Since the Great Recession struck several years ago, nearly a quarter of Americans have been laid off themselves, and another 50% of Americans have seen a friend or family member lose their job. Each week, we bring you true stories of unemployment, straight from the unemployed. This is what's happening out there.
The Congressional staffer
My Dad had a stable job. When I went off to college, he was on his 25th year working for the same company as a computer technician. My mom wanted to avoid the empty nest syndrome (I'm an only child), and went back to teaching. My freshman year, I made the Chancellor's list, worked out every day and got to know all of my professors. I was going to a small liberal arts school in the mountains of North Carolina. Things were so perfect, I feared something bad was going to happen. And it did. I was home for Christmas break and my Dad announced (two weeks before Christmas) he had been laid off. I was only 18 years old and my Dad had been working for the same place way longer than I had been alive!
Consequently, I found three part-time jobs and signed up for 18 hours (full-load) the next semester. I worked seven days a week and paid for most of my tuition. My Dad was out of work for a year and would drink a bottle of wine a day and fell into a deep depression. My Mom hated her teaching job but couldn't quit or we would all lose our health insurance.
After my Dad got another job and Type 2 diabetes, I cut back to only one part-time job. I worked as a barista at a new coffee shop. We didn't get much business and after my paychecks starting bouncing I quit.
I did not have a plan for after college. I cried to my professor. He helped me find a part-time job and told me to get my Master's. Subsequently, I became a graduate student the next fall and worked as a News Radio Reporter for ClearChannel communications. My news director sexually harassed me for a year. I didn't know what to do since it was my first real job, so I just endured the unwanted advances. Later, my news director quit. The woman that took his place told me that I had to be a reporter and an anchor to meet the station's needs. Suddenly, my job requirements doubled with no raise. Without any training, I tried making recordings of news on the sound board. My boss said I sounded "too young" or "too southern" for the news. A month later, she said I don't have "what it takes anymore" and today would be my last day. I was horrified. Until that moment, I had never failed at anything.
That night, I drank an obscene amount of whiskey and screamed the F word off my balcony like a psychotic woman. I decided not to collect unemployment and focused on finishing up grad school.
I graduated on time with honors but still did not have a plan. I took a really effed up job for a year with this promotional marketing company. Turned out, it went bankrupt. In my spare time, I volunteered for a presidential campaign. After the primary, I got offered a job as a finance director for a US Congressman running for reelection. I worked 60+ hours a week for little money and raised close to one million dollars.
After the election night victory, I got offered a full-time job with benefits as a Congressional aide. For one year, I answered the phones until opportunity struck. One of the caseworkers had a nervous breakdown and quit. She was making twice as much money as me. Immediately, I asked my supervisor for the promotion. The chief-of-staff finally agreed and I became a constituent services director for Veteran Affairs. What I did not know was- I would be inheriting over 700 open cases and have no assistant to help me. Every day, at least five new cases would come into the office.
I primarily worked with disabled Veterans who were trying to get their benefits from the VA. The VA had an enormous backlog and I tried to expedite their claims. Unfortunately, that still took a long time and many Veterans lost their homes or died before they could get the money they were entitled too. On top of that, the Veterans would tell me the most gruesome stories which caused them to get PTSD.
I never could get my caseload under control. The VA was slow because of their backlog. It was a hopeless. For every step I took forward, I jumped 10 steps back. I couldn't let it go after 5pm. I worried about the Veterans and their families around the clock. At night, I would have dreams of blood and body parts. Then, I became afraid to fall asleep. I found the only way to relieve the stress was to drink alcohol. In just one year, I went from drinking two or three drinks at night to drinking the second I woke up. I wanted to commit suicide and for several nights I would try to drink the fatal amount of alcohol .4 that would put me to sleep permanently.
Somehow, I kept waking up every morning. I drank throughout the entire day and drank until I passed out at night. My hair began falling out. I quit eating and no longer had a period. Bruises were all over my body because I was no longer producing bone marrow. I couldn't stop drinking or I would get the shakes and have terrible withdraw symptoms.
One fateful day, I woke up in pure agony. It felt like a thousand knives were stabbing me in the stomach and in the back. I was rushed to the hospital and was diagnosed with pancreatitis from alcohol consumption. My enzyme count was so high that doctors were baffled that my pancreas had not ruptured. They all said I was lucky to be alive. I spent a week in the hospital and detoxed. I went through the DTs and thought demons were all over my room and trying to kill me.
