Sunday, October 13, 2013

Employed - Finally

I finally got a job and I just finished my first week. I am working for the City of Westminster with the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support Service  Now in honesty I’m not working for the city directly rather I got placed through a recruiting agency. I was offered a temporary job that will last two months at the end of which I may be able to stay on and get a permanent role if they like me. But after having no work for almost a year even getting a temporary job feels like a huge victory.

Last Monday was my first day of work. I got to shadow a co-worker and then be shadowed by her for the entire day. I liked it because it allowed me to practice and learn without fearing that I was messing up people’s accounts. People who need government paid housing for varying periods of time come to our office to deal with all the things they must do in order to enable them to receive the money. For some people it is a short term issue and they are placed in hotels or bed and breakfasts whereas for others it is more long term and they are living in flats and apartments with controlled rents that are either fully or partially paid for by the government. When clients come in to provide required documents like proof of their financial circumstances (bank statements, payslips, employment contracts, etc) or proof of their identity (passport, license, etc) or various forms they have to fill out they come to me in my little interview room and I take those documents and put them into our system. I scan them and then use the system to label and save them where they are supposed to be. I also help change or update their accounts such as if they get a new job or one of their children moves out or things like that. Lastly I help people who have no benefits set up new accounts. They come in and I interview them and fill out a long application with them. At this point that is pretty much the limit of what I can do. I am not able to handle most people’s queries about their accounts such as why their benefits may have been cut or what they need to do in order to fix various problems they may be having. Those kinds of issues are dealt with by my co-workers and hopefully as I learn more about the system I will be able to deal with more of those issues and thus with more of the clients.

Monday started out well but turned a little rough because the second client I dealt with after I had replaced my trainer on the computer was very aggressive and rude. Now I certainly wasn't fast at what I was doing given that it was only my second attempt at doing it myself. Further the client didn't make it any easier for me to deal with her problems because she didn't bring any of the documents she was supposed to in order for us to update her application. So of course I didn't know exactly what we were supposed to do and I had to turn to my trainer multiple times. When the client found out she hadn't brought in the necessary materials for us to finalize her application she basically blamed me for her mistake as if I had forgotten to personally call her and remind her of what she was supposed to bring. Thankfully the person training me was very calm. But then the client became even more upset when she discovered that I was new and being trained. She harshly asked for me to be removed from the computer and trained later because she was in a hurry and needed to get on with her day. I almost left my chair but my trainer apologized kindly to the woman but explained that I had to be trained and thus wouldn't be removed from the computer. I simply kept my mouth closed to prevent myself from saying anything I shouldn't. Actually in situations like that I am less worried about the words I will say but rather the tones and inflections I will use. I am very “good” at saying the right things but in the wrong ways. I needed to remind myself of how I have felt when I was in difficult situations like trying to obtain my visa, or figuring out how to get a background check from Korea or opening a new bank account here. These are things that affected me very personally whereas the person helping me obviously was not affected by what they are telling me or how it would work out for me. And yes I have been guilty of speaking harshly towards people who didn't seem to care enough about my situation. I’m fairly sure that if I didn't know if I was going to have a place to live in week I would become quite irritated especially if I was being helped by someone who was new and clearly didn't know how to help me. Thankfully the rest of the customers I dealt with that day were nice to me and patient with my training. It made me want to help those people all the more even though I knew I personally had no control over the decisions being made about their situation. In a way I think most of them where nice because they realized that they were receiving benefits rather than something they had earned. This was something they were being given and I think most of them were thankful for that.

