Let’s Make the Unemployed Do Community Service

Otherwise, there's always the draft.

There was a time when collecting unemployment compensation benefits meant that you had to show up at some dingy government office on a regular basis and convince a pencil pusher behind a desk that you were making some amount of effort to find work. Assuming these meetings went OK, every two weeks, you’d get a check in the mail, which you’d then take to the bank. Then, you’d go to the store and buy groceries. But thanks to the Modern Age, that’s all changed. And not for the better.

These days, should you lose your job, God forbid, you simply go online to apply for benefits. Once your benefits have been approved, you don’t have to visit an office to convince anyone of anything. You just have to go to a website every other week, where you’ll be asked questions like “Did you work?” (you should answer “no” to this one) and “Were you available for work when work was offered to you?” (“yes” is the answer they are looking for). Then you get your money—direct deposited, naturally.

This new way of doing things has made it pretty easy for the unemployed to do a whole lot of nothing when they should be looking for work. Oh, this is not to say that there aren’t a hell of a lot of people collecting unemployment who are diligently seeking out jobs. Surely there are, and we all know how much the market sucks.

But then there are those people who go off gallivanting overseas, filing their claims from the Internet cafe down the street from the cheap guesthouse they’re staying in, and hitting the ATM around the corner to collect their fortnightly funds. No, really. This happens. Your unemployment benefits may have you on a steady diet of Oodles of Noodles and canned chunk light tuna in the U.S., but you can live pretty well in places like Morocco and Ecuador.

The less extreme cases tend to wake up late, watch a lot of bad daytime television, interspersed with Allen Rothenberg and CHI Institute commercials, and start drinking earlier than they used to in the good old days of full-time employment. And these able bodied citizens get softer and fatter and drunker and dumber. This may not represent the majority of unemployment cases out there, but it certainly represents a significant minority—and a lot of money.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania became the last state in the Union to require you to actually look for work. That’s right. Prior to January 1, 2012, you didn’t even have to make an effort to find a job. Under the new regulations, you must conduct an “active search for work.”

Does this mean you have to put on a nice suit and pound the pavement? No. Of course it doesn’t. We wouldn’t want to inconvenience you like that.

Assuming you send out two resumes each week and “contact colleagues, former co-workers or other individuals in similar professions or occupations to make known your availability for employment or obtain information about available positions, prospective employers or other employment opportunities,” you’ll be just fine, and the money will come rolling in as expected.

For the latter part of your unemployment benefit timeline, you have to send out three resumes per week. But as an unemployed engineer I know puts it, “This is a bullshit exercise, because they don’t care whether or not the jobs you seek are within your range of ability nor whether the earning is even less than the unemployment benefit.”

Pennsylvania doesn’t even require you to submit a log proving that you’re doing any of this unless they decide to ask for it. One woman I spoke with, who has been collecting for several months, says that she has not been asked to show a thing, though she’s been keeping scrupulous records, just in case the state decides to do its due diligence.

Given that our state has so many people unemployed—more than half a million, with about 275,000 of them collecting benefits, collectively to the tune of tens of millions of dollars every week—it sure would be nice if the state would take this all a little more seriously.

For starters, let’s require those collecting unemployment compensation to complete weekly work search logs online, and let’s have someone on the other end actually looking at them. Something tells me that there are a few state employees sitting around with enough extra time on their hands who can pitch in. Plus, we need to make sure that every person collecting benefits visits the local unemployment office once in a while to look a case worker in the eye. Society has become far too point-and-click for its own good, and anyone who has experienced the joys of Match.com knows that most people are more likely to be deceptive online than they are in person.

And then, what if we made community service part of the requirement to receive unemployment compensation? Oh, I’m not talking about the kind of community service that you have to do if you’re convicted of a crime. No, there are plenty of criminals around to scrub toilets at the rec center and pick up trash from the shoulder of I-76. I’m talking about service opportunities like teaching people to read through the Center for Literacy and preparing and delivering meals to the sick for MANNA.

Surprisingly, the unemployed people I spoke with for this article weren’t against the idea of compulsory community service as part of unemployment compensation requirements. “I like the idea of people doing some kind of community service, especially in their field or related to their life,” says one. “But it gets a little less enticing if the unemployed person doesn’t have some say in where they volunteer or when.” (No one I spoke with wanted to use their name.)

“Community service is a good idea, but I am not sure how it would be enforced,” says another. “When you get your package at the onset of benefits, the agency highly recommends keeping active. But then the thought stops right there. I think it should be reenforced—and very strongly … It’s no good to just sit around.”