Lionel Krowder fired up his ancient notebook computer and waited patiently while the obsolete operating system loaded and laboriously began executing its start-up routine. Lionel took preternatural comfort in the consistent way it carried out its instructions each time he applied power. He had even grown fond of the IGNORE button in the error message window that always popped up one minute and twenty-nine seconds into the process. “Hello, Mr. Ignore.” he would sometimes mutter, clicking on it gently.
He began scanning the email subject lines which descended down the screen like a ladder to nowhere. They all contained either the words “regret”, “sorry”, or “unfortunately”. He sighed and looked out the filmy window of his third floor walk-up apartment.
No job today, he thought.
He was startled out of this trip down self pity lane by an electronic alert coming from his mobile phone. The sound was not the usual text message beep-beep-beep that he heard once or twice a day, but rather the chimes which indicated an actual telephone call. The chimes were the default sound programmed into the device at the factory and he had never felt it worth the trouble to choose something more personal.
He touched the answer icon on the smudged screen, brought the phone to his ear, and cautiously said “Hello?”
“Mister Lionel Krowder?” The voice was formal with little inflection. Very businesslike, thought Lionel. That can't be good.
“Yes, this is Lionel Charles Krowder,” said Lionel, hoping that perhaps the formal voice had called the wrong Lionel Krowder. Perhaps they wanted Lionel Michael Krowder or Lionel Phillip Krowder or Lionel...
“Hello, Mister Krowder.” said the voice, sounding very much like Lionel Charles Krowder was exactly the Lionel Krowder to whom he wished to speak. “This is the Bureau of Labor Statistics. How are you today?”
“I'm fine, I guess. How can I help you?”
“It has come to our attention that you are still unemployed even after several years of unprecedented economic growth. Is that true?”
“Actually, I have several opportunities in the pipeline,” he lied, trying to preserve some semblance of self respect.
“According to our records your most recent set of applications have all been rejected, Mr. Krowder,” said the voice authoritatively.
“'The position is no longer available', 'We have no openings at this time', 'Your talents do not fit the profile'. Shall I go on?”
“How did you...I haven't even...”
“You haven't even read these emails, have you Mr. Krowder?”
Lionel did his best not to sound defensive. “I usually just read the subject line. To save time.” As if he had time to save, he thought.
He tried to sit up straight, but couldn't quite maintain the stiff spine and thrown back shoulders of an optimist. Why the hell bother? he thought. It's not like anyone can see me. Then his head popped up and he looked around his room suspiciously. Or can they?
“Can I help you with something?” Lionel was getting annoyed by this interloper.
“Yes you can. We are prepared to release the latest employment statistics, and it would appear that you are the only person left who is still unemployed.”
“Don't be ridiculous. There must be lots of other people who are unemployed.”
“No one else is unemployed, Mr. Krowder.”
“What about felons? Surely felons are having a hard time finding a job.”
“A lot of people like to hire felons. Ever since Orange Is The New Black.”
“Well, I can't believe I'm the only unemployed person left. People in my age group, for example. I'm in my late forties/early fifties”.
"You are fifty-eight years old, Mr. Krowder."
"Right. Well, I bet fifty-eight-year-olds have a heck of a time finding a job."
"There is a one hundred and one year old man working in a hardware store in Poughkeepsie, New York. There is a ninety-three year old woman plowing fields on a farm near Lincoln, Nebraska. There is a one-hundred-six year old brain surgeon performing operations in Chicago, Illinois. There is a eighty-nine year old small forward playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves..."
"I still can't believe that everybody has a job but me."
“Well, we don't include those who are”, he lowered his voice in disgust, “no longer looking for work.”
“But I am looking for work. “
“Yes, we know, Mr. Krowder. That's the problem.”
“We would very much like to report the unemployment rate as zero percent, but as long as you are statistically included in the 'seeker' category, that can't happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“While you are still looking for a job the unemployment rate is 0.0000000006%.”
“That's such a small number. It's almost zero.”
“Mr. Krowder, we are the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 'Almost' is not a statistic. Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. We very much want the unemployment rate to be exactly zero.”
There was a pause that extended from brief to awkward. Finally Lionel said, “So you want me to stop looking for a job?”
“That would be ideal, Mr. Krowder. As I mentioned, those who are - ,” again his voice became a repulsed whisper, “no longer looking for work - are not included in the statistics. I'm glad you concur...”
“Wait! Hold on. Maybe I still want to be looking for a job.”
“Looking for a job that is 'No longer available' Mr. Krowder?”
“'No openings at this time'?”
“It's just a matter of...”
“'Your talents do not fit the profile'?”
“I admit it's not going to be...”
"Don't you think it's time to face the fact that there is no job for you? None. Not any."
“Well, I'm not a quitter, damn it. I'm going to keep looking for a job until I find a job.”
“That would be unwise, Mr. Krowder. Our calculations show the chances of you actually finding a job is only 0.0000000006%”.
"The same as the unemployment rate?”
"You just said the chances of me finding a job are the same as the unemployment rate. Interesting coincidence, don't you think?"
"Let me just check those numbers again.” There was a pause and I could hear heavy breathing and the clicking of a keyboard in the background.
"Well, what do you know? It appears there's been an anomaly in our heuristics.”
"What does that mean?"
"No matter what parameters I enter, the result is always 0.0000000006%. How about that?” He sounded bemused.
"For crying out loud, you almost had me dropping out of the labor force because your horisits..."
"Heuristics," he corrected.
"Whatever they are, they were screwed up! This is unforgivable.”
I heard a shuffling of papers and after a moment he said, "The Bureau of Labor Statistics wishes to convey its sincerest regret if the items mentioned in this outreach interface caused you distress, Mr. Krowder, and requests that you ignore the information that was disseminated.”
"Is that supposed to be an apology?"
"Not quite. Merely a pro-forma expression of regret."
"That's it? ‘A pro-forma expression of regret’?” A sly thought wended its way into Lionel's mind. “It seems to me," he said cunningly, "that my time and trouble is worth something."
"You mean some sort of compensation?"
"Yeah, right. It seems to me that some sort of compensation is in order."
"Well, I suppose that might be a possibility."
"Good," Lionel pounced eagerly.
"Yes, indeed. That might definitely be a possibility. In fact, the possibility of your receiving compensation from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is exactly..." There was a pause as the sound of a keyboard again floated across the ether.