Hello From the Underclass: Unemployment Stories, Vol. One

Near-suicidal despair. That is what many Americans have earned from this recession. Yesterday, we asked for stories from those of you who are or have been unemployed. We've been flooded with responses. Today, ten stories from economy's bad side.

Unemployment in America touches young and old, educated and uneducated, poor and privileged, men and women. We heard from all of them. This first batch of ten stories (there will be more) represents a mere cross-section of the unemployed. They are lengthy, but worth your time. This is not a contest for most heartstring-tugging tale, nor an invitation for judgment. This is just what's happening out there.

'I spend every day hating myself'

Prompted by lack of child support, in 2007 I left my job (where I would never get a raise) for a new position that paid more in order to take care of my family. I didn't survive the probationary period due to continued harassment and stress from the baby daddy. I was soon evicted and finally filed for child support in anger instead of avoiding it out of fear. I disappeared to Jersey City with an order of protection so that baby daddy couldn't find me and retaliate. My dad left his assisted living facility to at first help me with child care, then to support and supplement my unemployment benefits once it became clear there was little interest in hiring a long term unemployed person that wears hearing aids.

For a time, I did receive child support and was able to do nice things for my daughter and use some of it for household bills. But January 2011 both unemployment benefits and child support abruptly stopped. In February I applied for emergency food stamps; in March I received it; along with the humiliation of dealing with social services –the workers act like they're giving you their money! In March, the rent check bounced, due to my father's refusal to utilize my creative banking skills. In April I was asked by my landlords to convert to Buddhism and chant to get a job, otherwise it seemed I wasn't trying hard enough. Also in April they gained entry into my apartment (under the guise of morning chanting) to declare random things contraband and accuse us of breaking the lease. We paid rent for April and May, but by June my family was homeless.

My dad could not return to the assisted living facility, I had to find a room for rent. My 93 year old dad that fought in WWII now lives like a transient that just got out of jail. My daughter and I landed in a domestic violence shelter. The shelter has locations in all five boroughs of NYC but rather than place me in Brooklyn near my father, they placed me ten blocks from my abuser and tried to comfort me by showing me on a map how far away 143rd Street in Harlem is from 131st street in Harlem. I countered by pointing out how much further away I'd be in Brooklyn but shelter employees are dumb. All the shelter was equipped to do was have me apply for welfare. There is no job search assistance, no training. Getting involved with the system means relegating yourself to the permanent underclass of society because you will be so busy with their bullshit demands, designed to prevent fraud, you don't have time or preparation to get a job outside of retail or service industry.

Luckily for me, I utilized the domestic violence deferment to get out of those stupid classes which only exist to make sure you're not working while collecting benefits and found a temp job in NYC. The shelter workers disliked that I challenged their ineptitude and the first chance they got, they let me know, even though I now made more money than them, (they're really low paid) they were running things. My daughter returned from a weekend visit with her dad (whom I have the order of protection against) with a black eye. All the workers, wanting drama, tried to encourage me to press charges and make accusations against my daughter's dad. I refused, I knew I was an accident of negligence, not malice. After 3 days of everyone gossiping and hyping each other up, they had no choice but to call ACS in order to validate their faux concern. ACS didn't investigate him, they searched my living space and treated me like a criminal. I cursed those workers out so damn bad, they kicked me out of the shelter.

Homeless again, I had to stay with estranged relatives, estranged because they were ghetto and I'm not. Boy were they happy to see me on their level and being needy. They made it their mission to ‘teach me how to be black' and ‘how to survive' by taking me to the food pantry for free food, introducing me to SPAM and trying to encourage me to collect bottles. Living with family was worse than the shelter. And I'd advise, next time there is a food drive at your job, don't give the Delmonte and Green Giants. During my time in the shelter and seeing the free stuff they received from the government, I didn't see not one can of name brand anything! What I did see was those shelter workers taking first dibs on anything donated to the shelter – especially clothes.

