The County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency on 73rd Street is easy enough to find if you keep your eye out for a small crowd of people at the bus stop on the corner of El Cajon and 73rd. The block where the squat, yellow-brick building sits is, during business hours, the busiest in the area. The sidewalk between the building and the bus stop bustles with men, women, and families coming and going. My fingers are crossed that my visit today will be relatively painless, since all I have to do is drop off paperwork.
Obtaining Medi-Cal was a process that included so many phone calls, so much paperwork, and such great reserves of patience that I had to hand over the job to my husband. We both agreed that it wouldn’t do any good for me to freak out on our caseworker and/or break down in a heap of tears and hair pulling. He is much more even tempered and tolerant than I am, so he took over. All I remember about the process is that every time someone from the County called, it was a different person claiming to be our caseworker. We have an accordion file with a broken elastic band that snapped because the volume of Medi-Cal paperwork was too much for it to handle. We keep it as evidence of my husband’s strength — he did not snap. I’ve blocked out all other memories of that experience.
We recently received a thick packet of documents ominously titled “Medi-Cal Redetermination.” The packet seems to be a request for the same information we gave the County in 2008, when we first applied. Apparently, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 says that Medi-Cal beneficiaries must provide proof of citizenship and identity to renew their benefits. I don’t get that. How would we have gotten coverage in the first place if our paperwork weren’t in order? But here I am, walking into the County office, redetermination packet in hand. Why didn’t I simply mail it? I could have and would have if not for two (unintentionally) hilarious lines in the letter: “We need the original citizenship and identity documents” and “The County will make copies and mail them back to you.”
Hilarious? Why? Because two weeks ago, a County worker called and left a message for us to call her back. We returned the call the next morning. Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: Hi. This is Elizabeth Salaam. I’m returning your call.
Her: Spell your last name, please.
Her: Okay. How can I help you?
Me: Um, I don’t know. I’m returning your call. I got a message yesterday asking me to call you back.
Her: And what was the call regarding?
Me: I don’t know. You didn’t say. You just asked me to call.
Her: I’m sorry, ma’am, but I can’t help you unless I know what this is regarding.
And these are the people I’m supposed to send original passports and birth certificates to? Um, no.
I’ve given myself a generous 20 minutes before I have to be back on the road for an appointment with a treadmill, and when I enter the building, I’m pleased to see that there’s no security line. I remember a crowd at the door when I came to get the application the first time. I smile big at the busty little security officer and tell her I’m just here to copy and turn in some documents.
“Put your bag down on the table and step forward, please.” She gestures toward the metal detector.
“Oh, no,” I say, smiling even bigger now. “I’m not applying. I’m just here to have some documents copied. Renewal papers.” I hold up my manila envelope.
She points toward the waiting room. “The line’s in there.”
Just past the metal detector are three large Plexiglas windows. Applicants stand at two of the windows, but the third is open. A County worker on the other side of the window sits staring at a computer screen.
I ask, “Can’t I just hand these to him?”
“It’s just one line,” she tells me. Her face is blank and her tone is weary. Clearly, she’s tired of saying the same thing over and over.
“No,” I say, more out of fear than defiance. My husband was gone all day when he came to apply. He told me about that line. It was long, long, long, and it never moved.
“Yep,” she says.
I turn around and walk out. There’s no way. That line is the kind of thing you have to be prepared for.
Of the three suggestions my mom made, unemployment was the simplest to obtain. The online application form on the Employment Development Department’s website was easy, the financial calculations were relatively simple, there was a ten-day waiting period, and, voilà!, my husband had a $900 check from the State of California every two weeks. At the end of February, a federal stimulus payment upped that amount by $25 per week. His original claim is for 52 weeks, unless he goes back to work full time. (In 2008, federal legislation extended unemployment insurance benefits twice, for a total of 20 extra weeks for all states, plus an additional 13 weeks for states, like California, saddled with high unemployment rates. So in addition to the 52 weeks, my husband can apply for 33 more.) Maternity leave doesn’t qualify as a reason for unemployment compensation, so $475 a week was the best we could do.
Despite the ease of attainment, problems arise when we have specific questions that are not addressed on the website. Of all the branches on the tree of public assistance, the Employment Development Department is the least accessible. You can spend days or weeks calling repeatedly without ever getting through the labyrinthine automated system to talk to an actual person.
We have questions because our circumstances are complicated. Being on soft layoff means my husband does get called in to work. It’s not nearly as frequent as it was last year — usually one or two days per week, if at all. With the 15 percent pay cut that employees at his company have recently taken and no overtime, two days’ work yields about $316. In that case, he completes the form that comes attached to the unemployment check and claims the amount he made. If his weekly earnings are $101 or more, the first 25 percent is not subtracted from his $450. So, in a week when he makes $316 at work, $237 (75 percent) is subtracted from the $450 unemployment allowance. Then, with the $25 federal stimulus, the total unemployment check is $238. My point is, if he works one or two days, he earns slightly more than he would have by staying home.