Massachusetts’ unemployment agency goes full Kafka

The term Kafkaesque refers to illogical and soul-destroying bureaucratic madness A vivid example is Laura Simpson’s travails with the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (“DUA”). The DUA is insisting that Laura isn’t really Laura at all. It has cut off the unemployment payments on which she depends and is demanding that she return the money she previously received.

I spoke with Laura about the nightmare she’s living. She’s a single woman who has worked since she was 12. For the last six years, she’s worked as a landscaper. This is seasonal work but, when the off-season rolled around, Laura didn’t file for unemployment. Instead, she worked in a restaurant, so she could support herself all year round.

Things were different in 2020. Because of COVID, Laura’s job options – both landscaping and restaurant work – dried up. In July, Laura finally applied for unemployment with the DUA. To fulfill the identification and residency requirements, so she mailed the DUA copies of her passport, driver’s license, and social security card. She was approved for unemployment on July 19.

At first, everything went well. Laura was issued a DUA debit card and told that she was entitled to $384 per week from the state. After DUA deducted both state and federal taxes, Laura received $327 per week. In addition, for the first seven weeks, Laura received an extra $2,400 because of stimulus payments.

With this money, Laura could pay her landlord, her cellphone bill, the storage facility fee for possessions that wouldn’t fit in her studio apartment, the costs of maintaining her scooter, and the grocery bill for herself and Vinnie, her cat. There was nothing left over for anything else, but she was getting by.

In the third week of November, though, when Laura tried to withdraw her money, the cash machine notified her that she had no money – and that’s when the nightmare began. Laura immediately got on the phone to find out what had happened. For over two months, Laura has not received anything from the DUA.

Since then, she’s been on the phone almost every day trying to get the DUA to resume her payments. She always talks to different employees, each of whom must be brought up to date on her problem. The employees always tell her different reasons for her travails and demand different information from her to cure the problem.

None of the fixes work. She’s managed only once in all that time to talk to a supervisor – who also wasn’t helpful.

Initially, Laura was told that the missing money was just a mistake. Then, she was told that the identification documents she’d sent were inadequate because they weren’t in color. Laura mailed color photocopies, with proof of receipt from the post office. The next clerk Laura spoke with said DUA never received anything. Laura sent the same documents again with the same result.

Another clerk told Laura that all was well, but Laura still didn’t receive money. When yet another clerk said that the DUA hadn’t received her identification documents via the mail, Laura loaded color photos of her passport, birth certificate, driver’s license, and social security card onto the DUA website, all to no avail. The DUA still refused to send her money.

Eventually one of the clerks connected Laura to the fraud department. That representative said that the multiple forms of identification Laura had sent counted only as one form of identification and that she needed to send a utility bill. Because Laura’s utilities are included in her rent, the DUA employee told Laura that she could send a copy of her lease. Laura sent not only her lease, but her bank statement, and landlord’s contact information, proving not only that she was who she said she was, but that she is a Massachusetts resident.

Nothing has worked. On January 2, DUA issued a letter telling Laura that she is disqualified from receiving unemployment because “you have failed without good cause to present proper verifiable identification, and therefore do not meet the filing and registration requirements.” According, not only will the state continue its refusal to send her unemployment money, she must repay $9,312 to Massachusetts (with an interest rate of 12% per year).

What Laura has since learned is that, between the pandemic’s onset and December, the DUA paid out 171,000 fraudulent unemployment claims, although it did recover $242,220,594 in wrongful payments. To crackdown on fraud, the DUA stopped payments on everyone, promising to work on “enhanced identity verification measures.”

If the DUA were privately owned, the situation would have been resolved in a week or two. But this is the government. People like Laura are now presumed guilty unless they can meet a Kafkaesque standard for proving who they are and where they live. The bureaucracy spins its wheels and Laura and others like her worry that they’ll be homeless soon.

IMAGE: Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance. Screengrab from Boston25 News investigative report.