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“Surviving an Unemployment Hearing”

By Jessica Burke, Adjunct Lecturer, Dept of English, The College of Staten Island.

 

Claiming unemployment between semesters takes gumption and guts. So if you don’t want a hassle or don’t feel up to challenging the system, I’d say don’t do it. But, for everyone else, here’s my story.

 

 

I’m a new adjunct, having started at CUNY in Fall 2008. Typical courses there are 4 credits and working 2 courses is a full load. For Spring 2009, I started at the usual one course for new adjuncts. But after another adjunct abandoned her class three weeks before the end of term, I was the only white knight on my department’s horizon and I finished my first spring term with two classes. Perhaps as thanks for helping the department, I was offered a coveted summer course and by the end of the summer (actually two days before start of fall classes), I was offered a highly prized third course for Fall 2009.

 

I was told, under the radar by several colleagues, that I was being given the good treatment. I had good reviews. I was liked by my students. I had a reasonably high rate of remedial students passing their exams. Things looked reasonably bright—despite my husband (the primary income on our household) losing his job in October 2009. I earned much needed health insurance by the spring of 2010—for myself only since it’s far too expensive to cover my husband—because I taught a steady two classes. I applied for summer work and thought I had a good chance at teaching the same course again.

 

But, I wasn’t hired for the same course. On top of that I heard the department was having difficulty filling fall courses. I was scared. It was the end of the spring term and I heard, again under the radar, that another adjunct complained about newbies (me in particular) earning summer work on top of working overloaded schedules. According to the grapevine, there was no summer work for me; that course I had been counting on was assigned to another adjunct because the complaining adjunct had seniority.

 

So much for solidarity.

 

I had no income for the summer and, after working a temporary job that had expired, my husband’s unemployment insurance was suspended. If we didn’t have helpful relatives and a somewhat understanding landlord, we would have been out of a home. Because of our earnings for the prior year, we were ineligible for public assistance. If we didn’t have the foresight to pay for a share in a local CSA (community shared agriculture), we wouldn’t have had food for the summer. I was able to borrow rent money and wrote letter upon letter to creditors and my utilities.

 

Heeding the call of New Faculty Majority, I filed for unemployment, thinking I had nothing to lose. I earned one week before everything was halted ‘pending an investigation.’ “Reasonable assurance” was trotted out. I requested an appeal hearing. I telephoned my union but got no response. I emailed—again no response. I sent an irate letter to my union chapter—of which I am a member—and was eventually pointed to the Worker’s Defense League. This process took two months; I didn’t get a response until a week before my August 16 hearing.

 

Meanwhile, I reached out to NFM for advice and within hours, I was contacted by about half-a-dozen folks and spoke to some via phone, despite the fact that they were off to a conference in Toronto. I received support and advice on how to proceed, but above all, I got information. Meanwhile, I put all my plans on hold. I looked for work wherever I could find it and was lucky to find one or two independent jobs (not even turning away from babysitting gigs, just to pay the electric bills). I decided I couldn’t afford to take my GREs, much less afford the admission fees for a doctoral program. Besides that, how could I in all good conscience move ahead in a career that treats its employees like this?

 

I went to my hearing early to view my file—only to discover that the CUNY representative demanded that my case be adjourned with a denial of benefits. The rep’s reasoning was beyond me. First, she felt that my status as adjunct was itself a reason for the denial of benefits under the ‘reasonable assurance’ rule. Second, she couldn’t make the hearing because she was on a ‘pre-scheduled vacation.’ That must be nice—having a prescheduled, paid vacation.

 

Luckily the judge was quirky enough to refuse the rep’s demands. I went into the hearing and was unprepared for the questions the judge asked. She wanted to know the times I was on campus, going back to my first semester. She wanted to know details about each class, including how long I was on campus, both before and after. She asked me if I had claimed unemployment for the fall of 2009. She wanted to know how much I earned each term, but refused to hear about my summer work. I then discovered my university had underreported my earnings for the fall of 2009.

 

Furthermore, according to other documentation, I was denied benefits because I had no reportable earnings at all for 2009. The judge saw the discrepancy and asked for my pay stubs. I didn’t have them with me, so she adjourned the hearing pending an investigation into my earnings. Overall, I was unnerved and thought that most of her questioning, her mannerisms, and the entire affair had one purpose: to unnerve me.

 

Within a week I had my stubs together. The following week I received a package from the UI Appeals Board. Inside, I was horrified to find documents that belonged to someone else. If I received someone else’s information, my information could have been sent to this other person. What if my hearing date was sent to them as well?

