More than two million Americans are scheduled to lose their unemployment benefits at the end of this year. Beyond that lies the abyss. Every week, we are bringing you true stories from the unemployed. These are your fellow citizens. This is what's happening out there.
The college dropout
Like so many others, I've been hit by unemployment- hard.
I had a good job working for an airline. I made good money, had great benefits (both health and travel), and was only in a minor amount of debt. For a young person without a college degree (I foolishly dropped
out of college my sophomore year when I was offered the airline position) or any small children to worry about, it really was a dream job. I wasn't living the high life by any means, but my rent and bills were paid and I never worried about having to choose between putting gas in my car or food on my table.
Then in 2008, I got injured on the job and had to undergo surgery and rehabilitation. No big deal, because Worker's Comp covered it all, and I was fortunate enough that the airline allowed me to do light duty office work in their general offices until I was given the go-ahead by doctors to get back to flying, even though I was told that my knee would never be the same and that I would in all likelihood need a
complete knee replacement by the time I was 40. My doctor had offered to put me on disability for my knee, but I wanted to work. My injury did not seem bad enough to not work, and I felt it would be unfair of
me to accept it when there are other people with disabilities more severe than mine. I drive myself crazy every day wondering if this was a mistake on my part and if I should have taken it when I had the
So I went back to work… briefly. Long story short, within three months I, along with over 500 additional employees was laid off when the economy nosedived and the airlines were losing hundreds of millions of
Despite making a comfortable sum of money at the airline, unemployment only paid around $375 per month. It was exceedingly difficult to find a job that I was qualified for, let alone anything that paid well in
the tanking economy. During this time I decided to go back to college and finish my degree- as pointless as it seems now, it was soul-crushing to only be able to apply for low-paying, miserable retail jobs because I didn't have a degree to get anything better. During this time I also realized that my savings was going to run out more quickly than I anticipated and that unemployment was going to run out soon, so I made the poor decision to accept a position as retail supervisor- basically a glorified sales associate with management duties but not management pay. It was hell. There were no medical benefits, the hours and pay were miserable, and I was barely making enough to live check to check... A few weeks ago, I was called into the office and given an ultimatum- that I either drop out of school to focus more on working this shitty $9/hour job, or I would be fired if I didn't just quit. I was pretty taken aback by this. I didn't want to quit because I knew that then I would be screwing myself over and unable to file for unemployment, and I am nearly finished with college now so I wasn't about to quit school. So I let them fire me.
Now I'm fighting them to get unemployment- they are using the missed work days against me, despite it being scheduling errors on their behalf. I am pretty certain that the way in which they terminated me was shady and probably illegal, but I can't even afford to walk into a lawyer's office, so forget that. Their firing me also amounts to over two years of work experience that I can't include on any job applications because I know that the place will just give me a bad reference. In short, they really screwed me and I'm more or less helpless to do anything about it.
Currently I've got no real, steady income, no insurance, nothing. My once debt-free existence is now a thing of the past. I couldn't even pay my rent anymore so I had to move in with family, which pretty much
sucks when you're in your late twenties. I worry constantly about what the hell I am going to do if I should have a medical emergency, or if my car should break down. I do whatever odd jobs I can to help out,
whether it's babysitting or cutting grass or donating blood. I am depressed as all hell, and in six months I will have student loan debt to add on top of everything else- it feels like a vicious cycle that I have no hope of ending. I have been applying for jobs nonstop. In the last three months I have probably applied for and sent out resumes to close to 150-200 jobs. I have had exactly one interview that obviously did not end with me working. Even the career services center at my school has told me that right now things just aren't very promising because the job market sucks- too many people looking for work, without enough work to go around. I barely eat because I just have no appetite, I don't sleep very well, and I cry a lot. My knee still gives me problems and hurts a lot, and there really is not much I can do for it- I'm prescribed pain medication that I don't want to depend on. When people have told me that I'm just not trying hard enough or being too lazy to find a job, any job, I want to scream and shake them. As selfish as this may sound, I am just thankful that I do not have kids to worry about supporting because I don't know how I would be able to. I try to tell myself that there are people in my same situation who do have kids and are therefore much worse off.
I try and try to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but each day it gets harder and harder to do this.
Benadryl and babysitting
I consider myself lucky. In March of 2008, after working for a commercial real estate firm for four years, I was told that all of the brokers were merging with another firm and they could not bring any support staff. In order for me to qualify for an extremely generous severance package I needed to stick it out for another month.
