Coffee heat rising

Applying for Jobs Online: Isn’t technology supposed to make our lives easier?

Today I applied for three jobs, around our clients’ e-mails and the phone’s jangling and the staff’s worried questions. Two of them, I’m probably not qualified for (but nothing ventured, nothing gained). One, I could do with exceptional panache, but the language in the posting subtly suggests they have in mind a twenty-something, or at worst a crotchety old thirty-something.

And therein lies the most discouraging element of my post-layoff prospects: age discrimination. There’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that anyone is going to hire a soon-to-be 64-year-old woman. The sense that I’ve got to keep trying anyway, even though I don’t have even the remotest shot at getting hired, is agonizingly frustrating. To say the least.

And here’s an even more elegant frustration: technology that wastes my time and ultimately wastes the employer’s time.

All three prospective employers asked that applicants first upload a résuméand then retype almost every line of the résuméinto online forms, often in a format that makes it difficult or impossible to copy and paste.

What is the point? If you’ve already got the whole résumé, why have the applicant keyboard all the information in again, line by freaking line? What a crushing time-waster! It took a good three hours to perform what should have been three 30-second tasks.

And imagine the time wasted on the other end! Someone has to plow through all those dreary, redundant lines. Probably more than one someone: at most colleges and universities, search committees have at least three people, and often an admin assistant runs interference by reading and screening applications first.

So what we have here is a procedure that unnecessarily wastes at least five people’s time!

Other than limiting the number of job applications any one supplicant can send out in a day, what, really, is the point? And how does this permutation of technology make our lives better?

Stimulus program makes COBRA affordable

Affording COBRA, the plan that allows workers to extend their health insurance benefits as much as 18 months after a job loss, is a stretch for most of us and impossible for many. After I’m canned, for example, the cost of my EPO will go from $13 a month to $485—and that’s to insure just one person!

We’ve known that the government’s stimulus plan will pick up a chunk of this for a period of nine months, but the university’s HR department refuses to provide the details. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, though, an enterprising soon-to-be-bag lady can dig up the story on her own.

It looks like The Kid and I will fall into the eligible category. You have to meet these guidelines:
-Canned between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009
-Laid off or involuntarily let go (if you walked or you were canned for misconduct, you don’t qualify)
-Subscribed toyour employer’s health-care plan before you lost your job
-Had an adjusted gross income of less than $125,000 if you’re single or $250,000 if you’re married and file jointly (the subsidy phases out at higher rates as you approach $145,000/$290,000)

If you can make the cut, you get a 65% reduction in COBRA for nine months. For me, that means premiums of $169.75 a month, instead of the present $485. Since I’ve already set aside the money to cover the five months between layoff day and my 65th birthday (Medicare day), that would put a lot more in the proposed survival pool: about $1,575!

Don’t know how this will work for The Kid. She would have to insure herself and her child—until her recent divorce, they were on her (now ex-)husband’s insurance. He just lost his job. The cost of insuring more than one person on the university’s plans is pretty high, and she may not be able to afford it on her grandiose $16,000 salary.

If you’re about to be laid off or if you were laid off after last August and turned down COBRA because you couldn’t afford it, look into this. The government is giving people who rejected COBRA a second chance to sign up. They say it will take most employers a couple of months to send out letters to eligible ex-employees. Obviously, though, if you’ve moved and your employer doesn’t have your current address (is there mail delivery under the Seventh Avenue Overpass?), you’ll need to be proactive.

Is this worse than we think, even?

What a day!

Before I even parked my purse in the office, I made a run on HR. There I learned a) they don’t know how much COBRA will be; b) the state just posted a page showing the new COBRA costs, but they’re telling staff not to tell anyone about it (says a lot, doesn’t it?); c) yes, they have to pony up the so-called “extra” pay that will have accrued by the end of December, which is supposed to be paid in the January “extra” paycheck (snark!); d) they don’t know if I get dibs on any internal hires that may be happening, given my status as an exempt year-to-year contract worker; e) the maximum number of vacation hours GDU will pay me for is 176; and f) I probably will be eligible for unemployment benefits.

ohhhkayyyy…. Moving on…

Back at the office, I get on the phone to my passing acquaintance at the General Accounting Office, the one who informed me that HR’s reps were full of beans when they told both me and La Maya that we lose our RASL (more about which, onward) if we’re laid off instead of announcing unilaterally that we’re retiring. Clear it was that this woman was no friend of GDU’s Human Resources bots, and so I felt fairly confident that she would not rat on me for inquiring about exactly what Our Beloved Employer was trying to accomplish by secretly changing my associate editor’s job status from a nonexempt classified to an exempt contract worker…and trying to faze past me the idea that her offer letter for a classified position amounted to a “contract” for a “we can squash you anytime we please” job.

My Spy’s first instinct was that nonexempt workers are hired to be present for X number of hours, and exempt workers are hired to accomplish a job, no matter how long it takes. Thus, if they dump all our graduate student assistants and leave us with six (!) journals to take from manuscript to the compositor, they will not have to pay her overtime for the obscene number of hours she will have to work beyond the number for which she is paid.