 

I immediately called the appeals board only to be told that my new hearing wouldn’t be scheduled until December or January and I had to send a letter to the judge requesting information regarding my hearing. I sent my letter and received a frantic call from an Appeals Board office worker, himself horrified that someone’s private information was sent to me by mistake. He wanted me to mail the information back. I told him I had no funds for postage, but it would be easier to walk in the documents for my new hearing. But that meant he wouldn’t get them until December or January so he said he’d let me know the following week of a sooner hearing date. He did as promised and I was set to go back October 4.

 

I prepped as much as I could by reading Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Contingent Faculty, by Joe Berry, Beverly Stewart, and Helena Worthen. I corresponded with my new brethren at NFM. I was told my department chair had received a message from the CUNY Law division, ordering her to appear in court the following Monday regarding me. They called me; I think they thought I was suing the department. I mentioned my hearing and was horrified at the prospect of my department chair being called. I admit, I said I would try to contact the judge to pull back my appeal. My chair told me I had nothing to be afraid of and that if I believed I was due unemployment benefits, I had every right to claim them.

 

That evening, I spoke with someone at the Workers Defense League, an arrogant, brusque man. He was confused at the judge’s ‘quirkiness’ and after a 30-minute diatribe explaining that he wasn’t a novice, that ‘reasonable assurance’ was a much more complex issue than I (a lowly adjunct he may as well have said) could understand, that the judge’s ruling was illogical. He finally refused to represent me because he felt that despite the fact that I earned more last year than I am currently earning this year, I had no case.

 

I turned back to NFM for some sound, supportive, and simple advice. I was told that calling my department chair was another tactic meant to intimidate me. I spoke with my union chapter fellows, who pledged further support. My chapter head even spoke to my current chair and after my initial shock at having my department chair called, I resolved to stand firm in the knowledge that I was supported by my fellows at NFM and at my union chapter. I also spoke with a union rep, who meant well, but had no further advice other than to tell me to tell the truth and to apply for food stamps.

 

About two days before my hearing, I received a statement from the Dept. of Labor that said should the judge deem me eligible for benefits, I would receive $X amount per week. The document reported my correct earnings for 2009, according to my W2s and tax information.

 

Again, I went to the hearing early to view my file. I was met with yet another demand by the CUNY Rep. to adjourn my hearing because my department chair was unable to attend—due to laryngitis—and the CUNY Rep. couldn’t attend either for unspecified reasons. There was also an email from a CUNY office assistant stating my earnings for the Spring 2009, Fall 2009, and Spring 2010 semesters. While the 2010 earnings were correctly reported, the other two terms were incorrect.

 

The judge called me almost 30 minutes late, giving time for the CUNY Rep. to appear. When none did, she stated that the hearing would continue. She asked me for my pay information and after both of us didcalculations, she stated her findings: My earnings were about $4,000 more than what CUNY had reported for the fall 2009 semester.

 

She asked if I had any questions, which I said I did for the CUNY Rep. but since she wasn’t present, I only was concerned with my underreported earnings.

 

She asked, “How do you know your earnings were underreported?”

 

I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone and was reminded of her previous line of questioning at my first hearing. I was reminded of something noted in the Berry handbook—that often times the administrative law judge is just a glorified secretary who may feel intimidated by the so-called academic elite (read adjunct). I decided to play it humble and simply stated what my earnings had been reported in the email in my file and asked her to compare that figure against the number she herself just entered into evidence. I also presented the most recent statement of earnings sent to me by the Department of Labor, which she did not have a copy of. She entered my pay information into the record. The hearing was adjourned and she said I’d receive her ruling within a week.

 

I received a very confusing ruling three days later. It was in legal lingo. After reading it four times and with the help of my husband, we decided the letter meant she disagreed with the initial decision of denial. I went to the computer, logged into unemployment and saw that a rather large payment had been released. My fortitude had paid off. I won. No thanks to the Workers Defense League. Small thanks to my union, save for my union chapter brethren. Large thanks to the NFM.

 

My advice through all this: do NOT allow the judge to get a rise out of you. Don’t go in to court thinking you’re an educated person and up against a glorified administrator. Be as humble as you can. Answer truthfully and don’t take no for an answer. If your union won’t help you, find someone who can offer advice (talk to the folks at NFM). Read Joe Berry’s handbook and bring your paystubs and every other shred of paperwork you receive from your school regarding your employment—and from the Department of Labor regarding your claim. Get to the hearing early and READ everything in your file—and take notes.

 

And, when in doubt, pray to whatever deities you hold dear. Mine helped me aplenty.

 

Postscript:

I received a notice that my unemployment decision is being appealed-- by the Commissioner of Labor. Wonderful. The appeal was filed on 10/6 but they apparently didn't want to notify me until 20 days afterward. The notice is dated 10/26. It has no instructions for me. No court date to reappear. Nothing.

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 November 2010 18:55
 

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