From the Irish Times, Friday, January 23, 2009 - RÃ³isÃn Ingle accompanies an out-of-work architect on her first outing to the dole office.
Getting to grips with life on the dole
At dole offices, unlike almost anywhere else at present, queues are lengthening and extra staff are being taken on. And for those who have never signed on before, the experience can be a daunting one, reports RÃ³isÃn Ingle
THE QUEUE OUTSIDE the dole office on Cumberland Street in Dublinâ€™s north inner city stretched right down to the end of the road when Laura Kenneally arrived this week to make a claim for unemployment benefit for the first time. When she turned up two weeks ago to arrange the appointment, she almost cycled past the grim building with its high windows covered in wire mesh.
â€œIt looks like a prison, itâ€™s not the most welcoming of buildings,â€ she says, sitting in a cafe round the corner. â€œThe most daunting thing is that when you go in, you donâ€™t know where to line up or where you are meant to be going. You walk in a bit doe-eyed, but being there brings you down to reality. You are part of something else now, something you never imagined yourself being a part of.â€
Thousands of people around the country will relate to the first impressions of life on the dole offered by Kenneally, a 27-year-old architect who was let go from the job she loved just before Christmas. The Minister for Family and Social Affairs, Mary Hanafin, said this week that jobless figures have hit the 300,000 mark and that they could rise to 400,000 by the end of the year. Around 23,000 people signed on for the first time last month and, as the recession worsens, job vacancies across all occupations are increasingly scarce.
Kenneally, from Ennis in Co Clare, graduated from UCD three years ago, at a time when everyone in her class got jobs and nobody had to leave the country for employment.
â€œI had three jobs in that time, so I was really lucky,â€ she says, adding that, from what sheâ€™s heard, most of last yearâ€™s graduating class have struggled to find employment. â€œI feel worse for them, because at least we had a couple of good years. I was able to build up the PRSI credits which mean I am entitled to benefits, but if youâ€™ve just recently left college, itâ€™s a different story.â€
She says the tight-knit community of young architects in Dublin began to hear of bigger firms letting people go earlier this year.
â€œI think the list of jobs on the website of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland went from a full page to just one listing for a recruitment agency for Dubai,â€ she says. Yesterday, on the job-search section of that website, the blunt message that â€œthere are no jobs availableâ€ could be found.
In her own case, Kenneally guessed her time had come when a job she was hired to work on, a social housing project, didnâ€™t go ahead.
â€œMy boss was really good, he was very open with us, so it wasnâ€™t a shock. I know he didnâ€™t want to let me go, but he had no choice,â€ she says. â€œThe thing is, you know itâ€™s happening to lots of other people from all sectors and walks of life, so you feel you are part of a bigger picture, which does make it slightly easier. From where I am standing I am not in the worst position â€“ I donâ€™t have a mortgage or children. A few years ago I was thinking I should buy a house, but Iâ€™m very relieved now that I didnâ€™t.â€
AT CUMBERLAND STREET and other dole offices around the country, more than 100 extra staff are being brought in to deal with growing numbers of â€œnew unemployedâ€, often highly skilled and educated workers traumatised by sudden job loss and unsure of their welfare entitlements. There have been considerable changes at this office, one of the largest in the country, dealing with the Dublin 1, 3 and 9 postcodes, since local manager Kathleen Oâ€™Donnell began working there in 1982. Back then there was a separate floor in the building for women who were signing on.
â€œI remember when the dole queues became mixed, some people thought it would never work,â€ she says, smiling.
The customer profile was also different back then, according to Oâ€™Donnell, compared to the unemployed coming in now. â€œAt that time it was local Irish people, mainly men, labourers or operatives engaged in manual work who were in shorter-term employment. If an architect came up to the hatch youâ€™d have been very surprised. I remember some pilots near retirement age coming in and us all being shocked by how much they earned,â€ she says.
At that time, far fewer documents were required for signing on and payments were given out at a pay hatch in the office where clients were obliged to turn up and sign each week. What used to be known as unemployment benefit or allowance is now called jobseekers benefit or allowance, which puts more emphasis on finding a job than on being unemployed.
These days, people receive their money once a week at the post office and only sign on once a month at the dole office. The boom years meant a lull at dole offices, but in the last few months the queues have grown longer, the â€œlocal Irishâ€ joined now by foreign nationals seeking benefits or looking to have them transferred to their home country, along with a new wave of unemployed architects, engineers and accountants, many of them casualties of the decimated construction and property sector.