By the end of Monday I had gotten fairly decent at managing the system and doing the things I was being asked to do. Still I was not at a point in which I thought I could do these things on my own. Then, to my horror, before I left my trainer and my manager told me that they thought I had done well enough that on Tuesday they would let me work on my own. They said I could, of course, call them if I needed help but still the idea of already being alone scarred the crap out of me. On the trip home rather than being able to think about the progress I had made during the day I could only dwell on the fact that I would be on my own the next day and would likely look quite foolish and/or confused in front of a majority of the clients I would be working with. Even though I was worried all night I actually ended up getting into bed and dozing off fairly early (around 10pm). This was in large part because the night before I had only slept about four and a half hours as I worried about my first day of work. But the night did not go well. I only slept about three hours as I constantly tossed and turned. A large part of this was due to the fact that I kept thinking, even dreaming, about that second client I had dealt with and that the next day I would be in the room alone possibly stuck with a person like that by myself. To make matters worse that night the power went out sometime around 10:45pm and the clock simply reset as if it was midnight and kept running. So early in the morning when I looked over and the clock said it was 5am little did I know it was actually around 3:45am. When I saw the 5 on the clock I just couldn't get back to sleep rather I just laid there waiting for my alarm to go off at 6. I dozed off a little after about 45 minutes and then I looked over at the clock and it said 6:10am. My alarm was set for 6am so I jumped out of bed and went into the bathroom freaking out that I was already late. I brushed my teeth and washed my face. Then I look at my phone trying to figure out why the alarm hadn't gone off and it said that it said it was 4:55am. I turned on my computer to check another source and it said it was 4:55am too. I didn't know what had happened. The power had never gone out before so I didn't know the clock we had in the room would simply start running again from the time the power came back on with no blinking or anything like that. That really threw me off and for the next half hour I just laid there not really sure if I should trust my phone or the clock in the room. Around 5:30 I got up and went downstairs and turned on the TV and all the programming said 5:30 so I finally felt okay about what the actual time was. Still it cost me over two and a half hours of sleep and only added to an already stressful night for me. It was so bad that Tuesday morning Priya said we might have to sleep in different places the next night because I was disturbing her sleeping so much.

So I came in Tuesday and I was taken to my room, logged on to the computer system and left to fend for myself. As I said I work directly with the clients and these situations can come with a lot of stress since one is dealing with their living situation. I am one of two people on my team who deals with the clients face to face. The other person doing this with me varies day to day. It is based on a consistent rotation of my co-workers from upstairs. I admit when I first found this out I was a bit jealous of my friends upstairs who weren't dealing with the clients face to face all the time. But as the week went on I have become more comfortable dealing directly with clients on my own.

I've found that one of the ways to get people to be more patient with you is to get them talking about themselves or their children then they don’t seem to notice how long the process might be taking. The drawback to that tactic is that for me it is difficult to appear to be listening to a person while concentrating on something else. And since everything I was doing was brand new I had to concentrate extra hard on what I was doing making it almost impossible for me to give someone even half of my attention when they were talking. So the other thing I began to do was try to explain to people what I was doing while I was doing such as explain how I was scanning their information into our system and then making sure it was save in the right place or that I was writing up their receipt to show what we had done together. That allowed me to not ignore the customers while also concentrating on my task and making sure I was doing it right. Still this can be hard because saying something like, ‘I’m putting your documents into our system’ only takes a second to say but was taking me a long time to do. But over the past week I have become better at what I was doing both through repetition and by learning from my co-workers not just what I was supposed to do it but why I was doing it. For me ‘why’ has always been an important question. I find it much easier to do something when I understand why it is being done. It also helps when customers ask me questions about their accounts fully expecting me to know all the answers.

Wednesday went along just fine. A majority of the clients I dealt with were nice. Many of them actually enjoyed guessing where I was from and then asking me questions about America. The one time I was a little nervous to say I was an American was when I was helping two men who I discovered were from Iraq. They were speaking to each other in their own language, which I assume was Arabic though it might have been Kurdish or even something else. At one point I heard what sounded like the word America or American. Finally one of the guys turned to me and asked me where I was from. I nervously said I was from America. The one who asked smiled and clapped his hands saying, “I told you so” to his friend. Apparently his friend had guessed that I was from Australia. The rest of the time I was with them they were quite talkative and friendly. They asked me why I had moved to London and if I like it there and all sorts of things. I, or course, returned the favor asking them many similar questions until I was finally finished with their account and sent them on their way.