I am finally back in my own apartment, still not receiving child support and being sued for custody. I can't make ends meet for shit. I spend every day hating myself. A work day is not a work day unless I've cried in front of my computer before 11:30 am. Even though I am currently employed, my time spent unemployed ruined my life forever, I can't see a future for myself at all. I'm afraid of everything. And I no longer have any friends. I can't do anything nice for my daughter at all; I worry about buying school clothes; glasses, etc. I feel this experience has given me a mental illness, more than depression, and I just so filled with hate for myself and others that take for granted their resources and support systems.

'Close Friends'

I have been unemployed for just over a year. I had never really had a 'career' but had been lucky enough to always find jobs I enjoyed that weren't retail or manual labor and paid above average with full benefits. Prior to be unemployed my life was decent- I didn't have a lot but I did well for myself. The company I was working for closed with no warning and I found myself with no job and no experience specific or solid enough for me to easily find another job. Filing for unemployment was another story in itself but suffice to say that it was a lengthy, embarrassing and unpleasant process. I feel that in order to continue receiving my 'paychecks' (which are almost 1/3 of what I was making) I have to go to the unemployment office and beg my case. They send letters regularly requiring me to take various classes and if I don't attend they'll revoke my unemployment. Often these letters come a day before the cut off, and I have to drive 30+ miles to find a center that has an opening. While the time is not an issue, this far along in things paying for transportation to get there is. The staff at the unemployment offices are rude and condescending and treat you like a criminal or drug addict. My husband & I no longer have insurance since I lost my job, we had to let one of our cars get repossessed, and our relationship has been incredibly strained over the last 6 months. We did not live extravagantly to begin with but we have had to cut back on everything now, and one medical emergency shortly after I lost my job wiped out our savings.

I have been very depressed since I lost my job. I go through periods where I spend most of my days in bed, and although I've had a few interviews those people don't even have the decency to let you know the position is filled. Sometimes I'd call for weeks asking for updates only to get the HR persons voicemail, and they'd never return my calls. With no experience I can't even get a job waiting tables. I apply to every job in the paper and online, whether I'm qualified or not, and have had 7 interviews total, none of which ended with a job offer. Living paycheck to paycheck would be a blessing at this point. We are no longer able to celebrate even minor holidays or birthdays or anniversaries with dinners out or gifts, but with so little money we are just happy enough to have a roof over our head so I can't complain. My husband makes $303.47 a year over the states poverty line, which means we are ineligible for any additional benefits through the state.

I was recently able to to get a grant to begin taking classes at the community college for a degree that wasn't something I have ever had any interest in but pretty much promises a job at the end. There is no way I can go without working for the full length, and I am on my last extension for unemployment as it is. Since the grant does not cover everything, I am only taking part time classes and the state will not extend my benefits unless I am enrolled full time which I cannot afford. We had to sell a few small things just for me to pay for the books needed. The current 'bright side' is that I know someone who owns a small retail clothing chain and has offered me a minimum wage job there on the condition that we become 'close friends'. I think you & I both know what that entails, but at this time in my life it seems like a better alternative than losing the little that I have. I'd have a paycheck equal to what I am getting on unemployment with the opportunity for overtime and advancements, full benefits and a schedule that would allow me to continue schooling. Reading this over it sounds like a horror story but honestly, I know people who have it much worse than I do and I feel blessed to at least have a slight chance at reemployment between this offer and getting my degree

A Family Issue

The weight of unemployment has been dragging around my family's necks for years.

In 2008, I was one of the fortunate seniors to have landed a job straight out of college. Thinking that law school was the way to go for me, I decided to work as a legal assistant (a company term for paralegal) at a corporate law firm in Manhattan. For a few weeks, things were fine - I was going to make it in the big city. Just a mere month into my tenure at said law firm, I saw our largest clients, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, blow up in smoke. I had to wade through news reporters camped out on 7th Avenue who wanted to talk to employees about Richard Fuld and their future plans. I talked to employees who were going into the Lehman Brothers building with bottles of alcohol because, why not? I heard about the crash and I thought, Thank God that's not me. That's not my family. We are not that statistic.

Then December came.

