America's official unemployment rate is 7.7%. That doesn't reflect the millions of people who have dropped out of the labor force. Millions are set to lose their unemployment benefits at the end of the year. Each week, we're running true stories of unemployment, as told by the unemployed. This is what's happening out there.
Four layoffs in a year and a half
I am a software engineer. My unemployment story began in spring of 2011, when the company I worked at for the last four years laid off half it's employees, myself included. Our company was rather big, so it made news headlines on the Internet. Coincidentally, that's also how we found out we were getting laid off - that's right, we read about our demise on the Internet before we were informed internally. That's a pretty shitty way to learn you're losing your job, as it feels the entire world knows about it except you.
Just a couple weeks prior to the layoff, my supervisor had left to a different company and had offered me a job there. The project he was working on sounded risky at best, so I declined the offer at the time, mainly because I was in the middle of trying to buy a house, and was advised not to make any big career changes while the banks were going over whether or not I would qualify for a home loan.
The layoff changed all of that quickly. The day it occurred, I contacted my old supervisor and asked him if the position was still available. It was, and within three days of losing my job I was at the new one. Luckily for me, I also still qualified for the home loan, so we moved into our new house around memorial day, happy to have dodged that bullet.
Of course, that was one bullet of an entire round of bullets headed our way. Less than a month after we moved into our house, I am driving to work, and when I arrive I see one of my co-workers leaving in his truck. He rolls down the window and shouts, "They shut down the studio, we don't have jobs anymore."
I was dumbstruck. I had only been there a little over two months, and already I was getting laid off again. At least this time management informed us of the lay offs in advance via email - that is, you would have known ahead of time if you happened to be checking your work email at 1:30am the previous night. So not bloody likely.
This time I had no backup plan, so I went job searching on my own. My fiancée was working at the time, but it was a temp job and she didn't make nearly enough to support the two of us and our 3-year-old son. I filed for unemployment.
Luckily software engineers are one of the few jobs still in demand, so I was only unemployed for about a month and a half before I managed to find work. Things seemed to be going well; the company was full of good, talented people and I enjoyed my new job. In the fall of 2011, I married my fiancée. However, with the new house comes new expenses, and with my wife's temp job now over, we are finding that we aren't making enough money to pay all the bills. My son was pulled from daycare because we couldn't afford it, but the catch-22 is that, without him in daycare, my wife had to watch him, which meant that she couldn't find another job and bring in more income. On top of everything else, both our cars started breaking down on us at the exact same time, so we had to sell them and buy a single new car. What little we had in savings was eaten away by the car and bills.
Then spring 2012 rolls around, and mass layoffs rear their ugly face once again. My third layoff in just under a year. This time, instead of paying us a severance, we got to remain "employed" for the next couple of months while we tried to find work, meaning we still got pay and benefits. In a lot of ways, this is actually worse than getting a typical lump sum; you can't file for unemployment since you are technically still employed. Also, if you find a job during that time, you lose whatever money you had coming to you.
I needed to find a job, fast, or else we would be screwed financially. Again, because I'm a software engineer, I received a job offer quickly. The catch? The job was in California (silicon valley), and we lived in Texas. Relocation expenses were paid for, but the problem was we just bought a house; what were we going to do about that? We could either rent it out, or sell it at a loss. Since we had no money in savings, we decided we couldn't afford to sell it at a loss, so we decided to accept the job offer and try to rent the house out. It was around this time my wife discovered she was pregnant with our second child.
We moved to california before we found any renters for our home. My new job came with a hefty pay raise, but living expenses in silicon valley are insanely high. Even with the pay raise, we could only afford to rent properties that were over an hour away (in good traffic - in bad, bay area traffic, it was closer to two). We also had to borrow funds from our family to even be able to afford a deposit on the rental property. As of yet we haven't paid our family back, because we simply do not have the cash.
