San Francisco currently has the third lowest unemployment rate of all California's counties. But while that’s good news, it doesn't mean that much if you’re one of the more than 23,000 San Franciscans still finding it difficult to get work.
Inside the unemployment center on Turk Street in San Francisco, friendly employees help patrons find their way around . But if visitors have a specific question about their unemployment claim -- it’s likely these staffers won’t be able to help.
People call this place the EDD, short for Employment Development Department. But that’s not actually accurate: This is the place where they go to connect with the EDD.
“I find the system to be something maybe like what Bulgaria had in the 1950s,” says Robbie Socks, here today to deal with his unemployment claim. “It’s really an archaic, kind of old system. The phone numbers you call don’t make sense. You can never talk to a real person.”
The staffers here can’t actually help Socks with his complaint. Instead, they direct him to the phones, which automatically dial the Employment Development Department. Socks says he’s come to the center to make the call because he can’t connect otherwise. Even here, it can take an hour -- or two -- just to get through.
That’s partly because the EDD is short-staffed. Ever since the sequester last year, their hours have been cut dramatically. Now, the lines are only open for four hours each weekday.
Dialing for unemployment dollars
Another patron, Larry, has been dialing into the EDD’s system since 8:30 this morning. For privacy concerns, he didn’t want to share his last name with KALW. He says he’s been on the phone for two hours today, subsisting on what he calls “a steady diet of recordings and pressing buttons.”
Larry is 41, and has lived in San Francisco for the past 16 years. He’s been to the EDD before; this is his second time being unemployed within the past three years. For most of his career, Larry was a paralegal, and before losing his job three months ago, he worked at an e-commerce company. He’s here because he hasn’t received his benefits.
“This is a typical day at EDD,” Larry says. “You just have to have a smile about it and have a positive attitude. You know I’m hungry right now … I kind of have to pee, but I don’t want to leave this chair.”
Alan and Mary -- whose names have been changed upon request to protect their privacy -- are waiting for the phones. They've been to the EDD before, too. Alan is here today to check out his unemployment claim; he says he hasn't received his benefits in over four months, equal to $4500 in back payments. Before he became unemployed two years ago, he was an engineer.
“I’ve had good union-paying jobs with full benefits: medical, dental,” Alan says. “Trying to find a good-paying job that I used to have, making $44, $50 an hour, I can’t find that anymore.”
Alan says his struggle with unemployment has taken a toll. It’s manifested in a physical pain. “You get fatigued, you don’t know what to do with yourself, you don’t want to do anything but work.” It wears on him everyday, he says.
The couple have been married for 14 years, and have two children. They couldn’t afford to celebrate Christmas with them. “A lot of bad things have happened,” Alan says. “I don’t have medical benefits anymore, don’t have dental. My whole life has been stripped -- had to move out of the whole house I bought.”
Mary lost her job, too, only a month after her husband. She declined to go into the details, but that means they’ve both been unemployed for the last two years.
“It’s tough. We’re San Francisco natives. We’ve grown up in the city, worked in the city our whole lives,” she says. “And they’re very quick to hire out-of-towners, transplants … and it’s kind of a slap in the face.”
After working for the same company for 17 years, Ramsey Abouremeleh was laid off on New Years Eve 2012.
“I’m 40, I’m blue collar, and I only have one thing on my resume,” he says. “One job on my resume. And that’s a job now that most people that are 18-25 are working.”
To get by, Abouremeleh sold his computer and his phone. He used to live in SoMa, but can’t afford to pay the rent anymore, and recently moved to a cheaper -- but illegal -- unit in Hunter’s Point.
“Finding a long-term job in this city is next to impossible,” he says. “So I mean, my options in the next three months-- I’ll probably have to move. And I’ve lived here my entire life.”
Just three years ago, Abouremeleh had $30,000 in the bank. He was thinking about buying a house. Then he got injured in a hit-and-run, and his medical insurance didn’t cover all the costs. Now, he struggles to pay for food. After going to the EDD, he said he was planning to walk to a nearby food pantry for free groceries.
“I’ve had days where I’ve been in tears, but I just keep going,” Abouremeleh says. “Because I’m smart, I’m intelligent, I’m healthy. I get up everyday and I’m always looking.”
“I’m plugging every single hole in the canoe that i’m in, and that’s all that I can do.”