I tried calling my father (I was still living with my parents at the time) on New Year's Eve to let them know that I was leaving the city and would be able to have dinner with them before my night out. His phone was disconnected – he had been let go from the company and they repossessed his phone. On that sobering New Years Eve, none of us went out, because we knew that this was the beginning of the end. We as a family sat down together and talked about what we were going to do starting in 2009.

It's been over three and a half years since that New Years Eve. In that time, my parents have filed for bankruptcy, have had the house my father built with his own two hands and where we grew up seized and foreclosed. My mother has started working two jobs and my father, being the handy man that he is, works EVERYDAY doing odd jobs. This lifestyle for a middle-aged man finally took its toll when putting in a skylight for someone renovating their house, he PLUMETTED 40 FEET to the ground. He shattered his spine and broke his pelvis completely through but somehow managed to stay alive. For months he was in the hospital and rehab. Then bedridden. If money was tight before, during the time that he couldn't walk was unbearable. Luckily we are active of a very supportive diaspora that helped raise money for my family so that we could live on. Strangers that barely knew my parents helped us during the worst of times and for that my family will forever be thankful. And even though he should still be recovering, he's back out there, installing skylights so we as a family can survive. Had he been able to find a job, he would never had to have been on that roof or have to go back up to it again.

I have two sisters that are in college. One can't find a job for the summer and is at home, doing whatever she can to be useful. The other is working her ass off doing what she can to save up and help out the family. I myself after leaving the firm (lack of hours) going to graduate school (perhaps not the best investment) and being underemployed/unemployed for about a year, am finally on my own two feet, doing whatever I can to help my parents get on theirs, sending money home (I've since moved away) or paying bills as much as I can. I know that I'm lucky – I was only unemployed for three months. My father, the hardest working man I know, highly educated, deserves better than what he's gotten. If I could pass my luck on to him, I would.

Without the help of our extended family, I don't know where we would be… certainly not in an apartment, trying to just get by. We used to think that we were the exception – a happy middle, class family. Now every member of my family, from my sisters to myself to my father and mother, have become nothing but another negative statistic. We are the American story.

A Divorced Mom

I had to contribute my two cents to this story. I worked for one of those "Top 100 Employers in America". Being a divorced mom, my salary wasn't great, but we got by and able to save a bit. I came down with a bacterial infection that put me in the hospital. When I informed my employer, they called me into the office, forcing me to sign a "leave of absence" form or face termination. That LOA form shut off my health insurance. I got sicker and racked up unbelievable medical bills, and because I could not get medical clearance to return to work, I was let go. Our savings was gone quickly, as was our townhome rental and car. We spent more than one night in the 24 hour diner, as we had nowhere to go. As soon as I started feeling healthy, I started applying for jobs- at least 20 per day online, and 2 or 3 per week in person- often costing money in bus fare and babysitters. I would say I would not hear back at least 90% of the time. I have two degrees and over 20 years experience in my field.
After five months, I found a job as a server in a casual dining chain. This was a job I had way back in college. With this and another serving job, I work 7 days a week. I am still in a hotel with my children, but I am trying to teach them that adversity can be overcome with hard work. It is soul-killing, and if it weren't for my children, I would just want to go to sleep and never wake up from this life. I feel as though I fell down that big chute from Chutes and Ladders, and at this point in life, I won't be rescuing the kitten from the tree anytime soon.
Thanks for listening.

A Single Father

I became unemployed in October 2008 when copper dropped 75% (I worked in wire manufacturing). It didn't feel good to lose my job a few months after moving closer to where I worked. Also not a great start to my marriage and my daughter's life (she was a couple months old when I was laid off). I collected unemployment but was only able to receive $99 per week.

We struggled in our apartment for another two months before being evicted. We had to move into my mother's house and spent 6 cramped months in a room with our daughter and all our things while collecting food stamps and cash assistance. In order to do so, I had to attend something once a week and show proof of seeking employment. My wife found work before I did and asked me to stay home and take care of our daughter so she could accept the job. She couldn't stand being home doing nothing and I was more interested in making her happy than thinking about what I would do for work. There isn't free day care so I didn't have much of a choice. Sacrifices had to be made. [...]

