During tomorrow's presidential debates, you will doubtless hear much talk about unemployment in America, but you will not hear from the unemployed themselves. Here, you can. Each week, we're running true stories from the unemployed. This is what's happening out there.
I graduated college in 2006. What was I thinking? I was force-fed the mantra of "go to college or you'll never make anything out of yourself." Well I went. I took out the student loans, and racked up all the debt I needed to get my B.A. I can't count how many resumes and applications I filled out coming out of school. Any "real job" required 3-5 years experience in the field, which I hadn't gotten because there are no entry-level positions available. I was over-qualified to stock shelves at a grocery store, so they wouldn't hire me either. For the past six years, I have been freelancing as much as possible, and I mean for FREE. It is the only way I have been able to build a resume -to do it for free. I also found a job working abroad, outside of the United States, away from my family and friends, who have mostly forgotten about me.
I recently found out that my company will be cutting positions soon, and in 60 days I will be unemployed. I will return to the US soon with no income, work visa, or any place to live. I've been applying for jobs, but not even as much as an email in response. In 60 days I will be unemployed and homeless. I did everything by the book, go to college, take out student loans, you'll get a job. Instead, I inherited one of the worst job markets in US history. I have Sallie Mae to remind me every month that I'm a great failure as they berate me. I've been told outright that I'll never be able to pay off my student loans.
I'm a 30 year-old joke. I have a little experience, but not enough to get a "real" job, yet too much experience to flip burgers. I won't be able to save up for any retirement. My credit is ruined over student
loans, so I'll never be able to buy a home. You see, I never wanted a free ride. I just wanted the chance to make something of myself. I wanted the same opportunities older generations had before me. Instead, I got shafted right out of the gate.
Not much has changed with the economy since 2006. In 60 days, I must return to the US. I've been firing off resumes, contacting hiring managers directly, and scouting parks to camp in. I can't live like this any more. I have decided to take the coward's way out. In 60 days I'm going to kill myself. It makes me sad and terrified all at the same time. But that fear pales in comparison to the life that lies before me. I, truly, don't want to die. I just don't want to hurt anymore. But nothing is going to change in the US anytime soon. Everyone else can look forward to one less competitor in the job market.
[Last week, I emailed this person to check on them and received the following update:]
This is really strange. It's been the 60 days. In fact, not 30 minutes ago I landed in the United States. I never thought I'd hear back from this, I guess that's why I felt like I could be so honest. As for employment, I'm still unemployed. I have a freelance writing job that might actually hold me over for a bit. Aside from that, I haven't killed myself. When I wrote that email, I was so depressed. After a lot of soul searching, I decided that I don't want to die.
I just don't want to hurt anymore. I wish I as able to start a life without a crippling amount of debt. I wish I had a full-time job writing somewhere. (I've been working in academic publishing / writing in Korea.) I also wish I wasn't so bitter and upset about my current situation. My generation was dealt a really shitty hand. And on top of it, I'm not sure It's going to get better any time soon.
So my plan from here on out is to visit my family for a few weeks. Then I'm going to go to DC and find five different companies that I want to work for. I'm going to show up every single day until one of them hires me. (Or until one of them has me arrested! ha!) Most importantly, I'm not going to do something stupid.
The accidental programmer
In 1996 I started work for the second largest home equity lender in the US. I was hired as a temp, and quickly moved into the funding department, where I prepared loan documentation. I had no training and no college education; I was just moderately intelligent and a fast typist...
The head of Information Services noticed that I had often fixed the problem that had been reported before his overworked staff could show up. He offered me $15 an hour in 1997 to come and be a help desk lackey. That was $5 an hour more than I was making as a funding clerk. I took it, and started answering help desk calls.
I also handled any issues with the e-mail server. I began to notice that we were getting the occasional bounced email from the Treasury Department, HUD, and Fannie Mae. Apparently our CFO had entered his email incorrectly when he set up his AOL client to send and receive company mail. Strongly worded emails seemed to indicate that the company was writing high-rate sub-prime home improvement loans with almost no documentation to prove income, employment, or residence history. The CFOs "compliance team," which was ostensibly hired to audit mortgage loans to ensure that they complied with HUD and FHA guidelines for Title I loans, instead consisted of three college students whose job was to forge the documentation necessary for any loan that might be audited by Fannie Mae. They created false verification of employment, fraudulent credit reports, and even phony Xerox copies of driver's licenses.