We eventually got renters in our Texas home, but not after we missed a mortgage payment that we could not afford to pay. Now the bank is threatening to foreclose our home (a home being lived in by our renters) all because we are behind one monthly payment. Our finances are just now settling down from the big move, so we haven't had a chance to save up any money yet, and we have less than a month left to make the payment or else they could start the foreclosure process at any time after that. I've talked to the banks and told them I could scrounge up enough cash to pay a few hundred extra in mortgage payments every month and eventually make up the list payment, but for whatever reason they tell me I have to "qualify" in order to pay them more money like that. It just doesn't make sense to me why I'd have to "qualify" in order to pay them more money. I feel like they don't want to work together with me to reach a compromise, they just want their damn money.
And on top of all this, I went to work today, only to arrive and find all my co-workers packing their belongings into their cars. Yep, for the fourth time in a year and a half, I have once again been laid off. Except this time, I am renting an expensive property in california, I have a pregnant wife who cannot work and will no longer have health insurance, I have a house that could go into foreclosure soon, money owed to family and no money in savings. I can't even get a loan for temporary relief or to consolidate my debt, because my credit is so bad now (from buying a new car to missing that mortgage payment) that I don't qualify.
If I don't find work soon, not only will I be screwed, but my wife and two sons will also be. I have a good chance at finding work, but when you are hit with layoff after layoff, it drains you. My last three jobs were all held for under a year, two of them only lasting a few months. That can't look good on my resume, even though it was through no fault of my own. I feel like I curse any company I work for now; who would want to hire me?
My wife was crying earlier in the week about how we could barely afford living in our current situation; how were we possibly going to survive with a new baby on the way? Now with me being unemployed, it feels even more hopeless... Sure, there's a chance I can find work again soon. But is there a good chance it will last and be stable? Is there a good chance we can finally get out of the slog and start saving money and paying off our debts? Is there a good chance we won't have to live paycheck to paycheck like we have the past several years? Not likely.
'I feel like I've failed at life'
I started college in 2000. I thought I had everything mapped out — I wanted to become a teacher, a college professor. I majored in history and English, made the Dean's List the first year (an accomplishment I was very proud of, as I had been homeschooled and many people told me I'd fail my first semester because I had "no experience in a classroom environment.") and continued to rack up honors after that. I happily plunked my membership money down for academic societies, because I was told they looked great on a resume. I completed the honors program, and wrote my thesis, overachieving to the point they said "Geez, this could have been a Master's." Basically, everything looked bright.
After working in an academic office, and being in contact with the daily grind of being a professor — I actually worked for a married couple, one of whom had tenure, and seeing how exhausted they were, how little they made, how little time they had for themselves and their children, how worried they were about keeping their positions, the politics and childishness of academia, I thought it might not be for me...
So, I started applying, and was emboldened by scoring an interview right out of the gate. It was for a local holistic health center, and they loved me, and assured me I had the job. I was so excited, I remember buying myself a new jacket as a treat, feeling I could spend the money. I never heard back, and began to doubt. Three weeks later, I received a bizarre email that didn't even refer to me by name, just had two words: "Position filled." I had lunch with my former mentor/boss/professor and she said I'd fallen prey to one of the oldest tricks in the book, and I should never get too friendly or excited in an interview.
I applied for everything after that. Receptionist positions, Costco, Starbucks, book stores, liquor stores, restaurants, retail stores. I scored one interview at Borders, and he told me I was overqualified and he didn't think I'd stay. After that, I actually began leaving my academic credentials off retail resumes, but it didn't get any better responses. I scored another at Whole Foods, and again, fell prey to the chatty "What movies have you seen?" atmosphere. When they asked me "Heyyyy, you're really educated, like, why didn't you apply for management?" I smiled and said "Well, I didn't want to reach above my station." They looked blank. I said "I've never managed people before. I would rather work my way up. I'm happy to just have a job.") I never heard back.
