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When Even The Experts Are Clueless, You’re In Trouble

, , , , , , | Working | September 13, 2023

Here’s my story of how I went mad trying to get the money I deserve. (This story is shortened a lot.)

As a Ph.D. student in Germany, you often have a weird double status: most of us work but at the same time are students at the university. This combination confuses everyone — and I mean everyone. There is literally no one you can ask if you have a question about administrative things because they never know about this double status.

I worked at the university for almost four years while doing my Ph.D. My job ended before my PhD was done, so I remained a student but had to apply for unemployment benefits. Now, there are two kinds of said benefits (Arbeitslosengeld = ALG) in Germany: ALG1 is what you get for one year if you have worked enough in the last year. It’s a state-issued insurance and gives you part of your old salary as benefits. ALG2 is what you get after that or if you didn’t work at all. It’s designed to cover only basic needs, it’s a pain in the butt, and frankly, they make you feel like s*** if you need to apply for it.

I was so glad that I had worked long enough to claim ALG1 but was unsure whether they would actually pay me since I was a student. Students usually don’t get ALG1, but I was a Ph.D. student which should be different, I thought. So, half a year ahead of time, I tried to find out whether that would be a problem. I called my university and the people at the Ph.D. office, and I had two conversations with people from the unemployment office.

None of these people could help me. The lady from the unemployment office frankly told me that they could not tell me anything until I sent in all my paperwork when my job ended. I asked if I should apply for a semester of leave from uni in order to get ALG1. She told me she didn’t know if that helped but it wouldn’t hurt to try. (These are the people we have to rely on to buy food…)

So, I tried to do everything right, but no one could even tell me what WAS right.

Fast forward to the month my job ended. I filled out my ALG1 application online and — lo and behold! — there was a check box saying, “I am only a student because I am waiting for the completion of my Ph.D.” For the first time, someone had thought of my status! I was super relieved since now there wouldn’t be any problem in getting my ALG1.




I got a letter that stated, “You have worked less than twenty hours per week while being a student. That is not enough to claim ALG1.”

This was a whole new problem. It was not about not giving me money while I was a student; it meant I wasn’t even insured by the unemployment insurance. Now, while it is true that you have to work a certain number of hours per week prior to applying, that number is fifteen.

I immediately called the service line of the unemployment office.

Me: “Hi. I just got my letter and would like to know why don’t I get ALG1.”

Employee: “Let me check that. Huh, that’s weird. Normally, you have to work fifteen hours per week.”

Me: “That’s what I thought.”

Employee: “I don’t know why my colleague did that. You should appeal immediately. Include your recent proof of income. I will also schedule a call back for you so we know what’s going on.”

“Ha! So, it was a mistake,” I thought. “There’s hope!”

I appealed immediately, and I got a call back the next day. (Again, this account is shortened a lot; this conversation took twenty minutes.)

Agent #1: “I’m sorry to inform you that the letter was correct.”

Me: “But I worked nineteen and a half hours a week!”

Agent #1: “Yes, but there is a rule stating that students — unlike other people — have to work twenty hours or more, because otherwise, they count as students, not as workers.”

Me: “But I’m not a regular student; I’m doing a Ph.D.!”

Agent #1: “Still a student.”

Me: “So, because my contract — the one issued by my city, the one that every Ph.D. student gets — is short half an hour, I get nothing at all?”

Agent #1: “Yes. I wish I had better news.”

Me: “But my employer paid into the unemployment insurance for me!”

Agent #1: “Yes, they did that wrongfully because they didn’t know better. You can reclaim the fees they paid.”

Me: *Thinking* “I don’t want the bloody insurance fees; I want to pay for rent and food and health insurance!”

Me: *Out loud* “So, what should I do if I get nothing?”

Agent #1: “You should wait for your written appeal to be processed, but that can take up to three months. In the meantime, you should apply for ALG2.”

Me: “I just have to ask. I did so much research ahead of time. Was there any way I could have predicted this?”

Agent #1: “No. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve heard about this twenty-hour rule, too.”

I was devastated. I thought there was security for me, but no. So now, I had to wait for three months to find out whether someone would see sense. At the same time, I had to apply for ALG2, which I was pretty sure students didn’t get, either, and was also humiliating because they ask very specific things on the application and basically make you feel like you’re trying to scam them every step of the way.

I arranged a meeting with the person responsible for ALG2.

Agent #2: “I’m sorry, but since you are a student, you can’t apply.”

Colour me not surprised.

Me: “So, what do I do?”

Agent #2: “You could apply for the state-funded student loans.”

After doing a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and almost four years of Ph.D., they wanted me to apply for student loans — which I probably wouldn’t get, anyway! What the heck?

I then got the letter saying my appeal had been processed. It said the same thing the agent on the phone said: no money for me. Because of half an hour per week.

I was completely destroyed mentally, but I saw one last chance: I needed legal help. It just couldn’t be true that ALL Ph.D. students who worked at universities wouldn’t be able to apply for ALG1 — because we all got these contracts that only gave you half a job, nineteen and a half hours. I also knew others who’d gotten ALG1, but I didn’t want to contact them; if my agent was right, that would mean they’d gotten ALG1 wrongfully and would have to pay it back, and I didn’t want that!

So, I found a legal consultant with a local university — not the one where I did my Ph.D., but I studied there until my Master’s — where you can get help for free.

Consultant: “Hi. What brings you in today?”

Me: “The unemployment office says I can’t get ALG1 because I worked nineteen and a half hours a week during my Ph.D.”

Consultant: *Deadpan* “Yeah, that’s wrong.”

He spent half an hour with me looking for the paragraph where it was stated that Ph.D. students were not regular students and that all the stupid rules didn’t apply to them. I went home singing and wrote another appeal — with the correct arguments, including the legal paragraph, etc.

And it worked! I received another letter, and this time, I FINALLY was granted ALG1. The feeling of satisfaction when I got that letter!

This whole ordeal drained so much energy from me that I effectively lost two or three weeks in which I could have worked on my Ph.D. thesis. All of that was because, at the German unemployment office, no one knows all the rules and no one knows what the others are doing. Along the way, several people told me that the people at the unemployment office simply don’t get the training they need for the job. But if THEY don’t know better, how am I supposed to know?! Without legal help, I would have given up and gotten nothing.

But there’s a twist with a happy ending: because of another funny rule no one knew about (I checked again with the legal consultant, and it’s legit) they calculated my benefits based on a higher salary I’d gotten two years before instead of my most recent salary. So, first, they wanted to give me nothing at all, but now I get almost as much money as I used to make in my job! I call it compensation for personal suffering.

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