Unemployment Stories, Vol. 11: 'I'd Crawl to Work If I Had To'S

America's unemployment rate dropped below 8% last month for the first time in more than three years. For millions of Americans, unemployment remains a grim fact of life. Each week, we bring you true stories from the unemployed. This is what's happening out there.

Home again

About four years ago, I was laid off from my first career-type job out of college. I was an industrial designer, which, in my big West Coast city, meant I could find work. At least, I could have if the economy hadn't tanked so spectacularly there and the only job I could find was as a part-time grocery store cashier. So when I inevitably lost my apartment, I had to move 2,000 miles back to my parents and the nasty little midwest town I swore I'd never go back to when I left at 18. My arts degree meant that I was unemployable in a town where the only jobs are big-box retail work (too overqualified, they wouldn't even interview me for a cashier job) and employment with the giant hospital which is the only real money-making job generator here. I would have had a chance there, too, if I hadn't been diagnosed with quickly-progressing Ankylosing Spondylitis three years ago (thank god for state insurance, seriously) and go to the giant hospital for all of my appointments, which goes into my records. I know this because: the only work I can get is temp work (which is lucky because at least I can pay my bills most of the time, even if I can't pay for anything else), except the temp work I get is only at the hospital. Every time I get a new assignment, I spend about week battling and threatening lawsuits with the temp agency and the hospital because there's always "a call" from someone who is "just concerned" I won't be able to do my job because of my back (and at this point, I'd crawl to work if I had to, pain notwithstanding). So every time a position opens up, even the exact position I'm working in (often the reason I was hired on as a temp in the first place) comes up, I get a throwaway interview and a rejection, and then, as a consolation prize, I get to train in the person who is replacing me and getting paid twice as much money as I do.

I try to keep positive, I really do, but most days, I feel like I'm trapped in purgatory and I don't know how to get out. I apply for jobs up to 50 miles away, even though my car hardly makes it to work when it's close by (and getting it fixed or replaced with my shitty, destroyed-by-Sallie Mae credit is a laughable idea), but nothing. I apply for the crappy food service jobs and the high-paying designer jobs, but neither side wants me. I freelance when I can find the work, but frankly, it's hard to work up the motivation to do extra anything when working 40 hours a week at barely above minimum wage while in extreme pain. Some days, I don't know how I get out of bed in the morning... heavy antidepressants help. I stopped going out or buying new things because I can't spare the money, so I don't really have friends any more. I still live in my parents' basement, and since I left home when I was 18, that's how they see me. And since we never got along when I was a dependent, things are a million times worse now that I'm broke and unworthy of respect. My mother is buying a car, and I was joking around about how I've never bought anything larger than a couch, when she looked at me blankly and asked, "when the hell did YOU buy a couch?" Because the six years of my independent adult life has been erased from the record. I cannot figure out how to get out. I swore when I moved back, if I was still here in five years, I'd end it. I have a year left to improve my life before I hit that. I don't have a lot of faith that I can.
Thank you for the opportunity to at least tell the story, it's hard sometimes.

The meteorologist

In May I completed a master's degree in meteorology. When I first graduated with my BS a couple years ago, I had hoped to ride out the recession by getting my master's, and in theory, the recession would've started to recede, and I'd be in a good position to start my career. If only it had played out that way.

I started looking for jobs about five months ago, and I actually had the luck of being interviewed with my first application. I made it to the second round, and was then informed two days later they went with the other candidate because they had more experience. I was disappointed (mostly due to their response that I needed more experience to get the job, but I need a job to get experience - an occupational Catch-22) but undeterred, thinking that sooner or later, I would get an offer.

I've only sent out 40 resumes/cover letters/CVs to date. I have six different forms of resumes depending on the type of job, and several different cover letters that I can tailor for each opening. I've had five interviews, all phone-based, and no offers. Most of those interviews were from before what my colleagues have referred to as "the flood". Our wonderful Congress let a tax subsidy for renewable energy companies expire, and in doing so, not only were most job openings cancelled, many of those companies gutted their workforces, dumping dozens of wind analysts with meteorology degrees into the unemployment pool. While this seems like a small number, the meteorological field itself is small, so the impact is compounded. Since the layoffs began a couple months ago, the interviews, and even the non-wind job openings, have tapered off.

