Being a member of the social welfare class has few advantages. I know because I’m one of the many who depend on a €188 weekly stipend. Almost six months after redundancy and the experience is no more cheerful now than the first time I signed on in January, although I’ve lost that initial embarrassment.
Back in the day you used to go to the Labour Exchange to sign on ‘the dole.’ I remember sometimes passing the queues of dispirited, usually poorly dressed people, in the ’70s and ’80s in the ramshackle building on the corner of George’s Quay and South Terrace in Cork, and hoping I’d never be one of them. Most looked pretty dejected. Well, now I’m one of them.
I live in Ballincollig, a satellite town on the western edge of Cork city. It has a population of around 18,000, and every Wednesday you’ll see me collecting my €188 at the local post office. But once a month the unemployed have to ‘sign on’ at the Intreo office (a fancy name for the job centre), but Ballincollig doesn’t have one, so I take the bus, flash my Leap card (€3.44 each way, a lot for unemployed people) and rumble into Cork seven miles away. It’s a 35 minute ride as we stop at practically ever bus stop on the way.
Cork’s Intreo centre is in Hanover Street, close to the Court House and the ugly half-dismantled Beamish and Crawford site, but because of refurbishment they’re using temporary offices in George’s Quay, yards from the original Labour Exchange. I arrived there around 10.40am to find a long queue snaking its way towards the hatches. Out of curiously I counted the numbers ahead of me. Seventy-four. I wondered how long this would take. Unlike the last time this was a single queue. Last month everyone was in separate lines in front of six hatches.
The guy behind me looked too young to work and very absorbed listening to music on his iPhone. He was also in charge of a buggy where a toddler seemed intrigued by his surroundings. There was no female companion on sight. There were several other young mums pushing their buggies, and I’d guess around half those in the queue were females. I was the oldest, God help me. Most people seemed to be aged between 20-40, and there was a scattering aged 50-plus. You could have passed many of us in the street and not known we were unemployed. No one talked, except two girls who seemed to know each other.
From what I could see there was little chatter at the hatches ahead. At least that helped us move along. The queue was shrinking ahead of me, but growing behind. I’d loved to have talked to some of them and found out their stories, but I thought better of it. I might have looked like I was working. Some were checking their phones, earpieces shutting out the world. I spotted another ex-colleague and waved and smiled.
Around 25 minutes later I was granted my audience before one of the welfare officials. I handed over my Public Services Card, said hello – in fairness, she said ‘hi’ – and then she asked me to sign on. To my left was a small electronic device which displayed three questions. With your electronic pen you ticked the boxes saying you were genuinely seeking work, were out of work, and you agreed you were answering the questions honestlyand that you could be penalised if you lied. The process took seconds. The female official behind the counter told me my next date, and that was that. All this to be repeated in a month’s time. Ye gods.
You’d have to wonder if there isn’t a better way of dealing with people. I’m not blaming the staff, but there should be a system in place to interact with people in a more engaging, less off-putting way. Or is that just me?
Tom Hickey is a former chief sub editor at the Irish Examiner. He was burned as a child and blogs about his life and facial disfigurement at hickeysworld.com Subjects he tackles include everything from travel to his family, and coping with facial disfigurement.