After one additional month of unemployment I was able to get a temp to hire position at an event management company. This new job was amazing; I was working in an office full of young people who all really made the office a fun place to work. As I said, this was a temp to hire position, they promised me that I would be hired within the two month ‘trial' period. That came and went, then they told me there was a hiring freeze (all while they hired two new sales people).
I continued to be dedicated to my work with the hopes that I would be eventually hired. Then the layoffs started. Two weeks before Christmas the company decided to lay off about 30% of the workforce, in the middle of the working day. Fortunately, I was not included on that lay off, but I remember sitting through that day with coworkers cleaning out desks with tears streaming down their faces and me feeling this immense sense of guilt that I was still working. The layoffs continued on almost a weekly basis, to the point that we figured out they happened on a Friday after 5. Needless to say we all left early on Fridays. After being a permanent temp for about a year, a former coworker found my position posted to the company's external job board. Having thought that I left, she emailed me asking where I started working. Panic set in. My greatest fear was confirmed when they told me that they hired someone at half my rate to do my job. I was officially let go from my permanent temp job in July of 2009.
I spent the rest of that summer applying for every job online, taking Benadryl so I could sleep most of the day away or playing countless hours of solitaire. To say I was depressed was a gross understatement. The funny part of this was, because I was unemployed, I was also unable to afford my antidepressants.
Luckily after about two months I started going on temping assignments. While this got me out of the house every day, it turned out to be horribly depressing. Going to different places for a couple of weeks at a time knowing you would never be hired permanently sucks the life out of you. I was under so much stress that I would continually get extremely ill, but because I had no health insurance, I would just try to remedy my continued vomiting with over the counter solutions. My depression and anxiety got so bad that I had to be hospitalized and put on suicide watch for three days. That was when I hit bottom. Luckily, after I was released I was able to get psychiatric treatment through the hospital's community clinic, only paying $5 for my weekly therapist sessions and was prescribed a $4 generic anti-anxiety medication.
After about seven months of temping I was actually brought in on a temp to hire position for a company that I previously temped for. Fortunately this time around it was different, I was hired within three months and I have worked here for almost two years now...
My advice to anyone who is currently unemployed: get in contact with a recruiter. *At one point, I had four recruiters that I worked regularly with. Of the hundreds of jobs that I applied online I only received one call back. My recruiters also kept me steadily temping so I could extend my unemployment as long as possible. As much as it sucks, it does get better. Also, if you have the opportunity, babysit. This was a great way to earn extra cash that was not reported to the unemployment office.
The education consultant
I put myself through college and then grad school. Along the way, I was very fortunate and worked hard to maintain the standards that would afford me some scholarships and financial aid, but was unlucky to have spent several years as an uninsured student and those are debts not captured by my student loans. So, as I was preparing to leave graduate school (with an M.A. AND an M.S. I might add) I launched a serious and all-out job search and landed an above entry-level position with a franchised educational company as an inside-consultant and educational/operations trainer. [After six years, she was laid off]...
I told myself that I would be better off, and find a job that respected my talents, ethics, and expertise and a need for a work-life balance. I had outgrown the last job, but with all the upheaval I hadn't wanted to move up into management at my last company anyways. I couched this as "blessing in disguise," and set out to find a new job.
Well, it's nearly 8 months later. And I am reminded how, even when I was unhappy to watch brand new employees with no experience in this industry get promoted above me, I was afraid to leave my job and paycheck and benefits. 8 months of panic attacks about how to fill prescriptions, 8 months of applying for 12-20 jobs a week, 8 months of running out of suitable jobs to apply for roughly every 3 weeks and then applying for anything – some of my favorites include: bus driver, taco assembler, packing specialist at a sporting company and delivery driver. Meanwhile, I am genuinely applying for jobs as an instructional designer, curriculum developer, and trainer/Learning manager. I have also applied in sales training, franchise sales, business development, project management, higher ed, college admissions, writing jobs, marketing jobs, logistics and scheduling jobs, nanny positions, and office manager positions. I have applied to colleges, career and trade schools, non-profits, for profits, school districts, after-school ed programs, health care and human service groups, political and activism groups, entertainment companies, food companies, distributors, big businesses, small businesses, grocery stores, doctor's offices, libraries, toy companies . . . the list goes on and on. I have applied for positions in 5 states other than this one. I have to bite my tongue when people condescendingly ask me if, "I've broadened my search and thought outside the box." ...
