads.”
Applying online can be tricky, though, especially for those who may not have the tools to navigate the system. For example, one question refers to whether an applicant was “Laid Off,” “Terminated,” or “Discharged,” which frequently confuses applicants, especially those with limited language proficiency. Simple errors can delay benefits for days if not weeks.
So while Thao and Koehler hope to train their clients to navigate the system on their own, they take each person on a case-by-case basis. There are some clients who learn after 2-3 visits to the Center, whereas others take much longer to train. And there are plenty of special cases and glitches that that even trained specialists don’t always recognize. In these cases Thao turns to the supervisors at the WorkForce Center.
“They have been working so long in the system that they are excellent in navigating it. Excellent,” said Thao. “But you really need to know the system.”
In helping their clients navigate logistics, Thao and Koehler also address some of the manifestations of the psychological impacts of unemployment. Most of Koehler and Thao’s clients are male and both say that gender-specific issues arise with their clients.
Koehler in particular deals with some of the psychological effects on Latino men who are accustomed to being the bread-winners of the family. “I see them come in here and they feel emasculated and they don’t feel worthy,” he said. “And I try to reassure them that it’s not their fault, that they are suffering from the same sickness that the nation’s economy is suffering”
Koehler says it can be particularly humbling for people who have never had to ask for assistance before.
“I had a family come here the other day and the male had children and I told him his number one priority was that his children get fed,” Koehler said. “He told me, ‘I’ve never had to ask for assistance.’ I asked him how long he had been in this country and he said, ‘practically all my life.’ (He was in his 50s). So I tried to tell him, look, this is not charity. You have been contributing to this fund practically your whole life you have earned this, you have contributed to the treasury of this state and all you’re doing now is getting a little withdrawal.”
Thao gives her clients as many resources as possible, frequently referring them to H.I.R.E. the Employment Action Center, or the Dislocated Work Program. The latter is particularly relevant for those clients whose entire industries are hardest hit.
“You find some people whose particular industry has become obsolete and we refer them to the dislocated programs,” Koehler said. “Let’s take the realtors, for example, or the mortgage loan officers. There just aren’t enough jobs in those industries, so they need to be retrained in another area where they will be able to raise their families.”
Things around the WorkForce Center get so busy that Koehler and Thao have to skip lunch on their busiest days, usually Mondays and Tuesdays when most people file their claims. It could be overwhelming, even demoralizing, to work with the unemployed, but both Koelher and Thao expressed a certain calm.
As they explained their work, Koehler sat behind a desk and folded his hands in his lap. “You’re helping,” he said. He paused, looking up at the ceiling before speaking again, “I really feel like the true purpose of human beings is to serve others and all mankind and sometimes we miss the boat.”
As he spoke, Thao nodded her head in agreement.
She started speaking and then paused to collect her words, “The one thing about being in this field: it really keeps me thinking on the positive side because you’re helping others.”
This time Koehler nodded in agreement.