One night, when I was supposed to be laying new network cable for the expanded loan production team (business was great; once these store-front mortgage companies found out how slack we were, we needed more people in the correspondent lending department to handle the traffic) I went into the room where the auditors worked and photocopied three large file boxes worth of evidence. I contacted the local HUD office and made arrangements to blow the whistle on the company. They assured me that, by Federal law, my job would be protected.
In March 1998, the FHA/HUD hammer came down. The company was no longer allowed to sell mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae, its largest, and truthfully, only capital market. The company shut its doors in April. I was laid off. Whistle blower protection is pretty much useless when the entire company shuts down. (In 2008, confidence in the mortgage backed securities market collapsed when it was discovered that many mortgage lenders had been doing the exact same thing. Many of the principals from my old company were key players at Countrywide, which was my old company's next biggest rival. Countrywide was one of the worst of the correspondent subprime lenders.)
Five years later, after trying to support two children and a wife (who would not put them into a school and get a job) on warehouse temp jobs, I found myself working for a publishing company that sold compliance materials to banks, credit unions, and other lenders. Basically, they instructed banks how to comply with the law.
After a year or so of working their help desk, I was given the task of monitoring an online bulletin board that was set up to discuss best practices, compliance issues, and developing trends. Occasionally I would write a post, to keep the discussions fresh and on topic, and maybe push the latest publication. That developed into my creating dozens of blogs, purportedly written by bankers who always seems to love our company's product line, but in reality were our editorial staff cranking out blog posts...
One evening, four months later, in January, 2010, I got a call at home from work, which was unusual. I was told that my position would be eliminated in favor of contractors, who would develop an e-commerce platform in house. The department head thanked me for my five years of work (it was actually 9, but she didn't know that; she had only started six months before) and that was that. I kept updating the blogs in the normal way, but someone seemed to notice the snarky tone that the blogs suddenly seemed to take, and complained to the company. I got a phone call asking if I knew what the blogs were, and who updated them. I told them that I no longer worked there and did not normally give out advice for free, but that if there were domains out there that they owned and had control of, it might be considered a liability.
I have not held a full-time job since. I am either "overqualified" (too old), "lack proper qualification" (I have no degree) or I "don't fit the company culture" (am not pretty enough to be a marketing director).
I have been staving off the sheriff by making crappy landing-page type websites for fly-by-nights that want to increase their Google rankings on their real websites, or by working phone banks, or by playing standup bass in bluegrass bands. There has not been a single month in the last two years where I have made more than $1200. My modest mortgage payment is $1198. My three children and I are living on a $420 SNAP benefit. My wife, who does actually have a degree, got a part time, temp job at the local library after they laid off all the regular employees and hired temps. She left about six months after the paychecks stopped.
The 50something professional
I am a non-minority 50ish female who looks like and, until recently, had the energy of someone 15 years younger. I have a BA from a nationally recognized college and professional certifications. After two layoffs within the last five years, my unemployment checks will end this month and I will become an untracked statistic with very limited options. I am trying not to panic.
About six years ago, I was offered a dream job/salary with a new Fortune 500 business unit. Required to use a company car, I had to sell the debt-free car I owned. After working 18+ months of 60+ hour weeks, I took my first vacation (two weeks) and went abroad, where I spent a considerable amount of time at wifi locations checking work email for the benefit of my employer. Within an hour of landing back in the USA, I was informed that the company was downsizing and immediately laid off. The company car was gone within a week. I have not been able to afford a vehicle since. The business unit folded within the year.
For 18+ months, I applied for jobs. I also used the time to build new skills. My unemployment checks, based on the Fortune 500 salary and length of full-time employment, were enough to get by. As my benefits were about to end, I was miraculously offered work with a respected company as a part-time consultant and later upgraded to a full-time position. Even so, I had to take a 40% pay cut with no benefits except a minimal health plan. I didn't know that my new employer's leadership was in a battle-to-the-death over the company's direction. My position was "eliminated".