I was kept on through the summer by my adviser to prepare some of my research for publication (most meteorology grad degrees are funded with research stipends), and my last paycheck is three weeks from this Friday. I still have nothing. When my lease runs out, I'll most likely put my stuff into storage and move into my car.

This wasn't the degree in English Lit. that everyone makes fun of. I do computer programming and can perform high-level math. I am reminded (too often) by my mother that she grew up in a house without electricity and water, and worked her way to a modest working-class lifestyle; this work ethic, and pressure to succeed, was the overarching theme of my childhood. The benefit of growing up working-class was that I received a number of grants and scholarships when I went to college (especially useful since I did my undergrad at an Ivy League school). The downside is that I can't move back in with my family, who have no way to accommodate another person since my unemployed siblings already moved back.

The worst part is how I feel about myself. I feel like a waste of space. I ask myself every day what is wrong with me. I just feel completely under-talented and inadequate, and when I hear about friends in other fields doing well, I'm envious. I've started to hide myself away from friends and family, in shame of my current predicament. I can't shake this feeling of dread I get when I wake up every day. I've looked all over the country and am about to give up on the field I trained for years to break into. At this point, I just want a job and to make a decent, fulfilling living like everybody else.

"Do you want to flip burgers?"

Like most, my unemployment story is a mixture of sad trombones and genuine desperation.

I was one of the fortunate ones that got hired immediately out of college and had spent five years in my field before I accepted a position as the Communications Director of a national nonprofit. It was the worst experience of my life, and it was compounded thanks to an awful CEO who refused to give me a marketing budget. Come to find out, we had plenty of money, but he used it to finance home improvements instead of the growth of an allegedly transparent organization. I brought up our finances in a meeting, and low, I had no job two days later.

What followed was six months of hell. We often underestimate the severity of going from prosperity to wondering if we can afford that Maruchan Souper 6Pack of ramen. My phone was constantly going off, and I will never forget the shame of rejecting and taking collectors' calls while with friends. I paid my essentials; insurance and student loans. My rent came in spurts and even that didn't save me from an eviction hearing. Moving in with my parents was not a cheap option, as they are 2000 miles away and are paying their own bills as well as nursing home fees after my 92 year old grandmother broke both her hip and her arm in a fall.

I applied for hundreds of jobs, and my physical record of those applications is what saved my ass from eviction and subsequent homelessness. In four cases I was offered a job only for the company to decide that they didn't want to pay another employee. In many other cases, I went through countless interviews (my record is 13) only to come up empty and spend money I didn't have on gas.

The notion of "just apply at McDonalds" is a fallacy. My states unemployment rate is a staggering 11%. Even retail has no jobs, and if they do, they will certainly not hire an overeducated, over experienced employee, believing (correctly) that the individual will jump ship at the next opportunity.

Mostly, I was depressed. Days blur into each other; I wanted to speak to no one, including my family. I threw myself into volunteer work; it resulted in my election to the board of an organization in my area. I threw myself into karate in an attempt to feel that I had succeeded in something, anything.

My salvation came in May with my current position, but I will never forget those months of desperation, of selling whatever possessions I had to pay bills. And I am now more careful when criticizing the lives of others. An entire generation was told that college was the counter to the "do you want to flip burgers?!" accusation lobbied every time we produced a less than ideal grade. Now, we cannot even get the jobs that we are allegedly "better than". The unemployed are not a monolith of entitled; they are suffering under the weight of human error, of their employers, their government, and, yes, their own decisions. Scorning them does nothing.

The welder

I graduated high school in 1995 and earned a degree and certifications in welding, auto body repair, and fabrication from places like Wyoming Technical Institute. I have down everything from custom car work to designing and building custom air planes from the ground up. From 2005 until 2010 I was welder and fabricator for a company that designed and produced custom metal storage containers and warehousing racks. I worked my way up to shift lead by 2008.

When the recession hit our work load was cut in half in a the span of a few months. We went from fully staffed shifts earning overtime on a regular basis to staggered shifts where we would only work three days a week for 12 hours and barely made enough time to maintain our benefits. Finally they started offering voluntary layoffs with a small severance package. I held out figuring my position would keep me safe, but then they started laying off the more senior people making higher hourly wages. At this point I went and talked to the HR person and asked for the info about the voluntary layoff. By the time I got back
to my desk I had been fired and was not allowed to apply for the voluntary layoff.

