Unemployment Stories, Vol. 14: 'Like a Death Sentence'S

New research published in The Lancet today estimates that "rising unemployment may account for around a quarter of the excess suicides [above expected levels] observed in the US since 2007"—nearly 400 extra deaths per year. Our unemployment crisis is far from over. Each week, we're bringing you true stories from the unemployed. Teachers, cops, freelancers, you, me, us: this is what's happening out there.

The teacher

I received my teaching credential in 2008. During my time in the teaching preparation program I excelled: honors, excellence awards, and full credit on my evaluations.Throughout the last year of my program many professors told our cohort there were still teaching jobs, but due to our state's budget (I live in Los Angeles) the jobs would be scarce. Towards the end of my student teaching I must have applied to over 50 schools in the area, and only received one interview. There were absolutely no jobs in the desirable school districts. Luckily the lead teacher I student taught for was pregnant and wasn't planning on returning the following school year. I was offered her job, and accepted right away. I was now a second grade teacher at a charter school in South Central LA. Even though he school is in a deprived area and the principal was hard to work for, the kids were amazing and so were the other teachers...

Then came the 2010-2011 school year. Due to the schools poor organization there would only be one second grade class. One of the teachers would have to move to a new position. Since I had only been there two years (compared to the other teacher's 3) I was forced to change grade levels due to seniority. I was informed the only opening was Language Arts seventh grade and it was not full time but 75% time. May pay was going to be prorated. I also did not want to teach this seventh grade. This class was notorious for their behavior. 50% of the students were kicked out of the surrounding schools. And the other 50% had special needs and there was no full time resource teacher at the school. They continually caused destruction to the school, and violently fought at least twice a month. The discipline policy at the school was shaky at best, so this behavior was enabled by the administration. This was easily my worst year yet at the school. I really did try to be the best teacher I could possibly be. I would go home every night around 7:30pm after being at work at 7:00am. I would go home and plan until midnight, and would repeat this for the whole year. However, I became defeated by January. No learning was taking place due to misbehaviors. I tried I really did, but being called a "bitch" everyday, and then asked by the principal, "What more could you do? What could you do differently?" was extremely defeating. I felt like a failure for the first time in my life. I applied to grad school and when I received my acceptance letter I quit.

I also applied for other teaching jobs. I received one interview at another charter my friend worked at. He informed me that over 400 people applied. I'm positive the only reason I got the interview was because my friend gave the principal my resume. Round 1 there were 100 candidates. I made it to Round 2 which was essentially an eight hour interview. I taught a demo lesson, interviewed with parents, teachers, and administration, and participated in a group planning lesson that was video recorded. I was the youngest and least experienced in the group. Many of the candidates I interviewed with were pink slipped and had at least eight years teaching experience. I didn't get the job after all of that.

I started my grad program taking the maximum classes I could take. My tuition was covered through a grant so I decided to take out a subsidized student loan to cover living expenses. I also saved money while teaching. And at least I could get health insurance through the school. I had enough money to last me a year of unemployment. My first year of grad school was great. I loved my classes and maintained a 4.0 GPA. Even though I pulled an all nighter about once a week, this was a cake walk compared to teaching at the school I was at.

Throughout this time I applied to countless of part time jobs with no benefits. I was either over qualified or didn't have a flexible enough schedule to land these jobs. I began to apply to teaching jobs in April of this year. I also applied to other various jobs in the education field as well. Since then I've probably been on a dozen interviews. Panels, individual, group interviews, I've been on them all. Mostly for jobs I'm qualified for. Most of the time the interview goes really well. And most of the time the company/school doesn't even send a rejection email. I've probably applied to over 100 jobs in the past two months. I purposefully took over full time course load last school year, so I would be available to work this coming school year. Elementary schools start in 2 weeks, so I've pretty much given up hope on finding another teaching job and/or any job. My goal is to apply to at least 5 jobs a day. My cover letter and resume are clean, proof read, and tailored for each job I apply for. I search hours upon hours. I've probably received at least 20 rejection notices, if the job even sends one at all. Filling up the day is difficult. I am working on my thesis, so I'll probably be done ahead of schedule, but then what? Another year of searching? To make matters worse CA decided to make student loans for student unsubsidized this year. I do not want to take another one out. My roommate moved to another state because that was the only place she could find a job, and our lease is up at the end of the month. I'm going to have to put my stuff in storage and stay in my mom's one bedroom apartment until I figure things out. I feel like crying every morning (I usually do) and don't really leave the house because I can't spend any money on non essentials. This experience is dehumanizing. I feel myself getting more and more depressed every day. I completely regret leaving my old job. I'd rather be called a bitch every day by 12 year olds than have to apply and be rejected from one more fucking job.