Once again on the job market, I jumped into it. HR pros have complimented my strong resume. My experience allows me to apply for jobs in related fields. I have not limited my search (salary, location, etc.) and indicate that I will move without relocation expenses. Seven days a week, I spend 8-12 hours per day researching and applying for jobs. I have documented 800+ job applications in the past few months, including contract agencies. Results: 60+ first interviews, 30+ second interviews, 20+ third interviews, 10+ fourth interviews and 2 fifth interviews. I have been a finalist for at least five positions at major companies. I have receive 260+ rejection and 30+ "position on hold" notices. And no job offers.
Don't get me started on HR software packages that claim to help HR "pros" find the "best candidates". It's produced the ultimate reality gaming experience. If you don't know how use SEO in a resume and on LinkedIn, you are screwed. I am able to give the appearance of actively working. Many companies will not consider an unemployed applicant - a hiring practice that ought to be illegal.
The experiences along the way are maddening. A state unemployment "counselor" - who never looked at my resume and is less qualified to do her work than I am - immediately suggested a nursing assistant "retraining" program. (I was the only female in a room filled with trade union men. Sexism?) A Fortune 500 hiring manager admitted that the job description posted had very little relationship to the actual requirements. Another company posts positions online to meet legal requirements and then works exclusively with contract agencies so they don't have to fully deal with the flood of applicants.
With my second layoff, the deep pay cut combined with short term full-time employment meant that benefits would not cover basic expenses. I made the humiliating decision to immediately default on student loans and minimal credit card debt. I drained savings and IRAs. I may need to declare bankruptcy for the first time but, ironically, can't afford a lawyer.
I rent space in a house from someone who is currently in a professional retraining program as a result of - wait for it! - unemployment. My only occasional extravagance is a box of wine - which is clearly self-medication for depression. I don't go out because a) I can't afford it and 2) I can't bear to meet those who blithely ask "What are you doing these days?" It's a question I never ask anyone anymore. How do you explain unemployment? Friends and family would be stunned to learn that I have fleeting thoughts of suicide - a "release" from a situation that looks interminable and hopeless. My spirituality sustains me, but it is difficult to have faith in these Job-like times.
Did I mention my parents, who live in another state? They are of an age where I may find myself solely responsible for their care at any moment. This scares me.
My health, which was excellent in 2006, is now a constant concern. Having spent most of the intervening years without medical insurance, I had to discontinue all medications, including those for the high blood pressure, glaucoma and diabetes which appeared. I can't afford anti-depressants or counseling. Hence, the wine. Am I for universal health coverage? You bet I am. The only people who oppose it are selfish b*****ds who have never been without it. Education and health care. Shouldn't these be hallmarks of a civilized nation? And why is the USA the only industrialized country without it? Shameful.
So here I am in my 50s without a house, car, health insurance or savings of any sort. Apparently, I also have no future - something I could not have imagined in college. Are there things I might have changed? Sure. Who doesn't have 20/20 hindsight? But the state of unemployment today is not reached in a direct path. It is sometimes the unintended consequence of well-considered personal choices combined with the completely asinine decisions of American corporations and Congressional leaders.
I have a few deeds of empowerment still left to me. I used to vote my conscience, never a straight a party line. No longer. I despise conservatives for the ways they have held the country hostage and the mess they have deliberately created. I will not be voting for incumbents, save one.
I try to remember the important things. Today, I have a safe place to sleep and food to eat. I know that there are others who may be meeting greater challenges than mine. That helps me remain strong and grateful for small things.
If you have a job, you are damn LUCKY - not more talented or smarter or a harder worker. Don't complain on Facebook about how busy or stressed you are. There are plenty of us who would trade places with you in a heartbeat. More to the point, there are only two categories: Those who are unemployed and those who will be. Your turn will come. I will not be happy about it when it happens. I hope you learn something from it.
'Loyalty to a company is a one way street'
I am currently employed (thank God) but the past 3 years have been pretty rough for me and my family. The stories you have posted on Gawker have moved me and resonated with me so deeply that I wanted to share mine with you, it's maybe slightly different than the rest but who knows, may inspire someone who has been out of work for years to keep hoping.