Everyone who wants to be supportive keeps telling me, "it will happen," and "there's a reason for this." I now do this to myself –when I don't get a job I really liked and got close to, I tell myself it's because the job I eventually get will be even better. But this kind of magical thinking doesn't really bear out. It's just as likely that in another few months I'll still be looking. This scares me down to my toes because when I have applied for entry level positions (under the heading of: I need a job, not working is making me hate myself, I have to apply to a certain number of jobs per week, and maybe being employed will make me look more employABLE to other organizations) people have told me, "I can't hire someone as over-qualified as you." So, I can't gun for C-level positions, and it's been seven-plus months of trying to get jobs at the middle-management level I was at in various and sundry industries, I've looked everywhere, but I also can't aim lower. I also have spoken to friends, professional contacts, and recruiters who all say, "We're soooo surprised that you haven't gotten a job yet!" I know this is meant as a compliment that they are so confident in me and my skills, but all I can hear is, "you must be doing something wrong."
My mom once confided in me that all she ever wanted to be was a wife and mother. Well, all I ever wanted to be was stable, smart, and self-sufficient enough to be both independent and able to contribute to the greater good. That's why I worked so hard and completed 10 years of education post-high school! I know a lot of people in my situation are going back to school, but if I can't get hired with 2 Master' degrees, I'm afraid of what happens if I get more schooling. Also, what if the job I try to get additional education for doesn't have openings 2-3 years from now? Then I've done nothing but delay the problem and increase my school debt.
With each passing week of unemployment, I see my options dwindle. People I thought were friends and loved ones make careless comments about "welfare and unemployment" and people who "CAN work but refuse to." I want people to know that most of the unemployed people out there today are educated, motivated, smart, industrious people like me who through a serious of strange and unfortunate events, or just bad finances in their company, have found themselves with no recourse but to collect unemployment and keep sending resumes out, hoping, but also having it hurt to hope. I want people to know that getting myself out of bed every Monday and watching my friends, boyfriend and neighbors go to work hurts and gets harder every week. I want people to know that I don't drink, or watch TV, but that sending our resumes and getting no response gets harder and harder to do. I want people to know how jealous I am when I hear them casually mentioning going to the doctor or their mid-year review. I want people to know that the spoken and unspoken expectations that I "stay positive" is really not the same as being supportive.
My whole life is on hold. I can't travel, even for a week to see loved ones or go to an event. I can't have a family. I can't work on the debt I took on as a student. It will take months or years to recover financially, career-path-wise, and emotionally from this, whether it involves getting a job next week or going to school next year. My plans to have a family may literally be halted forever by this unexpected stall out because I can't just decide to get pregnant and have to adopt, and therefore prove stability and readiness to parent. It's not just a paycheck, or a job to go to – it's everything I could do and want to do, work and otherwise.
The first job back
I'm actually going to skip most of the before and during unemployment time. Many before me have described it well. You see it coming to an extent, but keep thinking it won't be you. It happens, you're a bit shocked, but you're you. You relax for a time because this can't last, right? That's when you call it funemployment. Then determination sets in. Look how far you've come. Grab those bootstraps, get up and give the world one right back in the teeth. I know not everyone was as lucky as I, but I got my job back. Same job, same pay. There was a freeze on raises, bonuses, 401k, and really anything outside our paycheck, but hell, I had a job. I was at my family's over Christmas when I got the call. A year unemployed, and one week from heading back home and VOLUNTEERING just to stay in my profession, hoping to make myself valuable enough that I'd get offered a job.
The reason I skipped most of the details is because I found my biggest danger came afterwards. Not to say the unemployed part itself wasn't a trial, it was, but once you've been unemployed, you find yourself looking at the world through a different lens. Or at least I did. I imagine it must be something akin to the mentality of our grandparents where you didn't need to like a job, you just need to have one and do it and keep it.
Some background: My company was as large one. The field is Architecture. My firm, like many large companies in the industry, get by on the labor of young professionals looking to make it in the world. The governing body of Architecture requires that, before anyone gets licensed, he or she does at least (this is all variable based on your degree) a 3 year internship. So what does that mean? There's at least 3 years worth of graduating classes of fresh bodies to pool from for all your menial tasks. And they'll do it because they don't have any other choice. And if you know one of us, you've heard our college nightmares. The 72 hours straight without sleep (more than once), the scathing critiques and immense workloads. These aren't myths. If you graduate with this degree, you've already been vetted for the needs of a big architecture firm. You can work like a mule and take abuse.
And now this industry that was already uber-competitive, suddenly has a depression to cull the herd, and the spot that was once competed for by 5 people, now has 100 applicants. The company was never shy about reminding us how tight the economy was still and in a very roundabout way, how lucky we were to have jobs...and how many other unemployed people there were in our field. We were so many cogs, but at least we were cogs in use.