Hmmm…good thought, said I.

And, said she, it’s a lot easier to get rid of exempt workers.

Yeah. Don’t I know it.

Moving on, Spy advised that I should be very careful to figure out exactly what is the hourly rate for the new contract OBE proposes to emit, come June 30. She pointed out that RASL—a kind of severance package based on the number of unused sick leave hours a state employee has accrued—is based on your hourly pay at the time you leave state service, not on the amount you made when you were being sort of fairly paid. Quite a few retiring workers, she reported, have been rudely surprised to learn that by accepting a pay cut instead of furlough days, they cut this retirement benefit significantly.

RASL is a feature that pays you for accrued sick leave, based on your years of service. You accrue sick leave separately from vacation time, and it builds rather slowly. After you’ve racked up 500 hours, you’re entitled to be paid about 30 percent of your hourly pay for each hour of accrued sick leave, at the time you leave your job. When you hit 1,000 hours, glory be! As your parting gift, the state forks over 50 percent of your hourly rate for each hour of accrued sick leave. This money drifts up because it is contributed to a state fund from your salary.

Well, I have almost 1,200 hundred hours, presently worth something over $17,000.

Spy pointed out that if they reduce my hourly pay with this new contract, it could drastically affect my RASL. So drastically, she advised, that it may be worth turning the contract down and walking if what they offer in June is a pay cut. She advised carefully figuring how much my RASL is worth at my present rate of pay and being prepared to calculate, quickly, how much I would lose if I accepted a pay cut.

So: add that task to the mix. And add to it another layer: figure out how to get by if I have to quit at the end of June instead of hanging around until the end of December. Gaaaaahhhhh!

Now Spy waxed garrulous. This is one of those government employees who knows how to function within and to operate a bureaucracy because of long, long service. Just listening to her made it clear that she’d been around forever. She remarked that she had several friends with over 30 years of service to the state, and that among them all, no one could remember anything remotely like what they’re seeing now. She said people are demonstrating in front of their office buildings and having sh*t-fits in the lobby, but all anyone could say to them is that there just. isn’t. any. money. left. to. pay. out. Staff can’t help, because they have nothing—literally nothing—to help with.

More spookily still, she observed that some people are beginning to talk seriously about the possibility that the state government could completely shut down. Not just close the prisons and the universities. No. Shut down everything. Go out of business.

After that conversation it took some hours to get a grip, and I will say, at this moment it’s still a pretty tenuous grip.

Back at the office, Her Deanship commanded another audience. Tomorrow I have to go in prepared to discuss which RAs will get the ax first, and which of our client journals will go away in what order. Took half the afternoon to compose a memo responding to that and to argue in favor of retaining our lead RA through the fall semester.

Just as I was wrapping up that little gem, said lead RA showed up and asked, “Am I going to be here in the fall?”

Oh shit.

So, I had to close the door and explain to her what is happening. By the time that discussion was over, I’d been clenching my jaw so violently I’d brought on a muscle tremor.

Her department has lost most of its graduate student support lines. There were nine lines to support 26 graduate students. They are now all distributed. OBE delayed so long in dropping the ax on our department that this exceptionally worthy mother of two has now lost her chance at any other assistantship. It’s not like they didn’t know. I mean, please! How many times has Her Deanship put me off since last freaking August when I have told her we need new client journals? Five? At least. I’ve sensed for weeks that the reason for the stonewalling is that she knew we weren’t expected to survive and she didn’t want to commit our services to faculty members, only to have to yank the rug out from under them.

Just another manifestation of the basic fact of academic life: a university’s administration does not give one thin damn about the welfare of its students.

In an attempt to get a good word in for my associate editor, I spent two or three hours laboring over the STUPID annual evaluation form, an enormous time-waster. Anyway, assuming Her Deanship accepts it and passes it along to HR, if the sidekick applies for a new job at GDU anytime in the more or less near future, a rave review will be sitting in her permanent files.

My jaw hurts. I’m going to go put a heating pad on my face.

Yours in eternal awe of Our Beloved Employer,

—Funny

A layoff strategy

On our morning walk, La Maya asked if I have a come-back planned should Her Deanship announce, during this afternoon’s unexpected audience, that the Great Desert University intends to lay me off.

As a matter of fact, I do. Several recessions ago in a galaxy far, far away, I happened to read a magazine article whose author argued that as soon as an employer proposes to lay you off, you should immediately come back with an alternative. The theory was that you can sometimes bargain yourself into a better position, or at least gain paid or partially paid time to search for new work.

Unclear whether this idea remains operative in the more extreme conditions we’re seeing today. But nothing ventured (etc.). So, I have a couple of come-backs:

1. Her Deanship says soooo sorry, we’re laying you off. I say:
Last night on the local PBS news program, a legislator said that a string the size of a rope is attached to the stimulus package Our Beloved Governor has asked the president for. To get the stimulus money, Arizona will have to abrogate and reinstate all the outrageous cutsto higher education(well, as one of the lead budget-cutters, he didn’t use the term “outrageous,” o’course). Therefore, in the next few weeks the university’s budget will be restored and all your programs can proceed as before.