Since 2002 I have been at risk of losing my job via layoff about 5-6 times. Before then I worked in pharmaceutical R&D as a lab tech, liked the work but wanted a job with a higher ceiling (of course read: more money) without having to get a PhD. A friend suggested becoming a patent attorney, because they make INSANE money, and if you work in-house the hours aren't atrocious as with working in a big firm. So around 9/11 I was busily applying for law schools at around the same time my company was starting to circle the drain. I was accepted to law school in early 2002 to start that August, and in July 2002 my company had a massive layoff, gutting almost the entire R&D group (myself included). I had just had my second child, my wife wasn't working, and yet I remember calmly looking for work, *knowing* I would find something.
After a few months of finding nothing, my former boss took pity on me and my situation and brought me back—he never admitted this but I'm assuming that's what happened. In retrospect I don't think I have ever thanked him enough for that. So I was working during the day and going to law school at night. I actually enjoyed the law school and my job was so low-key I had almost free rein to study at work. In the meantime my company was bought by another, and ultimately that company would be bought again. But they had to layoff again, and I was told I would have to leave at the end of 2006. HOWEVER, I had taken and passed the bar in early 2006, graduated from a low-tier law school with honors, and passed the patent bar exam, so the jobs should be ripe for the picking, right?
No... In July 2009 more layoffs were announced—the company was down to the bone at this point, or so we thought. Once the layoff format was announced (everyone would be notified by the end of the day), it was a LONG day. I remember distinctly the sinking feeling in my stomach when my phone rang with the company's phone number on my caller ID. I had an urge to not answer it but ultimately, I answered and took my medicine, in almost complete silence. Since the last layoff we had moved into a bigger home, had a 3rd child, and my wife was waiting (unemployed) for a company to call her to work as a contractor. So now we had NO income and a large house note... [More jobs come and go]
I began to gain weight (I particularly enjoyed Dunkin Donuts coffee and double chocolate donuts in the morning followed by Sportscenter for a few hours), not get out of bed, it was awful. Every day was a drag (hearing my wife talk about how much she looked forward to the weekend was laughable), and after having several good opportunities flame out for a variety of stupid reasons, I was really losing hope. I started getting the sense that my wife (whose career was really taking off by comparison) was getting sick of my whining and horrible attitude. I either snapped at my kids or ignored them for the most part. I was an asshole that had to be avoided at all costs...
Finally, almost 3 years to the date that I was laid off, I started working at a job that I like, is secure, etc. But I will carry those scars for a long time. One of the many things that angers me about what happened is that I feel like it changed me in a fundamental way. I used to float between realist and optimist; now I am constantly worried about losing my job again and whether we could do with one income. I'm not sure if I saved $100k if I would still feel comfortable.
Now when I hear companies talk about loyalty I laugh out loud. I know that loyalty to a company is a one-way street, that to a company you are a dollar sign and even if it's just to put more dividends in the shareholders pockets, they'll cut you and chuckle about it over lunch. It seemed that during the recession, a few good people shone brighter than others, a few more people were sharks and people who wanted to find a way to take advantage of that desperation, but mostly the world is filled with people who just don't give a crap—maybe it's honest indifference, maybe it's just a defense mechanism to not have to think about the troubling reality that they could also be unemployed. Whenever someone approaches me for help or I hear of a job opportunity, I will scan my Linkedin list and find someone I know to help them out. I do what I can (even if it's only a response email) so that those people don't think they're alone in the world, because it's easy to feel like a non-entity when you're out of work for months or years at a time and basically told by the employers of the world that they value you so little that you don't even merit an automated email response to f**k off.
I only wish they were around when I was unemployed to comfort me in my darkest day, I can't tell you how I want to cry just reading these struggles knowing that I wasn't alone.