â€œThe type of customer and the complexity of the cases has changed completely,â€ says Oâ€™Donnell. These changes have placed more demands on staff who, despite increased numbers, are doing their best, she says, to process claims quickly. â€œWe are seeing people now who have been in work since they were 16. Itâ€™s quite traumatic for them to come in here. Youâ€™d have members of staff telling you: â€˜God, I was an hour and a half with the last lady, she was in floods of tears.â€™ In the past, the people we dealt with wouldnâ€™t have had this great tenure of employment and quality of life behind them . . . These new people are in alien territory, itâ€™s a huge loss for them.â€
Oâ€™Donnell has had some people on the phone reluctant to come in because of the perceived stigma of drawing the dole.
â€œI encourage them in,â€ she says. â€œI say to them: â€˜If you are out of work and satisfying the conditions, then come in to us.â€™ People need to have something on their record, they often donâ€™t realise they should be signing on to keep up their credits. We tell them: â€˜Come on in here, weâ€™re not that bad, weâ€™ll look after you.â€™ â€
Careers coach Jane Downes, of Clearview Coaching Group, says her client base has doubled in recent months and that the self-esteem of the new wave of unemployed, who range from receptionists to company directors, has taken a severe bruising. â€œThey just canâ€™t believe their situation. Many of them say they will do anything rather than go on the dole and are trying for stopgap jobs in posts they never would have considered before,â€ she says.
ONE OF THESE, Garrett (not his real name), a father of three who lost his job as a mortgage broker three months ago, understands the reluctance of some people to be seen signing on. â€œI sign on at a dole office that isnâ€™t close to where I live, which I am glad about because I have to admit I would be embarrassed to be seen there. I know I shouldnâ€™t have a sense of shame, because itâ€™s not my fault â€“ but I do,â€ he says. â€œWhen I go to the post office to get my money I canâ€™t even bring myself to say I am collecting my dole. I say I am collecting my benefits; it feels less degrading.â€
Garrett has been in full-time employment since he left school almost 30 years ago and says adapting to his current situation has been â€œa culture shockâ€. He has sat his children down and explained that â€œDaddy and Mummy wonâ€™t be able to spend as much money any moreâ€.
Another change has been re-evaluating his place in the jobs market. He recently applied for a job as a store manager in a discount supermarket, a job heâ€™d be delighted to secure.
â€œIâ€™ve had to lower my expectations, you have to, and I spend two or three hours a day looking for jobs. Thereâ€™s no slouching around the house. It would be hard to stay focused if you went into slouching mode,â€ he says.
Also adjusting to life on the dole, Laura Kenneally agrees that some people still attach shame to signing on.
â€œI believe most Irish people have a hard-work ethic and nobody wants to be seen as a lazy so and so, scrounging for money. But the way I look at it is that I worked hard for whatever I get and I am entitled to it,â€ she says. Her positive attitude in a bleak situation seems to be helping her cope.
â€œI think itâ€™s important to stay upbeat,â€ she adds, preparing to cycle off for an afternoon trawling the internet for jobs â€“ Canada and Australia are two emigration possibilities sheâ€™s researching, although jobs in her field are scarce everywhere â€“ and filling out forms for rent allowance.
â€œThe days are long, but I try to keep busy, job-searching or going to museums rather than just sitting watching TV all day,â€ she says. â€œIf I sit down and start crying about it, nothing is going to change. I think people should try and stay positive. Itâ€™s a tough time, but hopefully it will all come good again.â€
Signing on: a step-by-step guide
1 If you lose your job you are entitled to claim either jobseekers benefit or jobseekers allowance from the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
2 You qualify for jobseekers benefit if you have paid 104 PRSI contributions, or â€œstampsâ€, since first starting work. Thirty-nine payments must have been paid in the relevant tax year. This benefit is not means-tested. (If you are unsure about your PRSI record, you can contact the Department of Social and Family Affairs at 01-7043000 and ask for the PRSI section.)
3 If you donâ€™t have enough â€œstampsâ€ you can apply for jobseekers allowance, which is means-tested.
4 You must make an appointment with your local social welfare office to make a claim. To check where your nearest dole office is, go to http://www.welfare.ie
5 Depending on what part of the country you live in, an appointment can take up to two weeks.
6 You are required to bring a range of documentation (again go to http://www.welfare.ie
for the complete list), including a P45, P60, proof of identity and residence, and an RP50 form if you have been made redundant. You will also be expected to provide proof that you are making efforts to seek work.
7 At this meeting your claim will be discussed and forms filled in. According to the department, the average processing time in December was two weeks for jobseekers benefit and five weeks for jobseekers allowance. However, in some parts of the country the processing time for the jobseekers allowance is as long as 15 weeks.
8 While waiting for a decision you can apply for a means-tested supplementary welfare allowance payment. Applications should be made to the Community Welfare Office at your local health centre.
9 Once your claim has been authorised you will be obliged to sign on once a month at your dole office, and to collect your money once a week at the post office.
10 For advice, you can speak in confidence to the welfare-to-work section of the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed ( http://www.inou.ie
) at 01-8560088, Monday to Friday, between 9.30am and 5pm.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times