The doctor found out my insurance would pay for rehab. I agreed to go while under the influence of some serious hardcore narcotics. After getting discharged, I went to a place in Virginia for 21 days over Christmas and New Years. Rehab was miserable. One addict tried to jump off the roof and kill himself while I was there. I saw people having seizures and throwing up blood. Everyone seemed to have HEP C. I got made fun of because I was there for alcohol and not harder drugs. I did not smoke so I spent most of my time alone, waiting to go home.
I returned to the mountains and went back to work. Nothing changed so I continued drinking. The doctors told me that if I did not stop, I would be dead within six months. I did not care. One day, my supervisor came into my office and said I either had the option of quitting or being terminated. The reason was I "delegated too much work to the volunteers." After nearly 5 years as a federal employee, I was given a box to put my belongings in, asked to log out of the computer immediately, and hand over my key to the office. I felt bitter and hopeless.
Around this time, I had bought a handgun and would hold it to my head with my finger on the trigger. I wanted so badly to shoot myself but I thought of my dog and the blood. I couldn't go through with it so I decided to keep drinking and hopefully die in six months like the doctor predicted.
That same week I was fired, I lost all control and became totally reckless. Over the weekend, I had about 14 drinks in one day, and got pulled over for my first DWI. I spent the night and all next morning in jail. Ironically, the jail was on the same street as my old office. I couldn't believe that in one week I went from working for a US Congressman to being locked up.
This time I applied for unemployment. I got it and started paying the costly COBRA every month. COBRA allowed me to see a doctor and go to therapy. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
Without alcohol for me to drink until I passed out, it was nearly impossible for me to fall asleep. I became an insomniac. Once, I went over 72 hours without sleeping and began having hallucinations and hearing things that weren't real. I couldn't take it anymore so I drank and drank until I finally passed out. Once I woke up, I had pancreatitis again. I was hospitalized for the second time and seen by a psychiatrist. He quickly misdiagnosed me with a mental illness (bipolar disorder) and recommended that I spend a week in the psych ward. I committed myself and given large doses of lithium and other anti-pyschotic drugs. All of the medicine made me feel like a zombie and I lost my personality completely.
After the psych ward, I stopped drinking so much and began smoking weed everyday. I gained about 50 pounds and let myself go. I was still making 420 (ironic number) a week on unemployment and all the jobs that were open at that time paid less than unemployment. I decided to not work until my benefits ran out.
I got a two month extension so I spent a total of 14 months without a job. I still have suicidal thoughts and battle depression often. I have lost most of my friends and moved out of my condo and back in with my parents. My benefits have all expired and I will be without health insurance in a week.
The last eighteen months have gone by fast. Anti-depressants and therapy really helped my depression. All of my life savings have run out and I was draining my parents for money. They were running low on cash and I panicked. I was worried I was going to lose my home and have to sell all of my belongings. As fate would have it, my grandfather died and made me a benefactor in his will. Now, I have enough money to get me by for awhile.
My problem is I am terrified of finding another job. I have been traumatized by the past. Unfortunately, I have such a huge lapse in unemployment, no one would want to hire me. I can't tell any future employer about my stress level at the Congressman's office or how it drove me to alcoholism. I can't fit into any of my business clothes after gaining all this weight.
I am thankful to have money right now and not be homeless. I don't know how to get over my fear of work. I keep thinking I will get fired again or get so stressed out I will want to binge drink. I don't know how I am going to get past this. I am glad I did not kill myself. I know that losing one or two jobs does not mean I failed as a human being and no longer deserves to live. I want to be happy. I want hope. And I never want to work in politics again!
The military man
I got back from a deployment in the Middle East in late 2008, and moved in with my parents. I asked if I could stay there for, "a few weeks" until I found work, an apartment, and maybe got back to school. I immediately started sending out resumes for jobs that were in my field of interest and experience. I made it a goal to send out three resumes a week. After the first few weeks, I was sending out two or three a day, looking for anything that paid. I applied for retail, fast food, and warehouse work. I got a few interviews, but my biggest challenge was trying to explain how my military experience and skills would translate to their companies. Finally, I got a part time job in a coffee shop. I couldn't afford to move out, but I could start paying some of my bills. I continued to submit resumes wherever I could. I became frustrated and disheartened by the rejection, and the stress of living at home. My mother would berate me regularly, telling me that I had to go to businesses in person. I tried to explain that I had tried that and was always directed to online applications. I self medicated with alcohol, often drinking myself to sleep. I was furious when the President and Congress spent trillions of dollars bailing out the very businesses and individuals whose poor foresight and mismanagement had put us in this situation to begin with. I deeply resent, to this day, the misguided liberal polices and politicians that made the situation worse than it should have been, and who chose to take money from the working poor like me and give it those who had hurt so many.