I had my dream job traveling, independence and getting paid what I thought was excellent (to others it was crap!) but I could afford whatever I wanted whenever I wanted—mostly happy hour. I became addicted to paying down the debt that I racked up being careless in my mid-20s and really becoming financially responsible. Even I envied my life, always stopping to think "this can't last forever." After over 2 years everything started to crumble...There started to be rounds of lay-offs, I was certain I wouldn't get caught up in it because there wasn't really anyone who did what I did, contracts were still being signed to bring in new business that I would have to manage, never mind that I positioned my self to be as flexible an employee as possible—with a Liberal Arts degree, I would do whatever they wanted! Then it happened. At least they were super nice about it.. They gave you 2 months notice, a bonus for completing the 2 months and a 2 weeks pay for every year you worked there. I ended up not needing most of it because I had managed to line up a job before my 2 months was up. Even though my new job was a short contract position I figured it was something and because it was in NYC I was able to negotiate a better rate (having to commute from NJ). I started my first week, it was ok not great but it was still a job. Unfortunately, the public transportation, cold weather and having to adjust to a new sleep schedule got to me and I got the flu—really bad. I called out the Monday after my first week and then the Tuesday. At that point they called me and said for a brief contract position, taking these 2 days off just wasn't going to work. Honestly, I was so sick I didn't even care. I spent the next 7 days with a ridiculous fever, barely aware that I lost my job... again.
When I finally came to, I was miserable. I barely got out of bed, I found myself watching the most mindless TV in the world just so I didn't have to think about anything—I'm talking any Nickelodeon or Disney channel show... at time even taking naps to Sesame Street. I really think I didn't want to see adults working because all it did was remind me of what I wasn't doing. My daily goal became making my bed and SOMETIMES taking a shower. My boyfriend and I had moved in together when things were great and I felt terrible that he had to watch me go through this. I got a lot of calls right away and a bunch of interviews off the bat, sometimes a second interview. Those were the worst because you knew it was something YOU did because obviously they liked your resume enough. Big Brother came on that summer, I watched the live feeds ALL day. I almost never wanted to leave my computer because what if an email came in for a job and I had to keep refreshing in case a new job happened to open up.The weekends were the worst for me...while other people were celebrating Friday, all I was thinking was 'great, no possible good news for 2 days.' I started doing that thing where you say you're going to take up all these hobbies, or open your own business. One time I researched bowling alleys to within an inch of their lives—then realizing there was no way I could get the loan. My family was nice to enough to invite me on their vaca down the shore for a week... I went but I felt horrible about going. I didn't want people to think I was enjoying a single minute of it. Then congress decided to go on a break before voting on the unemployment extension. That's fucking awesome! Take your time off and leave a million jillion people hanging and not knowing if their car payment will get made or if their rent will get paid. Luckily the whole thing passed and I was able to collect again. By the end of the year I had finally secured a position. Great pay, great location, travel from time to time...Problem was? I had been out of work for over a year. I barely interacted with people on any kind of regular basis. I was shell shocked and terrified that I couldn't figure out a way to integrate myself. I had NEVER had that kind of problem before... 3 months in I was let go. Saying "its just not a good fit." I had never been fired for cause before. I had a melt down not because I wasn't giong to have any money mostly because I didn't want to feel the way I felt. I didn't want to go back to that awful place of feeling worthless and useless to society. It took another 3 months before I was finally able to get a job and, believe it or not, I was offered a job while arranging a second interview for another job. I took a 2 year contract position and I've never taken a minute of it for granted. Fortunately I'm eligible for over-time and there is quite a lot of it so I'm able to recoup a bit of my losses. There is still not a day that goes by that I basically fear for my working life. I never feel secure and I know how quickly it can all fall apart.
My point is, there is a time it will all end. And you definitely have to go through the rain to get to the rainbow. Sadly, my super supportive boyfriend lost his job this year and he's beginning the process. He does handle it better than me but my heart aches for him. We're not big on 20 questioning each other with "how's it going, what did you do today, any word on anything..etc.etc" I try to stay out of it because I know what he's going through. He managed to get a ring on my finger, so hopefully we can get through this and start a normal life together with jobs. At the same time. Having these stories makes me realize I wasn't alone in what I was feeling when I was feeling it. As a country we need to treat everyone in this position with respect. Many people have lost a 1000 times more than I did so I really can't complain. But to this day, I still say I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy and i sincerely mean that.
Volumes One through Eleven of our Unemployment Stories series can be found here.