What Happens When The Government Thinks You're Dead?

A bureaucratic horror story.

Photo: Erich Ferdinand/Flickr

In 2009, I lived in Los Angeles. Occasionally I’d run into my upstairs neighbor, Eric Soto, near the stairs or on the front stoop. Eric was always navigating a few odd jobs to make rent, and I had just began freelancing full-time, so our conversations veered toward complaining about stress while shrugging over the “freedoms” our schedules allowed.

One day, he seemed down, and I asked him what was wrong. Eric told me he’d been declared dead by the Unemployment Office. Kind of funny at first, but the next four months of bureaucratic hell were anything but. A few months ago, I called him up and had him tell me that story again.

It started with me trying to reapply for Unemployment. The economy was bad, I was having a hard time finding work, so I was on the phone with Unemployment, and they said, “Let’s see if we can get you an extension.” I was like, great, things are finally working out. Then she said, “Your account has been red-flagged.” She said, “According to our system, you’re dead.”

I thought it was going to be resolved fairly easy. They asked for proof, so I called my dad and he sent me a copy of my birth certificate. They said that wasn’t enough, so I sent a copy of my driver’s license. Not enough. I sent a copy of my Social Security card, bills that had my address and name, my mother’s maiden name, whatever. They kept sending letters saying that’s not enough. One day, I got seven envelopes from Unemployment saying the exact same thing. Seven. Then I got a letter that said, because I was collecting unemployment during the previous months — when, according to their system, I was supposed to be dead — that I actually owed them thousands of dollars!

This was going on for months, so I was looking for help. I called my Representative. I looked into getting a lawyer, so I’d find one and drive to their office, sit and talk for an hour, and then they’d tell me the cost, and it would be astronomical. I called all these free services, but couldn’t find any to help. Meanwhile, I’m begging friends for money so I could eat, and I’m not paying rent.

Finally, Unemployment calls and says, “Okay. All we need is this one document from the Social Security Administration.” They had an office nearby. I walked there, explained my situation, and she looked in the system and said, “Huh. I have you down as dead.”

“I’m not dead! Look at me!”

It took a couple visits to straighten it out, but I was able to finally get that one particular document I needed to bring to Unemployment. I called up Unemployment — whenever you try to call, better set aside an hour just to get through — and told them I had the document. But they didn’t want it from me. They said it was better if I faxed it. “Okay, I’ll fax it.” They don’t want a fax from me, they want one from the Social Security office so there’s a record. Okay, I go back there. Social Security’s like, we don’t really do that. “But that’s what they told me at Unemployment.” They’re like, okay, we’ll do it, but they need me to sign a piece of paper saying it was faxed and requested. “Sure, I’ll sign whatever.”

To get any money, I was working in this sales office making cold calls, and it was all commission based. Because of all the Unemployment stuff, I’d borrowed money to try to survive, so whatever sale I closed, that money went to pay the money I borrowed.

I’m fighting to keep myself together emotionally. I barely got any sleep because I didn’t know what to expect the next day. I remember physically hurting all over the place, down to my gums and teeth, because I was so stressed. A few years before, I’d gotten back in touch with my Catholicism, and remember going to church and thinking, alright, if this is a test, I’ll do it, whatever. I’ll deal with it and keep the faith. But there were days I was like, I don’t know if I could go through with this anymore. Can you please make it stop? Not for, like, someone to come down and say, ping, it’s all better. I was just praying for strength, just let me get through another day.

I also had my cat, so I was trying to keep sanity for her, because she’d know if I was having a bad day and that would affect her.

During this time, I was trying to get this temp job. At the end of the interview they said they’d contact me in the afternoon to let me know if I got it. So I went back to the apartment, and got a call from our landlord saying, “Hey, Eric. I know it’s hard. But we can’t let this go until July.” And that afternoon I didn’t get a call from the temp agency. I was just like, shit. I remember sitting on my couch, feeling numb, being like, I think I’m going to homeless in about a week.

Then, I got a call. It was a woman from Unemployment. “Hi, Mr. Soto. You’ve been though a lot haven’t you?” I was like, yeah. “Well, it’s finally straightened out. We have the proper document and you’ll be getting your unemployment. And it’s retroactive, so you’ll be getting a check for about $8,000.” I’m getting a little choked up because whenever I talk about it, it affects me. It was really a dark time.

I got the money, got caught up with my rent, and I remember walking to the New Beverly theater to see a movie. That was my little gift for keeping it together all those months.

How did this all happen? From people I talked to, most likely somebody had my file open to enter information, and just miskeyed something. So, it was all a clerical error. Even after I got the check, it took awhile to get everything cleared up. One day I called AT&T and they’re like, “Hey, it says here you’re dead.” And then the AT&T woman on the phone just starts laughing and laughing.

As told to Rick Paulas.