Silence followed until 2008, when I unexpectedly was invited to start writing for a major news website. To be honest, I had forgotten I had applied. Writing for a living was a dream come true, as was being part of vital, energetic discussions about current events. This kicked off a career as a freelance writer, with a steady home at the major news site. I wasn't making a lot ($9,000 a year before taxes), but I felt I was where I belonged. It seemed like everything had led up to this. I wasn't paid enough to really live on, but I felt there was nowhere to go but up, and everyone around me was doing well. I remained living at home, decided against buying a car (I worked from home, what was the point? And the 24/7 news cycle meant I had no life outside it. Even when I left home to go out to eat, my phone would ring demanding to know where I was, and why wasn't I writing, so I willingly sacrificed fun in favor of dedication.)
The major news gig lasted until 2010, and I was dumped. Eventually, I did manage to land some additional freelance jobs, including one that became a permanent feature writing position, and I scraped up some holiday retail work thanks to my sister (I had hoped it would be permanent, but no dice).
Things were shaky, but I was optimistic of landing something, anything else. But this past summer, my publication was bought out and our contracts were terminated, making me freelance once again. I lucked into some summer work being a gopher for an outdoor event — emptying trash cans and handing out flyers — or I would have had almost nothing coming in. Below poverty level, but enough to buy groceries, clothes, and the occasional treat.
I've sent out hundreds of applications. I've applied to every retail store, food service gig, and customer service position I find. I never hear back...
I've continued to apply (I've since tweaked my resume on the advice of a colleague, and grouped all the freelance writing under my own company name) and can't even get a call back. It's really disheartening to not even score an interview for "Carts Collector" at your local IKEA, or be ignored by a PetCo, despite that you actually have "worked with large birds and reptiles" on your skill sheet. (Their online resume asks this, and I actually thought having it — I do! — meant I'd get a call back.)
I'm now 30 years old. I make about $500 on a good month from the freelance articles. $189 of it goes to my student loan payment. I still live at home (but pay my own bills and buy my own groceries) in a position which is becoming really awkward and unpleasant, but I'm glad to have a roof over my head. I still don't have a car, and while I could get a clunker, it seems pointless when I have no job, no romantic relationship, and no friends left in the state.
I'm depressed, and if it wasn't for the family pets needing kibble, I wouldn't get out of bed. I've contemplated suicide. I'm a burden on my parents, who are approaching the age of retirement. I don't have a husband or boyfriend to rely on for financial or emotional support. I think back to college and wonder what I should have done differently, and I can't believe I can't even score a job as a dishwasher, or a waitress, or bagging groceries. I'm not picky. I just want a job...
I'm not looking for much. I just want enough to be able to have an apartment and a car. I want to be able to live and care for myself. I want health insurance. I'm healthy, I feel like I've made some mistakes (picked the wrong thing to study, dabbled too long in freelance) but I don't know that I should be punished forever for them. My Facebook and Twitter feed is full of people who have done dumber things in life than I have, and still are doing better than I am. I never thought I wouldn't be able to find work. I never thought I would be snubbed by a grocery store, or a cupcake outlet.
I feel like I've failed at life. I'm exhausted — it probably sounds like I haven't actually worked hard, but I worked hard in school, and juggled 30 hours a week of workstudy in addition to classes and homework. When I wrote, I did so 24/7, at editorial beck and call, spending my own money to travel to the events they wanted me to cover, and dumping money on technology to be able to file faster, write from airplanes, and never be out of contact. There were weeks I never slept, and I still didn't feel like I'd worked hard enough. ("If I hadn't been walking the dog, I wouldn't have missed that story! That's money I lost!")
I'm numb at the idea that I've worked so much of my life (I was working at 14 running my own pet-sitting business, got a retail job as soon as I legally could, have never — until now — not worked) and have nothing to show for it. I may never. I constantly wonder what I've done wrong, and where I could have applied myself better, and how I can change things. But when you can't even score a job to get a car, and couldn't feed yourself if your parents didn't silently put a roof over your head, it's hard to know what to do to pull yourself out of it. Where are you supposed to go when the bottom of the employment ladder won't take you?