I began looking for work the next day, but as the days turned into weeks it dawned on me that my career choices, my training, and my experience were now preventing me from getting a job. No one wanted to
hire a certified, educated, and experience welder and fabricator. They were looking to hire people with little to no experience for barely $10 an hour, less than 1/4th of my highest pay level. Even on the two times I was offered a job, it was starting at a rate that would be less than my weekly unemployment benefit and there was no promise of 40 hours a week. I had to chose between working hopefully working 40 hours a week for less than my benefit or hold out and keep looking for a job.

The only saving grace I have is that I am able to do side jobs for friends and others through word of mouth that pay cash. I've installed roll cages for guys racing cars at dirt tracks, I've fixed and welded mower decks for tractors, fabricated some jigs for people, and have been going to junk yards looking for things I can restore and sell on ebay to supplement the benefits, but I have never stopped looking for a job.

I take pride in the fact that I have not missed a single bill payment or mortgage payment on my house and have been able to provide for my family. When I was earning good money I was not racking up credit card
debt. I did not spend beyond my means and always made sure to set aside money in case something like this happened, but it has been almost 2 years now and that money is almost gone. Apparently in the eyes of many people I am a lazy person living off the welfare of others. To those people all I have to say is I wish you never have to experience what I have been through, building a career for 15+ years only to have it ripped out from under you.

Feeling better

I worked at a company where I was underutilized and unappreciated for many years. Shortly after the company was acquired, I was laid off. I remained out of work for three very long years. I would send out twenty resumes every day to no avail, and I was becoming obese. I had managed to hit the trifecta of being unemployable: I was old, fat, and been out of work for way to long. Every morning was a reminder of how worthless I felt, and it soured my mood to the point where my wife asked me to leave our house. I think I had become grim, unattractive, undependable. and embarrassing to her.

After having to move in with my parents, I took some classes, and was able to find a contract job four months later. I got a small studio apartment and started going to the gym where I managed to lose 90 lbs. I send half my checks home to my wife to try and begin to make up for all the years I wasn't able to. Another four months later I switched to a higher paying job, and have run in two half marathons. I continue to take classes, exercise, and apply for permanent positions. I also recently started volunteering at a local Meals On Wheels program.

I'm finally feeling a lot better about myself, and trying to give something positive back to the world. I sleep on the floor and eat cheap ramen noodles, but I have a sense of pride I haven't had in many years. I haven't heard from my wife for many months. I hope she is OK and knows how hard I'm trying to be a better man. I fear all my efforts to turn my life around may be in vain. I just want to able to come home to her someday, so we can be happy together once again.

Dreams

I was literally afraid of dreaming. Not of daydreaming or wishful thinking, but of going to sleep and having dreams. I was unemployed for a period of six months back in 2004 and 2005. I have since found work and am grateful beyond measure that I'm not looking for work now during the great recession. I must admit that I read articles such as yours about the currently unemployed for totally selfish reasons: to remind myself what it was like when I was out of work, when I felt mine nothing but shame, loneliness, and despair day after day. I use others' stories to remind myself just how fortunate I am to have a job and to have a steady paycheck and to not take for granted being "forced" to get up in the morning and go to work. I'm not better than anyone who is unemployed—I'm just lucky. Articles such as yours remind me of that, and it reminds me of what it was like when I was afraid of dreaming.

Being unemployed means thinking about being employed all the time. Invariably it would carry over into my dreams. Every night my subconscious mind would create a lucid world where I was gainfully employed in a wonderful job with wonderful people. Or, I would dream about having found a job and being able to tell my parents the good news and seeing their joy and relief. My dreams were filled with happiness and ecstasy. Then . . . I'd wake up. I'd realize that it had all been just a dream, and that in actuality I was still unemployed and alone. That realization was utterly, completely, totally soul-crushing. I had been given the one thing I most desperately wanted, then it was yanked away. These highs and lows from dream to reality were so cruel that I didn't know if I could endure it again. Yet, the cycle would inevitably repeat—seemingly every time I slept and woke up—and each time was like the first time. Every waking realization of my reality hurt just as much as the time before. I began to dread going to sleep for fear I'd dream then wake up and have to face the worst kind of disappointment all over again. It was torture.

Previously
Volumes One through Ten of our Unemployment Stories series can be found here.

[Thanks to everyone who wrote in. You can send your own unemployment story here. If you'd like to contact anyone you read about here, email me. Image by Jim Cooke.]