The corrections officer

My father worked seven days a week while I was growing up. Monday through Friday he delivered packages for UPS and on the weekends he worked one of his various side jobs at a bait shop, glass shop, or being a general handyman in homes of a neighboring town. His days at UPS were long, sometimes returning home around eight or nine o'clock after getting to dispatch around six a.m. His weekend hours were about the same, and as a child this angered me; I couldn't understand why he worked so much (and never joined us on family vacations to the Jersey Shore). But his long days allowed for my mother to be home when my brother and I came home from school (though she did clean houses during the day and work at a local supermarket at night). I remember spending a "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day" with my father in the 3rd grade and realizing how long, boring, and physically taxing his days were. Yet he came home every night with no complaints— even during the holidays (when little Timmy MUST have his Tickle Me Elmo delivered in time for Santa to bring it to him!) when he came in the door around 10, 11pm.

After twenty-five years of hefting packages all around Westchester, my dad retired from UPS with a decent pension. It did offer health insurance for him and my mother, but the plan wasn't so great and they still had to pay $400/month for it. My dad wanted to find a new job where he could be eligible for another pension. Not able to find anything that offered benefits, my dad started to work at a friend's glass shop. As soon as something better came along, he'd leave. In the meantime, he put in an application with Westchester's Department of Corrections. It offered a chance at a second pension, stellar health benefits, and more money than my dad had ever made in his entire life. Little did he know that it would lead to the biggest mistake of his life.

The process to enter the Department of Corrections took three years to complete. There are countless tests (written tests, physical tests, drug tests), interviews, background checks-not to mention a hefty price tag (drug tests and application fees aren't free!) and a lot (and I mean A LOT) of waiting around for everything to be reviewed. Three years after my dad's first application was submitted, he was brought in for a "final interview." He did not get the job. A few months later, he had another "final interview" and was hired. I cried when he told me the news. Finally, my father, who busted his ass for almost thirty years, would be getting his dream job-a job with some kind of prestige...

Two weeks before training ended, I got a phone call at work. My dad was in the hospital. During a training session called "Defensive Tactics," an instructor (and fellow corrections officer) was demonstrating how to take down an inmate and handcuff him was a little too zealous in his demonstration and tore my father's rotator cuff...

As a result, the County put my dad on the graveyard shift-11pm to 7am-and "light duty," where he'd have zero contact with inmates (since they'd all be sleeping). Not his first choice, but my father soldiered through it. Most of the time he was assigned to suicide watch, where he'd spend the entire eight hours of his shift standing in front of the cell of a sleeping inmate and writing "the inmate appears to be sleeping" in his log every fifteen minutes.

As more months passed and his injury still wasn't healing as it should, he was told by his doctor that he'd probably never be able to return to "full duty," and be on light duty for the rest of his career. My father was incredibly disappointed, as he excelled in the academy and knew how to handle the inmates. But if having to stay on light duty would allow him to keep his position, he'd deal with it.

Almost a year passed. A few days before his probation was up, my father was called back into work to turn in his badge and uniform. He'd been fired for "poor performance." The ironic thing is that right before my father was fired for "poor performance," he was given a copy of his yearly review in which one of the captains said my father's performance was satisfactory, that if it weren't for his injury, he'd be considered one of the best officers there. They didn't even offer him the opportunity to stay on light duty, but what stung the most was when word got out that the instructor who injured him had started spreading the rumor that my father, who has never touched drugs in his entire life (and refused to take the prescribed ones for his pain), was fired for failing his drug test.

My father was looking into suing Westchester County, but since he was fired before his probation period was up, he has no grounds to sue them. So, to recap: he was injured by the county, fired for "poor performance," has no legal grounds to fight back, and is now permanently disabled. He can't file for disability because he can technically try to find a job that doesn't require physical labor, but physical jobs are all he's ever known and who is going to hire a fifty-three-year-old man with no computer skills (and no college education) for a desk job?

My father tried to go back to the glass shop job he quit before entering the academy, but they had already filled his old position. He collects unemployment (which is a pittance in comparison to the money he was making as a corrections officer) and his UPS pension, but my parents can no longer save any money for their retirement. Every time I think of how he took a chance to better his and my mother's lives and it left him disabled and unemployed, it breaks my heart.