The tech worker
My story isn't so much different as the others. First time I was unemployed came at the Dot Com crash. That lasted almost 3 years. During this time I was getting unemployment benefits. My profession pays rather well, when you can get and keep a job. I was able to sell a car to help cover some bills and then the family became exposed to lethal levels of carbon monoxide. My wife was rushed to the hospital, given a number of tests and recovered to the tune of $88,000 dollars. Letters explaining our situation did little and the bills ended in collections to which to this day we are still receiving. Days before my family and I became homeless, I landed a job which lasted a year and seven months before a layoff in December.
On the plus side we had closed out credit cards years ago and pay cash for everything. Not an easy thing to do but we aren't to temporal. I ended a job that was slowly killing me. I was told this by several doctors. The company I worked for was bought out by a foreign corporation that changed the rules on how we worked. In three and one half years I saw a 100% turn over rate of its employees. Work hours jumped, outsourcing became the norm, 7 days a week 24 hours a day. Calls at 3:00 AM were not uncommon. Job advancement closed and poor reviews were created to keep from increasing workers pay. Multiple meetings about the work situation with HR and management returned head nods. The answer was always the same, we have to make money. So there you have it. My wake up call came when I thought I had a heart attack. I was rushed to the hospital at 5:00 am. No heart attack, anxiety. I left the company shortly after that.
My next job was a contract position with a large software firm. It was a 9 month contract and was extended to a full year. They loved my work. I was pretty excited, I've wanted to work there for a long time. 2 months into my contract I was locked out of the building and told that they were restructuring. An interesting thing had occurred while there. I was told that the person next to me was also contracting, the difference between the two of us was I was willing to put in 8-1/2 hour days for 8 hour pay while the one next to me put in 10 hour days, also getting paid for just 8 hours. So when did contract hour policies change? When the contracted is an H-1B status worker and will agree and do anything to stay in the United States.
I have watched my job diminish for any number of reason. Over abundance of developers that are willing to take Quality Assurance jobs, H-1B at 100,000 people a year for years applying for the same type of positions, and out sourcing to countries where at $14,000 a year hires managers to manage outsourced employees. And it doesn't help that I'm over 55 years old. I've been denied benefits, appealed and denied again. I keep a log of jobs that I've applied for. My wife, a wonderful woman, has again come close to death and hospitalized for 5 days. This time though we were able to get charitable help to cover the bills, totaling $43,000.
I enjoy what my profession entails. New technology. Policy's and procedures to bring a product to market. Testing. I'm smart and experienced and good at my job but I'm over 55 with a high price tag, which I am willing to negotiate. I can't get any job. Any. Job. My profession fizzled because of corporate greed.
That safety net the Republicans says is there for people like me has holes in it.
Looking for work. I will send resume and references upon request.
Best of luck to the other 14 million unemployed.
The small business owner
For me, as a small business owner, it's been three years of struggling with very minimal to almost no work-with no end in sight. I've exhausted my savings, my retirement money, the money my parents left me, and now the last bit of equity I have (from borrowing against my life insurance). Being in a small business that has been struck hard by the economy is essentially the same as being unemployed- except that I'm not entitled to ‘Unemployment Insurance' (although I pay into the system just like everyone else)...
There are three things that have complicated my situation, which is what I call the "Triple Whammy":
1. My Age: I'm 58. I'm still vital, creative, curious, interesting, interested, and resilient. I write, design, have won awards, and have been published, but I'm still 58! I'm too "old" to be "young" and too "young" to be "old". I've become invisible. I'm not eligible yet for Social Security, but I can't pass for 37 anymore either. And although it's against the law to discriminate based on age-I've seen that it happens in a tacit agreement each and every day.