After several months, the coffee shop company restructured the district, closed some stores, and laid several people off. I wasn't included in that round of layoffs, but about two weeks later I was called into a meeting with the store manager and district manager, where I was told that they would no longer be able to accomodate my reserve duty schedule, which required me to drill one weekend a month. It was April 15. I mailed my tax return that same day. I called the ESGR, an organization who supports and defends the rights of reservists and guard members. They contacted the company, who reinstated me, but I was let go a month later in the next round of layoffs.
I was unemployed for three months. The coffee company contested my unemployment claim, so I wasn't even recieving benefits. I finally found a full-time job as a customer service rep that allowed me to move out, and go back to school and finish my degree. I have since moved on into a position as a case manager in public housing The memories of that time are still incredibly strong, and the depression, frustration, and sense of futility of that period make me grateful for what I have now. I have friends who are still unemployed, and desperate, and I try to help them however I can, because I can well relate.
My story starts back in 2009. I was in my junior year of a biology program. I had an overall strong GPA and was applying to REUs (National Science Foundation funded internships). I received nothing but rejections. I turned to the private sector and hit another dead end. I didn't realize it yet, but I was going to hit a lot more dead ends. I finished up the rest of the semester and it was summer vacation. I had some money I had saved up from working at an on campus job and I wanted to spend a little bit of time with my long distance girlfriend. I hit unexpected resistance from my parents, including them threatening to cut off financial support of college. I didn't believe them and called their bluff. I went to visit her. As a direct result of this, I found myself 500 miles away from where I previously called home and with an associates degree instead of the bachelors I had been working towards.
I knew the economy was bad, but I needed to find work and I saw lab technician and lab assistant jobs on sites like Monster and CareerBuilder. Thus began my first period of long term unemployment. I applied for positions every single morning after getting up, I was genuinely hopeful at first. I thought even with the economic downturn I should be able to find something. I had some education and it was in a STEM field, I had been hearing all my life about the value of a technical education. It amounted to little more than nothing. Months went by, I had the occasional interview, but no offer. As Thanksgiving approached I swallowed by pride and applied for food stamps. The application must have been lost in the mail and I had to apply again. It was 2010 before I was approved, but I was approved. It's amazing how much even $200 a month can help, even if I was still ashamed I needed the help. I was from a middle class family, I wasn't supposed to need this kind of help. That summer I had my break, a short contract job with a food company. It was a 45-50 minute drive, second shift, and only paid $11/hr, but I didn't care. It was work. It turned out the company only wanted a technician because they had been looking for some while for a supervisor and needed somebody to help out while they searched. I actually kind of liked the job, simple as it was. They found the supervisor they were looking for, trained her, and I was let go.
I quickly found a similar job at a different food company. This one was an hour and a half away, and required us to move, but it paid $14/hr. I still don't know exactly how we were able to find an apartment and move in in only two weeks, but we did it. I lasted a mere 6 months. The work was terrible. Upper management was inept and cared more about sales then they did about the workers or safety issues with their product. I witnessed production workers pick up food off the floor and put it back on the processing lines, but I was powerless to do anything because I needed the job. They also didn't feel I needed the luxury of sleep, as I never worked the same shift two days in a row. The job was destroying me, I was depressed and experienced sharp pains in my shoulder after particularly long shifts. The pain was always gone by the next morning so I didn't think much of it. My hours became more erratic, I reached my limit soon afterwards and quit. I turned my energy towards higher education. I had saved up some money, so I applied to a local university and went back to finish a bachelors. One year later I graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I thought my life was back on track to where I wanted to be, I lost a little bit of time, but I was moving forward.
I had a job lined up after graduation. It was for another food company. I can't say I was happy about the pay, I would have thought a bachelors degree would be worth more than a 72 cent raise, but I was happy enough to be working again. The girlfriend and I moved when the lease was due to be renewed, to be closer to this company. We thought that this job could be long term, they seemed to actually care about making a quality product and provided a good number of vacation days.