I endured 3 years of cheating and unemployment (all while trying hard to find anything). I finally left [my wife] earlier this year and my daughter lives with me where I didn't want to go back to: my mom's house.

I am still looking for ANYTHING. This time, I can work any hours so my options aren't limited. I've tried to get part time work at McDonald's. No luck. I've been told it's mostly because of my long term unemployment. Some places haven't even received my applications because their corporate office only forwards along applications from the recently unemployed and the currently employed. Whenever I see someone with two jobs and no kids get a third without any effort, it pisses me off. I have a daughter and am struggling to deal with my situation and can't find ONE PART-TIME JOB. I'm currently working every couple weeks for a neighbor who owns a business and barely make any money. And I get harassed because I get state assistance to take care of my daughter.

I was told before when I was in a required weekly meeting that stay at home moms put that they've been doing that for three years and they get hired because it's seen as legitimate. But it's 2012 and people are still stuck in the mindset that dads can't stay at home for any reason. And now I'm not allowed to say I regret it because the stock answer is, "Well, you got to spend time with your daughter, so you can't complain." While a good thing on its own, I need to work. I want to work.

I Tried Hard to Do Everything Right

I became unemployed by choice, once my husband and I realized that with impending student loan payments we could no longer afford our $2,000/month apartment in DC. We knew this was our course for months before we actually became unemployed and applied and applied and applied for any and all jobs in a large NC city, where we both grew up and decided to return to. Although we couldn't find anything, we had family to live with and a savings account to support us for awhile, so we were optimistic about finding decent jobs. A year and a half later, I am STILL without employment. I have a Bachelor's degree and a Master's degree in Social Work with experience working in DC nonprofits. The economic situation in my city is awful; we continue to have one of the highest (possibly THE highest?) unemployment rate in the state. I've applied to any job that I think I could do- no matter the pay, no matter if I'm not interested, no matter if it's an hour away and isn't worth the gas money driving to and from work. I've had a few interviews in the past year but they didn't lead to anything. I don't think it's me (I hope it's not!)... I am educated, I dress appropriately, I make sure to smile and give firm handshakes. There have been interviews that I have ROCKED and left smiling. Yet, I can't get a job. I attribute this to the stiff competition I'm facing. Sure, I'd be a great employee but I only graduated from grad school 4 years ago. My experience compared to others' experience is nothing. How can I compete against the people my parent's age, who have worked longer than I've been alive? I can't.

I've tried unemployment groups, I've tried posting my resume on websites, I've made contact with people that a friend of a friend of a friend knows, just in the hopes of hearing about a job. Nothing. We are still living with family, which I feel terrible about. The worst part is how people view me, like I'm somehow lazy and at fault for this. I actually had a grad school classmate say that if I wanted a job, I would have one and that I obviously think I'm above doing labor, or working at a local Target. HA. Until recently, we couldn't even afford the insurance for me to have a license to get to Target, and since I live in the 'burbs, there is no public transportation around me to speak of. So no, I do not think I'm above certain working at a Target but it isn't that simple! When you can't even afford to get to the local Target, how can you be expected to snap up a job? (Not to mention, the local Target isn't always hiring.)

My situation has improved some. I was graciously gifted a car by family, and we had saved enough for my insurance. I still haven't found a full-time job, but I'm working as a nanny and getting paid almost double what I'd make at Target or Wal-Mart per hour. However, nothing ever feels safe. My husband has lost a job since being here, and until he found a new one, I could hardly sleep from the stress of being unable to pay for what we need. My nannying job is fine for now, but it has its own uncertainties; the family is on vacation next week and doesn't need me. And what happens when school starts, and they don't need me as often? So next week I have an entire week of not being paid. I basically can't leave my house because I can't afford the gas to get anywhere since I'm not getting paid. It sucks, and there is no other way to put it. It just sucks.