So, why don’t you cut my hours by 50%, temporarily? This would save on benefits and taxes, and half of my gross salary would cover the cost of one research assistantship—including the out-of-state tuition waiver. Then, when things are better, you can reinstate me at 100% FTE.

2. Her Deanship says that will never do! I say:
Rather than yank the College’s support out from under not one, not two, but six scholarly journals (causing bad press for GDU not just locally but nationwide that will ring through the ages like time’s endless echo), why don’t you outsource the preproduction services to me? This will save the university the cost of my salary plus taxes and benefits, remove three research assistantships and a 50% FTE assistant editor’s position, and get the job done at enormous cost savings.

Pull that one off, and The Copyeditor’s Desk has a bread-and-butter client that won’t quit. Tina and I will both be self-employed, which has its disadvantages but also has the advantage that we won’t have to schlep to campus. We can farm the work out to the graduate students on a freelance basis. While we can’t give them research assistantships, we certainly could hire one a semester as an intern, given what we would earn editing six journals plus the other work we’re doing.

Mwa ha ha! No wonder I’m an academic. I was born for this kind of bullshit!

Reviewed the financial strategy I’d already planned for the layoff eventuality. It’s going to be very tight. However, if it’s true that the stimulus package will pick up 60% of COBRA, my back vacation pay will cover COBRA until I’m eligible for Medicare, especially if the university keeps me on until the end of the fiscal year (June 30). Also, $2,400 of unemployment is now tax-free, so that means the pittance Arizona dispenses will be a slightly larger pittance.

So, I guess the main reason I’m not feeling very exercised about this development (besides the fact that I’m tired of thinking about it) is that, although it would be a major inconvenience, if they lay me off my world will not come to an end.

Finding a human at a corporation that repels all boarders

Few things in modern life are more frustrating than navigating a punch-a-button telephone maze (these things are called “phone trees,” BTW) when you have a problem that needs the attention of a human being. By the time you reach an actual person, you’re peeved as all get-out. No matter how polite you try to force yourself to be, the poor wretch on the other end of the line hears your annoyance in the tone of your voice and responds in kind. It turns doing business with major corporations into a predictable exercise in rage.

And if you’re already enraged…well. The late great fight with Qworst was hugely complicated by the difficulty of getting in touch with anyone who knew what to do and who had the authority to do it. I finally found a snail-mail address for the home office at The Consumerist. After the dust settled, I posted a list of ways to reach a human being at a company that doesn’t want to speak with us troglogytes.

Here’s a site that does me one better, though: FIFTY ways to hack your way through to a live person! Check it out. Also check out the comments; one commenter is a former customer disservice rep who has some enlightening things to say about a few of these hacks.

Tough times

Men in a soup line, ca. 1936

Men in a soup line, ca. 1936

Here’s a sign of the times: Greg the Handyman called yesterday to see if we were ready to line up him and his son to do some of the various chores at my house and M’hijito’s. In the course of chatting, he said the two of them were totally out of work. His son, a finish cabinetmaker, was laid off his job when the construction company he worked for folded. That’s not surprising. But what is scary is that Greg himself hasn’t had any business. He said his business phone had rung all of three times in the past week.

This is a guy who was so busy he couldn’t keep up with the work. You often couldn’t get him to come do repairs at all, because he didn’t have time. He refused to work outside the North Central area—for those who don’t know Phoenix, that is not a large district—and still had more work than he could handle. He used to drive around in a Mercedes convertible.

An ancient one, but still…a Mercedes.

It suggests that not only are people not buying and selling real estate, they’re not maintaining it, either. And if you’ve been inside a Home Depot or a Lowe’s lately, you might surmise that they’re not doing the handyman tasks themselves. What that means, I think, is a general deterioration in property here. The central-city houses are pretty old—mine was built in 1971, and it’s in a relatively “new” tract for this part of town. The outlying suburbs are so cheaply thrown together as to defy belief…I remember the day one of my friends learned that rain was leaking in because the contractor hadn’t bothered to install flashing around the roof vents in her new house. And the time another couple of friends had to remove and replace the “lifetime” tile roof on their four-year-old house, built by a contractor who was not required by the state or the county to provide any warranty on his work.

So you can be sure plenty of maintenance needs to be done on these shacks. It’s just not getting done.

Greg is trying to make up for it by overcharging. He wanted $1,500 to paint the trim on the little Investment House. Plus the cost of the paint. Gimme a break! Bila the Painter offered to do it for $800, and that included Dunn-Edwards paint.

At any rate, the cost of the smaller tasks is within reason, so he’ll soon be installing a new room air conditioner for me (hope that scheme works to save on the summer power bills!), replacing the busted smoke alarm and putting in one near the kitchen here, and installing the blinds and fixing a few things at the other house.

Photo: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library