The freelancer

I didn't realize how useless my degree was until I saw it mocked on The Simpsons. During the first year I was looking for work, after finishing college, I happened to have time to catch up on the episodes I'd missed during my TV-less dorm years. This one was Season 11, Episode 11, in which a college football player is seriously injured by Homer and can never run again. Dr. Hibbert, after being unable to help the guy, says, 'Your playing days are over, my friend, but you can fall always fall back on your degree in (looks at clipboard)... Communications! Oh, Dear Lord!' to which the injured player responds 'I know! It's phony major! I learn nothing!' That's funny - probably written by a fellow Communications major - but it really stung in the fall of 2001 after 6 months of unanswered applications based around my shiny new Bachelor's degree. Was this degree really as much of a joke as it was starting to seem? Never in my life had I been told that a BA wasn't enough education, or that a tech-oriented field like Communications was so trivial, but here I was stuck with it, as well as a bit of debt to pay off. Well, 11 years later, all I can say is that The Simpsons were right - this degree has never opened a door for me, gotten me an interview, or basically been any use whatsoever...

So, it was January 2006 - after 5 years of continually applying for work related to my degree without a single interview - that I finally managed to snag a minimum wage Photoshop temp gig. Yay! Once I was finally given the chance to show what I could do, the temp job became almost-full-time, and within a year I was Creative Director for their quirky niche project. I never made much money - the position was $23k annually, no benefits - but I was so happy to be working on a project that was actually relevant to my skills and in an environment where I could exert a modicum of actual creativity that I didn't much care. After a few years there, I was having a beer with the owner of the company - the same guy who had hired me - and I mentioned something about 'back in college..' and he stopped me and said 'Wait. You went
to college?' He was completely unaware, despite its prominence on my resume, that I had even had a degree - he had hired me based on my self-taught design portfolio, which should have felt pretty awesome, but it mostly just underlined what a complete waste of time and money college had been.

Anyway, as many others have experienced, the economy nosedived and quirky niche products were a little less desirable than they had been in years prior, so, unfortunately, the business shed every non-temp employee. So, back to freelancing. And that's what I've been doing for the last 4 years. And don't take that to mean that freelancing is a remotely sustainable way to make a living, because I'm lucky to break $8k in a year - during that time I have married someone who, after years of searching herself, has found a way to draw a salary to pay off her PhD and keep a roof over our heads. I've never stopped working, (turns out freelancing is largely 7-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day, on-call kind of work) and I've never stopped applying to any job that looks remotely appealing or relevant. In the 11 years since I graduated, I still have not had a job where my education was relevant, and I've never had another chance to demonstrate my not-inconsiderable abilities or my willingness to work long, dedicated hours because nobody ever, ever writes back for an interview.

Now, you might be thinking, "Wow, your work must be pretty terrible to be so completely ignored for so long!," but some of the musicians I do graphic design for have played SNL and Letterman, and one of them even won a Grammy! Gawker Media's own io9.com has featured my animation work, and there's always somebody who wants me to work on something for them. Even if I'm not completely, brilliantly, amazing, my work has at least proven to be consistently desirable. I love what I do, but there is no money, and, as far as I can tell, just no jobs anywhere in this country for me. I guess I should have gotten a Business degree, or maybe gone into Pharmacology or Nursing, or maybe I should have just sucked it up and gone into Advertising. But I didn't. And now I'm almost 33 and have a huge portfolio of work I'm proud of, but I'm still unemployed, have only a few years of relevant workplace experience, no future prospects for employment, and a joke for a degree.

One of the lucky ones

I was one of two Trend Buyers with a good college degree and years of merchandising experience behind me working for an e-Commerce retailer. The Art Buyers were the main revenue drivers but we were no small potatoes. We were the happening ones. We knew what was going on in pop culture and kept the product and company from seeming stodgy and corporate.

After almost 6 years, in mid-December 2009, myself and the other Trend Buyer apparently had done our jobs too well. They decided that our businesses could run themselves with just our assistants, and of course, their meager salaries. No warning. Nothing. Right before Christmas in the middle of our busiest season. The shock did not wear off for so long it seems. I swear those first few unemployed months are a complete blur; I'm sorry to say that because there is shame there for that. I simply could not process it. I was losing my condo and I had prided myself on being extremely independent, living reasonably, and keeping excellent credit. I used some severance for overseas travel because I had to get out of the country for a bit. It was too painful seeing people, seeing the pity or disappointment, and trying to answer the ‘why, and what are you going to do now' questions of which I had no answer.