Because I'm unemployed, I don't have health insurance. My husband's job isn't quite full-time, so he doesn't have it either and I can't get it through him. I am constantly terrified of being injured or having my appendix burst, because we simply couldn't pay for what we would need. When we're sick or in pain, we don't get to see a doctor. It feels so unfair because I tried to hard to do everything right: I worked my ass off in school to maintain a 4.0 so that I could continue my education and land good internships and one day, jobs. I went to state schools to keep the cost down; I thought when I took out my student loans that I'd have a job at 26. I had no idea that I wouldn't be able to pay my student loans back. I'm thankful that Sallie Mae and NC state loan providers have been understanding. Citibank, on the other hand, continues to harass me and refuse to work with me. I don't know what to tell them... I'm sorry the economy isn't better? I'm sorry that the funding for social work positions is frozen and nonexistent right now? I'm sorry that I've tried my hardest, but it isn't enough?

The Debt Calculation

I've been unemployed since September 2010 when I was laid off from a warehouse job where, despite being promised full time work with benefits, I was basically treated as a temp, working only when things where really busy, then staying home sometimes for weeks at a time. With 15 months of unemployment exhausted, I've been living off of savings for the last few months but it's starting to run low. I was just turned down last week for the only job I've been able to get an interview for in the whole time I've been unemployed. I sent an application off to a temp agency in hopes of getting some money coming in, but I have yet to hear back from them. I'm 26 and living with my parents. I have an associate transfer degree and as much as I would like to go back to school, watching my friends graduate with tons of debt and only being able to find crappy jobs that don't even help them make their minimum payments puts me off that idea. On the other hand, I hear the echoes of "you'll never get a good job unless you go to college" in my head and even though I can plainly see that's bullshit, I'm afraid I'm screwing myself over for the rest of my life just to avoid some debt. I constantly hear about how my generation is never going to fully recover from this recession so I usually feel pretty hopeless despite my best attempts to resist it. I have depression and anxiety issues that are going untreated (no health insurance, obviously) and only getting worse because I have a hard time seeing how my life will ever get better. I'm grateful for the coming healthcare reforms but that's still a couple of years away and I'm not sure how I'm going to make it in the meantime. People my age get labeled as a bunch of lazy, selfish brats who expect six-figure jobs to fall into their laps, but I just want a job that lets me live on my own and pay my bills, and to be able to go to a doctor when I need to without bankrupting myself. That's what my parents had when they were younger than I am now, so I don't think that's asking too much.

A Teacher by Trade

I'm a teacher by trade. Specifically, since this country really doesn't treat what I do as teaching, I should be specific: a college teacher. An adjunct. Composition, no less.

I have been unemployed now for over seven months. I expect to remain so at least through December, and, at least as far as teaching goes, through to next fall.

I think my story is typical in many ways. I have worked lots of different kinds of jobs in my life. A custodian (at a hospital as a teenager, at a juvy hall as an adult), at a library, book stores, restaurants, offices, a warehouse, as a patient sitter, a tutor, etc. I am a vet too. I even worked for the DOL as an auditor of EEOPs, one of my favorite jobs. But I am a teacher by nature and training. And since becoming a teacher, it has become almost impossible for me to get other kinds of jobs. They won't have me. They are right to be suspicious: I won't stay if I get a better job, and, yes, I will likely, quietly agitate for unionizing (that FedEx job lasted, like, two days; I casually mentioned their lobbying congress for an airline exemption to unionizing and the pay mark down over the last five or so years; oops).

Five years of adjuncting and trying to be a family with my partner and my kid, whom I have usually had to fight tooth and nail to see because my ex is a homophobe and abusive control freak, has taken its toll. I have taught in the deep South and Appalachia at universities, and most recently in California at community colleges. The pay is terrible. The job security worse. The hours long. The load of work and students too high. Doing the math on pay to hours expected work (one 3 unit class in the equivalent, supposedly, of ten hours of work, though they only pay you for in class hours), I have made as little as $10 and hour and as much as $18. If I do the calculations by actual hours, it is a less than minimum wage job, even with all the time management skills I have learned, if I give them even have the input I think they deserve. Calculating by student it is often less than one hundred dollars a student for 16 weeks and 4-7 papers and 1-3 conferences. I essentially was paid between 10-15 dollars per graded, commented upon paper. They have turned teaching into factory capital commodity labor.