So what happens when you're constantly reminded that your job is "in peril"? That fear has an interesting affect on you when you've been unemployed. You approach your job ravenously, like a feral animal on the verge of starvation. Personal life, dignity, anything outside the job, it takes a back seat. You'll work ridiculous hours, and any thought of doing something that might garner any emotion other than satisfaction from your employer stirs that little ball of fear in your stomach. And guess what? Your employer...they love this. And this is the danger we have to fight.
Employers won't mention this benefit of the Great Recession. But there it is. They suddenly have a pool of talent to choose from. Desperate talent that will suffer under any yoke to be employed. They hire you for less under the pretense of the economy, and manage to squeeze you for twice the work. It's a boon for them...
My breaking point was when our HR department sent out a not so thinly veiled threat. A tape gun had gone missing. It was presumed taken by an employee and not returned. The email we all received chastised us for taking this out of the room it belonged in, how expensive the item was (apparently this was a $50 tape gun) and how if it was not returned, losses like this would impact potential bonuses.
There it was. A bonus I'd yet to receive was being threatened for an office accessory that costs $12 (on Amazon, with 2 free rolls of tape). It dawned on me then and there. This wasn't worth it. I was being utterly abused...
And so, the moral of the story, to the unemployed, the recently re-employed, and even those who never were let go, don't forget the value of yourself. Don't forget your standards, your morals, what has guided you up until this point. It's so easy to set yourself aside and say it's a necessary pain. It's so much harder to find yourself again. I left my old company, sad to see so many good friends still there looking for their own ways out. I keep in touch, things are still getting worse for them. When I interviewed with my new employer I said outright the most important thing to me was respect. They liked that. I liked them. We're getting along well.
Words from a hiring manager
I read for the first time Gawker's series on Unemployment Stories. While I'm not unemployed, I do want to comment on how vividly these personal stories are. I work for a local health department and our agency are in fact one of the largest in the country. In addition to the public health portions of my own job, I also conduct interviews with prospective candidates for vacant positions in my department; we need to interview quite frequently, because we have a high turnover rate. I can say without a doubt that it is a very tough world out there, because we typically see upwards of 40-60 applicants every time we post a position. In the end, we limit in-person interviews to about 8-10 candidates max.
In contrast to the stories you have posted so far, most people we find applying for positions really struggle with expressing themselves in their cover letters. No, people shouldn't reveal the underlying grip of fear and desperation in their letters, but normally we see bland, half-baked letters that are totally cookie-cutter. As a prospective employer, I would not be paying attention to something if it didn't have a narrative, a lead-in to why I should pursue it any further. I think the stories Gawker has posted so far have some of that narrative and the voices of those job-seekers really come through.
Another thought that I took away is how the people in the stories are thinking, constantly thinking about so many things and responsibilities in their daily lives. One of the challenges we find most interview candidates have is that they often can't describe what's on their mind in their job hunting process, i.e. what they've been doing while unemployed, how they've kept themselves busy, and ways they been tracking/staying connected to everything while in job limbo. Unfortunately, life during these bad economic times often means we end up bifurcating our lives into job-hunting-mode and non-job-hunting-mode. For people who really have been searching for a very long time, that line blurs significantly as one confronts some of the very grim challenges of finding a job.
As remarked by some of the stories in your series, I do want to say there are two major points that are true about the job hunting process. First, we do remember the really stand-out candidates. It's not always about having the prestigious schools or impressive pedigree of big name employers; the ones who make a great impression in their interviews for whatever reason (maturity, dedication, humor, etc.) are not forgotten. While we may not always have the luxury of hiring every person we like, we will go back and contact people that impressed us and call them back for an interview if a new position opens up. To your readers, I would encourage that people invest time and energy in making their messages to employers both salient and memorable, both in the cover letters and subsequent interviews.
The last bit is about keeping yourself busy. The worst interview we've ever had in my entire time conducting them is a new post-graduate who apparently had struggled for two years to find a job. When we asked him what he had done during that period, he had virtually no explanation. Come on, we're not oblivious to the realities out there...you don't need to lie about it, but we also get very concerned if the response is that they did absolutely nothing productive. For parents, you still need to take care of your kids; for gardeners, tending the field; for die-hard readers of Gawker, it's keeping up new stories every day to stay updated on world happening. There's always something you're doing and knowing how to transform that into a narrative is important...and a valuable skill that we want to see job seekers display.
From one sympathetic interviewer to the masses of job hunters out there.
The full archive of our "Unemployment Stories" series can be found here.