I returned and shortly thereafter my father had a massive stroke paralyzing him, and a mother who had no self-sufficiency whatsoever. I moved home to help out. That's what you do; my mother needed me full-time. I never thought it would take so long to get them to a place where they were workable without me, but finally they were ok. Then the real nightmare started; the job search for full-time work. I thought what I had just gone through with my father was bad.

I quickly found out that being long term unemployed was like receiving a death sentence. It felt that way. No one would touch you. The black holes of non-response from the hundreds of resumes sent out are unbearable. The online application process is SO demoralizing. You spend 45 minutes filling out so much information (including references, why do they need those?) all for NOTHING? Not even an automated ‘no, thank you'? It's truly baffling.

After solid searching for 10 months and unemployment had run out, I finally got a part-time job making barely over minimum wage working at my gym. I got it only because I had been going almost every day to try to alleviate the despair, and by then I knew most of the people that worked there. I've been at the gym 8 months, and I've still been looking constantly for full-time work. It's so depressing. I'm in my early 40's and I've lost my job, my condo, almost my father, and I am living at home with my parents. And yet, I'm one of the lucky ones. I have a familial support system.

Print is dead

I've been unemployed for an unbelievable three years.

I got my first job a week after I graduated with a BA in English - and I worked in book publishing for twenty years, climbing the ladder, happy and successful. I had taken a break between jobs about ten years ago to freelance, and I was easily able to step back into a salaried position when I was ready, so when I was laid off in 2009, I wasn't too worried. That was a major mistake.

At first I was able to pick up some freelance gigs here and there, but they have slowed to a slow drip. My area is print production, and the rise of e-books has just killed me. There are NO production jobs in books anymore, and even though I have been putting ink on paper for twenty years, I can't get arrested in any adjacent industry. Companies seem to want people who have done the EXACT job they are hiring for - nobody wants to have to waste three days training anymore. (I admit that I read a column about this in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, but it is something I have noticed myself.) So even though I am great at buying print, if your company needs someone to buy printing, they aren't going to talk to me, because my experience is in books.

I ran out of unemployment over a year ago. I've sent out more resumes than I can count, and kept in touch with all of the contacts that will still talk to me. I am "overqualified" for everything, apparently - never mind that I would be willing to take ANY job at this point. Let me be over qualified, I will do a great job!!

I made so little money last year that I actually qualified for Medicaid, and if you think THAT wasn't the most humiliating experience of my life - wow. Just takin' my college degree and years of hard work down to the fucking Medicaid office.
That is a day I will never, ever forget.

But it's not a choice - the only reason I am not living under a bridge is that my boyfriend has not thrown me out of what by this time can only be described as his apartment. He's paying the rent and the bills. I'm sure we would have broken up by now if I had ANYWHERE to go. But I need a place to stay, and I take medication that costs thousands of dollars a month, so I swallowed my pride, and now I guess I'm one of those "welfare queens" everybody is so worried about.

In fact, we are two months behind on the rent right now - my boyfriend is in sales, and he has had some commissions fall through — I honestly don't know what we are going to do. I physically can't work in a retail store like Macy's (I've tried it, not that it pays enough to cover the rent, anyway), and I am too old and not pretty enough to get a job waiting tables in NYC (oh, and I lack experience).

There is a real lack of organization in my writing here - it's because it's very hard for me to talk or think about this without getting a little hysterical. I have truly thought of killing myself, just to get OUT of this endless loop - I do worry that I will never get another job - but I worry about what that would do to my mom.

Helpful advice

I won't bother you with my unemployment story. It sucked just like everyone's. But if I could give some advice to the employed people out there. Being unemployed is hard enough, it sucks even more when someone with a job thinks its so easy and that they could help you find a job in no time. In fact these amazing job searchers will always ask the same question and annoy the shit out of a job seeker. So to make anyone who is looking for a job life easier please STOP asking these 5 questions:

1. How did the interview go?
2. You should try volunteering?
3. You ever think about going into another field?
4. Did you try searching on (insert name of job website)?
5. You should network?

We thought of all that, instead ask us if you can buy them a beer or bite to eat.

Oh and for the people hiring other people. STOP being a pussy and send a damn rejection letter especially if you interviewed the person. Getting rejected is a lot nicer then saying nothing.

Previously
The previous 13 volumes 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, Photo via Getty.]