2. My Profession: I was trained as a Graphic Designer and Art Director and for many years earned a good living. In the last three years everything changed. First of all, globalization, the spread of international integration and connectedness through the expansion of technology has created a situation where clients want to offer third world prices for work done here. Sure, in the third world, they may find someone to design a logo for $5, but that person may typically earn $5 a week and pay $20 a month in rent. It's not equivalent. How can someone in NYC possibly compete with that? Secondly, now with inexpensive design software readily available, everyone thinks they (or someone they know) can be a graphic designer. I don't think so. Thirdly, "be all, do all'' has become the philosophy of many employers looking to hire in this market. Although there are still many ads for designer positions, now these positions require a designer who can do work in any medium: print, promotion, the web, smart phones, tablets, presentations, and signage. Not interested? Don't worry; there are multitudes of people out there who are "hungry" enough to take anything (whether they are really qualified or not)...
3. Being an Independent Contractor: About eighteen years ago, I opened my own design studio after being downsized from a middle management position at a major global advertising agency. Statistics from the Small Business Administration state that only 7 out of 10 businesses survive for 2 years, only 5 out of 10 survive 5 years and only 2.5 out of 10 survive 15 years or more. Well, for my first fifteen years in business I was pretty busy, and very lucky-due to my talent, my commitment to do good work and my exceptional customer service-as almost all of my business came from referrals. I rarely needed to look for work. I never made a killing, but I was able to support myself, work when I wanted to, and I was able to call the shots. I became everything the business required: Designer, Copywriter, Account Executive, Bookkeeper, Administrative Assistant, Production Person, and even the Janitor.
Three years ago when I found that maintaining my business in this treacherous economy was becoming too stressful, I decided to consider looking for a staff job again. After all, I have proven myself over and over to be creative, competent, resourceful, intelligent, loyal, and fun to work with; all of the things I believed would be a huge selling point to any employer! But, the accomplishments, talent, and knowledge that I had developed through starting and maintaining a business for over fifteen years and which I thought was a big asset, now seem to be perceived by most employers as a detriment. My career coach explained to me that when employers become aware that I've been a business owner for more than a fifteen years, they may think, "Why should we hire this guy; he'll probably leave as soon as his business is up and running again." I can't say they're entirely wrong-I may. But I may not. I've come to understand that finding a staff position even with all my experience and talent is extremely unlikely, like selling ice to an Eskimo, not that I ever stopped trying. I seem to be over qualified for many positions and under qualified for others, with the result of my being, once again, invisible. Although last year I would have gladly accepted a "holiday job" at minimum wage with a major mass merchandiser to make some money, I was told time and time both with that employer and with others that again I was over qualified. Or they said they would get back to me, but they never did.
So what's a guy to do? Network, follow every lead, and answer jobs posted online. Ever tried that? Responses end up in a big black hole never to be seen again. Gone are the days when one could expect a phone call, or a even a rejection letter; nowadays, there's nothing. How can that not be discouraging? In the last year I've probably answered a hundred ads. I never got one interview, one phone call, or even a rejection letter. The most I ever received (just four times this year) was a pre-programmed e-mail response that said, "Thank you for applying for (fill in name of job). If we feel you would be a good fit for this position we will be in touch." Oh, and by the way, "FUCK YOU!" Wait, they never said that-but it sure FELT like they had!
So what happens after months and months and years and years like this? You live in your head. Your mind often goes through a self deprecating loop of "if I had only done this instead of that". You become filled with disgust, despair, and depression. You feel hopeless and useless and worthless. And each day that follows with no results from your efforts makes you feel even more so. You withdraw. You hide. You make excuses.
I rarely see my friends anymore because a lot of them don't really understand the emotional, financial and physical toll this has taken on me. Although they will listen and try to understand, they really don't want to hear it -it makes them ill-at-ease and they don't even want to think about it. I make excuses too and beg off seeing them because I can't afford to do almost anything they want to do and I'm uncomfortable and embarrassed to have them pay for me-yet one more time. The ones who really do understand will commiserate with me-at least for that fleeting moment-but then the moment's gone, and they go back to their lives and forget, and I go back to mine, into that deep black hole where I feel tormented; the one from which I fear I'll never be able to escape.
So I've become uncomfortable with the people who love me and wish to help me because suddenly, they've become one of the ‘haves' and I've become one of the ‘have nots'. I feel angry and resentful and envious and sad and scared and worthless and alone and inadequate...