By the time Thursday came along I felt like I really knew what I was doing or at least that I knew who to turn to if I ended up in a situation I couldn't handle. I had become quite comfortable with my co-workers making it easier for me to ask for their help and not worry that I was annoying them.  Towards lunch time one of my co-workers came by and asked me to come see her when I was done with the client I was with. I said okay. So after I finished up with the person I was helping I went over to the interview room that she was in and asked her what was up. She asked me how I was doing and what I thought of the job. I told her that I thought I was getting better and overall I really enjoyed working there. She then told me that I had been progressing much faster than most of the other people who had come in to do that same job on a temporary status. That made me happy. She then went on to tell me that a permanent position was going to be opening up for an Assessor on their team. An Assessor is the person who goes over peoples applications and determines if they qualify for aid and if so how much. She told me that many of the people upstairs really liked me and thought I could do the job well. I was of course glad to hear that especially that I was coming across well to my co-workers. Generally speaking I don’t think I am a people person but I have to say it is much easier to be social with people when you have spent the majority of your time in the last year with a cat. Just having people to talk to was nice plus I get to be the fun foreigner in the office who everyone asks questions about America and enjoys listening to speak, due to my accent. It was funny when I realized that when you are in London people don’t speak with a British accent rather they simply speak and it is in fact me who is the one speaking with an accent, an American one. Once I told my co-worker that I would be interested in applying for the job she said great and within the next hour three other people came down to say they were glad to hear I was interested and to offer me help for my interview. The position requires a lot of knowledge of the legal system and all the rules and regulations surrounding benefits. This of course takes training but my co-workers offered to help me study before any interview I may get so that I could come in sounding as smart as possible. Now when a person gets this job there is a big training session they have to go through which includes an online training course that only those people who have the job take. One of the ladies offered me her user name and login in so I could take the course myself even before being chosen for the position. I was very grateful for that. Now there is no guarantee that I will even get an interview let alone the position but it is nice to have so many people hoping I get it. The girl who trained me has that position and she told me that she didn't get it the first time she interviewed for it but that they offered her another position due to her interview and she thought something similar could happen with me. Many of them think that just by trying to get the job I would be demonstrating to the company my commitment to wanting to work there and make it more likely that I would be kept on in my current position if nothing else.

Overall I can say I have really enjoyed the job and I am quite glad I am doing this as opposed to substitute teaching, which is what I thought I would be doing only a few weeks ago. Substitute teaching is a very draining job. It really is just a more difficult form of babysitting because just like a babysitter both you and kids know that it is only a temporary situation and thus your authority is not that strong but unlike babysitting you are trying to get them to study and work rather than just watch a movie or eat dinner. Now I've never been a person who particularly loves his job or sees work as his life. Rather I work so that I can make money allowing me to do the other things I would rather be doing. For me work is a means to an end. But I can say that I have become a lot more appreciative of work and have generally enjoyed it after being unemployed for almost a year. I left my teaching job in China last July and spent a few months in America working with my dad in his lawn and garden business but since I got to London at the end of last November I have been living like a house husband just cleaning the house, taking care of the cat and shopping for groceries all while I waited for my visa to be approved to work here. While this position is certainly not something I ever saw myself doing I find that it is something I could be good at and something that would provide me everything I need from a job enabling me to pursue the other things I want to do with my life. So for now one week into my temporary position I am quite happy and quite hopeful that this could become a permanent place of employment for me. 

If you are interested in seeing exactly where in London I'm working the building's address is:

101 Orchardson Street


  1. Zach interesting read, this is what my daughter Nina, also went thru, just a few months ago, but now she finds the work and colleagues just wonderful.. good luck and say hi to Priya :)

  2. Thanks for taking a look and offering the kind comment. And yes I did say hi to Priya for you.