News & Politics

A Tale of Two States

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My close friend and writing partner Terry is staying with me for a few weeks, writing a novel and looking for teaching jobs in the fall, while escaping the Florida summer. Since he’s between gigs, he’s on Unemployment, always a source of bureaucratic joy. This week, however, has been unusually annoying.

Florida requires a client to attend meetings every so often if you’re in state, but Terry of course is not, so he — at their request — changed his mailing address to Colorado. Now, he intends to return to Florida, and since he’s a college professor all of his job searching is done via the Internet anyway; he’s making the required contacts using that whizz-bang technology. When he changed his mailing address, he was told it was all set.

And therein hangs a tale.

A few days after changing his mailing address, he got a notice that he could no longer file for Unemployment in Florida. He was, as you might guess, a little miffed. He called them. And called them. And called them again. No one picked up the phone. After about six tries, he finally reached an agent in Florida, who told him that now that he was in Colorado, he needed to file for unemployment in Colorado.

“But,” he protested, “I didn’t work in Colorado, I was in Florida and plan to be back in Florida in a few weeks.”

“Doesn’t matter. You have to file in Colorado.”

So Terry tried to file in Colorado, on the Colorado Unemployment web site. Which didn’t allow him to enroll — he was a Florida resident. He was, as you might guess, a bit peeved. Not quite miffed, but working on it. So, he called Colorado Unemployment, which — mirabile dictu — answered on the second ring. (This is not bragging on Colorado Unemployment by the way, as I have never gotten an answer from them that quickly.)

Colorado Unemployment’s answer was perfectly reasonable: Terry had never worked in Colorado, so Colorado wasn’t responsible.

Back to Florida Unemployment. At this point it would be fair to say he was quite miffed — and not a little worried, he needed that money.

(Adjunct professors are academic serfs, paid a pittance so tenure-track professors don’t have to teach “skills” courses. Of course, tenure track professors are only paid about 1.3 pittances, but his institution does have the money to build a multimillion-dollar rec center. Because a good student experience is valuable, don’t you have any sense of proportion?)

So, anyway, miffed Terry calls Florida Unemployment again. And calls. And calls. And calls again. Finally, he has left voicemail messages three times asking for someone to call him back.

To no effect, of course.

Finally, Terry calls Governor Scott’s office, and after a little while waiting on hold, he reaches someone who helpfully listens to his Tale of Bureaucratic Woe, says she can’t help him but she knows who can, hold the line — and shortly, Terry is connected to a pleasant person named Barbara.

Before Terry has gotten to Plot Point One in his Bureaucratic Tale of Woe, Barbara says, “What’s your Social Security number?”

About 30 seconds later, Barbara announces it’s fixed. Terry says, “Thank you! I’ll dance at your wedding!” She replies, “Never again!” A little more pleasant banter and Terry hangs up.

(By the way, Barbara, if you’re reading this, you successfully turned what had been a pretty crappy morning to the side of all that is Virtuous and Good.)

In fourteen minutes by the clock, Terry’s Unemployment records on the Internet show that he’s completely authorized and set to go.

Now, as Bureaucratic Tales of Woe go, this one isn’t particularly exceptional — it only took about four days calendar time and about ten hours of unproductive phone calls to get it straightened out, and all of that time was devoted to finding the Token Competent Person in Florida, who had both the power and the knowledge to set things right.

What struck me, though, was wondering why there aren’t more competent people in government? How is it that we had to go up to the Governor’s office to resolve what was an issue that — from Barbara’s reaction — was neither complicated nor unusual.

Of course, the answer is that big bureaucracies act like they’re populated with idiots, and governments then set up back channels to let the informed find a way around the idiocracy. But imagine if all the petty bureaucrats could both learn what’s needed and have the authority to act to avoid these sorts of unproductive side trips?

Trump, the businessman, knows how to set up big organizations. If he really wants to drain the swamp, maybe that’s where he needs to start.