Or there are the people who want to be encouraging and say "but you're so creative, so talented I'm sure you'll find something.'' and while I know they believe that, and on my good days I know it's true, it certainly doesn't feel that way when I'm living thru this hell day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
So for now, I live for my weekends; a time when I'm not totally alone and trapped with my loop of negative thoughts. There are other people around for a distraction or I'll put on the television, search the internet, or sleep. But even though a weekend is a "vacation from my life", and I relish them, the moment I step out my door everything around me is a reminder of my circumstances-because just leaving the house costs money. Money I don't have and shouldn't be spending.
Then Monday inevitably rolls around again, and I often end up under the covers, wishing I didn't have to face all of this yet one more time. But I know I don't have much choice if I want to change my circumstances. I'm supposed to maintain and project a ‘positive attitude', to be ‘happy'. To have a smile on my face and be jovial. Really? Well, yes. When I go out to face the world, like it or not, if I want to have opportunities I need to project confidence, competence, and conciliation. So, on top of all that I am dealing with, no matter how I'm really feeling, I have to become an actor as well!
Through all the trials and tribulations of the last three years of my life, I still believe that my saving grace will be my resilience. As many people have reminded me, throughout my life, whenever I've had an obstacle to overcome, no matter how badly I've felt, each and every time when I was knocked down I always got up and kept trying, reinventing myself, and seeing that if this time the ‘spaghetti would stick to the wall'.
The nonstop temp
Let me preface this with the fact that this isn't a tale of unemployment, but of sporadic employment. I should also mention that I'm a mediocre employee at best... All that being said, I'm reasonably intelligent, have a degree (albeit a bullshit one) from a reasonable university, and have extensive work experience including positions at Ivies, successful start ups, major financial corporations, and one ponzi scheme for an interesting talking point. I also have extensive international experience that no one gives a shit about. I like to lie to myself that this at least qualifies me to answer phones in a non call center environment, but this is incorrect. It does not. And despite having call center experience, I am also not qualified for that. Super rad.
I graduated in 2007 and have only been able to find temporary work since then. I was a "non-traditional" student, as the jackasses within academia like to call the olds. Before attending university I was a pastry chef. I decided to leave the wonderful world of $10/hr, 60 hour work weeks with zero benefits, after working with one too many (1!) chefs that decided to give up their boring desk jobs after watching too much Food Network. Side note: Fuck all of you Food Network home cooking dickheads. Thanks for ruining my shit job and making it shittier because you have a dream. Let me reiterate. Fuck. You.
I digress. After the chef in question, I had this fantastic idea that I would like a desk job. Where I could sit. And not be called when I'm not at work. And have benefits. And only work 40 hours a week. I determined the best way to achieve this goal was to go to college. So I did. It's been a non stop stress ridden shit show since.
I have worked so many temp jobs it actually makes my brain hurt to think about them. Never have any of them led to anything permanent. Due to the fact that all of my employment in the past 5 years has been temporary, I have no references for administrative work. I don't qualify for unemployment since I only work sporadically. I've now devoted myself to promotional work to pay rent and have the flexibility to go on interviews for permanent positions. Although I'm grateful that my head shots have been photoshopped to the point of attractiveness, this isn't exactly an ideal way to live. The check is always "in the mail", I have no idea if I'll be booked from one week to the next, and I have to create answers to inane questions about some shitty product that no one actually wants to know. Oh, and I have to stand. That thing I was trying to get away from. So yeah, I'm sort of employed,which I am grateful for, but have no consistent schedule or any idea of when, or if, I'll be getting paid. My stress level and subsequent hives have reached epic levels of horror.
Did I also mention I really should be seeing a neurologist once a year or so to make sure my brain tumor hasn't grown back? There's that too.
The full archive of our "Unemployment Stories" series can be found here.
[Thanks to everyone who wrote in. You can send your own unemployment story here. Please remember the unemployed this Christmas. Photo via Getty.]