I miss it terribly, nonetheless.

Last fall, even though I made more money than I ever had before by working essentially 60 hour weeks and commuting 1-3 hours one way Mondays thru Thursdays, I was exhausted and often broke and stressed anyway. This was because I was rarely paid on time or in a predictable amount. One of my schools did not pay me at all for the first ten weeks of the semester. Healthcare? Hah.

As agonizing as that was, I found out it was typical.

Winter came, and there were cuts. Last one in, first one out. When I sent letters of inquiry to pretty much any school I could reach (I didn't own a car, so MUNI and BART access were essential), I got sympathetic letters about how interesting I was and how they would love to have me, but they were cutting another 15% in almost every department. [...]

I hope for my 75 year old grandma who used to be in real estate and who lost everything in the crash and now works at Vegas Walmart in the refrigeration area, her hands usually numb or in extreme pain, won't have to keep working such a shit job until she is dead and will stop apologizing to me that she wishes she could help but cannot, though I have not asked. I hope for my mom, with whom I don't speak, but I love and care about. She has no healthcare as a pizza delivery driver, but was recently diagnosed with a serious heart problem, requiring meds she can't afford and less work she can't afford. She already lost her house in the crash. She is a bigot who hates Obama and Muslims and blacks and Mexicans (my dad is Mexican Native America, so, not very funny irony). I hope for her to see how she has focused her anger over very real wrongs to her in the wrong directions, at the wrong people.

I don't have to hope for my dad. He was a 15 year old run away dropout from Alabama. Now, with just a AS, he is a full engineer at Intel and travels the world to help various factories. Yes. He is talented and super smart. But also insanely lucky.

Mostly, I hope this shit gets better for my kid. Cause... this is shit. And those that shat are doing just fine. Getting ready to do it again. All I can think is, not on my kid, you don't!

My Daughter's First Christmas

I lost my job 3 days before Thanksgiving in 2009 from a Home Improvement Store. It was their version of cutting back on the employers with high pay. That year was my daughters first Christmas, we had no money to do get anything big, I finally saved up bout a $100 the day before Christmas Eve. It was the ugliest feeling in the world to not being able give my daughter the world on her first Christmas. The holidays past and still no job, I had almost 10 yrs Retail experience and about 4 years Management experience. I was turned down by RadioShack, Toys R Us, Target, even Wal Mart told me I was overqualified. In March 2010, I was finally offered a job by the US Census, it helped getting us back on our feet, but just like any good thing the assignment came to an end. I was given Unemployment Benefits that lasted almost a year, it kept us afloat financially. During that time I must of gone to dozens of interviews with all different companies: Best Buy, Apple, even my local University turned me down for a Rent A Cop position. Every time telling me I was over or under qualified. But there is a silver lining to this dark time in my life. I was able to spend each day with my newborn daughter, was able to raise her for the first 2 and half years of her life, I went back to school and I am currently only a year away from getting my Bachelors Degree, Just this past March, I was finally hired with the Parks & Rec Department in our City and I absolutely love my job. I'll never forget that rough patch of my life, it taught me to appreciate the small things in my life: my family, my time spent with my daughter and even a stress-free night of sleep. Even though it was the toughest part of my life so far, I wouldn't change it for the world.

Plan B

I left my job with a strategic communications firm in October in order to move to North Carolina and care for my grandmother, who was in the late stages of ovarian cancer.

After she died, I returned to New York and started networking and sending resumes out. Since December, I've had THREE interviews despite well over a hundred resumes being sent. I hold two masters degrees, including one from an Ivy League university...yet it seems I am unemployable.

I have stopped looking for work, and have started gigging as a musician! I played in bands in my 20s, but never figured I would still be doing it in my early 40s.

It sure beats getting a succession of rejection letters for sure.

See Also: Unemployment stories Volumes Two, Three, and Four.

[Thanks to everyone who shared their story. If you'd like to tell your own, email me with the subject line "Unemployment."]

Photo: Getty.