My last day of work was the Friday after Labor Day, I was covering for a coworker who was taking a vacation that week. How is that for insulting? To be fired after working extra hours so soon after a holiday meant to celebrate working people. I had zero warning, instead I received a phone call on Monday saying I was no longer employed. I broke down in tears after I hung up the phone. I now get less than $150 a week from unemployment and am fighting to remain optimistic, or at least not deeply depressed. It is so frustrating to work so hard for so little and have it torn away from me. A company will throw any one of their workers out on the street if they think it will save them a nickel. It is disgusting and unAmerican, but the way the world has gone.
Dream to nightmare
To set the stage in December of 2008, I was living the American Dream. House, wife, a daughter and a son on the way. I had a great job I loved as the head of the advertising department for a 34 location chain grocery store. I did 50% graphic design and the rest was a grab bag of copy writing, web design, media buying, social media, administrative and other marketing type work. The department was in every sense of the word an in-house advertising agency. Just before the holidays the other full time person in my department found other employment and I didn't worry too much about it as I assumed the position would be quickly filled. The first few weeks of the year would be a bit of a challenge though as the old intern had left and the new one hadn't started. Stressful but nothing I couldn't handle in the short run.
The new intern started and after several weeks of the position being open my boss (the owners son-in-law) sat me down and told me why it hadn't been posted. He was planning on spinning my department off into it's own ad agency and he didn't want to hire someone who would be a good fit for the grocery store and not for the ad agency. Seemed risky to me but a good career opportunity. So I agreed to stick it out for what was promised to be a "few weeks."
So I did the job of two people for what turned out to be six months, the first four I was coming home to a wife who was going through a tough pregnancy. I had faith that the hard work would be worth it though in the end. The first week of June was my 30th birthday on Tuesday. On Thursday we set up the new office. On Friday I was called into a meeting to finalize the launch of the new agency. In that meeting I was basically told that in order for the new agency to work it needed employees that could give 110% and that I had worked very hard the past six months doing the job of two people and getting the new business ready. So hard in fact I was visibly burned out (true) and therefor wouldn't be able to give the required 110%. Pack up my desk and go home. My son was a month and a half.
The next 4 months I looked for a job. My wife, who had been a stay at home mother, went back to work, third shift at a certain unnamed Canadian coffee chain. We were still bleeding money, just bleeding slower. I was left home to take care of the kids, which I loved at first, given the new opportunity to connect with the kids in ways I hadn't when employed, but eventually the novelty wore off and I fell into a deep depression. As March rolled around I was in such a bad place I had to beg my wife for help of some sort. She instead decided to move out and take the kids, leaving me with the house payment and all the rest of the bills. I spent most of the next year not leaving the house. I applied for jobs, went on the occasional interview, sought treatment for the depression, volunteered with the Red Cross, saw my children and went to the grocery store. There's not much in rural Ohio. Middle of corn fields is a great place to raise a family. It's hell when you live alone. I would go days at times without seeing another living soul. Any trip into town and back was at least two gallons of gas and I simply couldn't afford it. While I looked for work outside of my field, most were minimum wage jobs, which would have been fine given the circumstances but my unemployment paid more than minimum wage and I literally would have had to take a pay cut to work there, and then had less time to look for a job and interview.
In Feb. 2010 my unemployment ran out, along with all the extensions. I called a friend and begged her to hire me at the upscale fast food place she worked at. She did, and I was still bleeding cash. I got a second job telemarketing to lawyers, if that isn't as bad as it sounds my bosses were former used car sales men. Three more hated careers have not yet been invented. I now had two jobs and still was spending more than I made just to keep the lights on. Finally after having hours cut at both jobs I found a job at a factory that paid a whopping $12 per hour. Would have been another step in the right direction, however they put me on third shift, it was the middle of the summer and I my air conditioning hadn't worked in 2 years. The next day my house was 97 degrees inside. I couldn't sleep, I was delirious and finally fell asleep right about the time my second shift was about to start.
So out of work again I found work at a cookie factory the next day through a staffing agency. Hours were erratic, and the pay was less but it was work. I usually worked 32 hours a week near the ovens in the un-airconditioned part of the factory. I hated it and may never eat an Oreo again. After about 5 months of this out of the blue a printer I had worked with at the grocery store called me in for an interview. The job was way beneath my skill set, but I could put it on my resume and it had steady hours. It was a bad fit for me and I knew it and they knew it too but there was a loyalty from our previous business dealings and I was offered the job on the spot and accepted without hesitation.
The job wasn't hard, but I didn't like it. I had been a legit graphic designer and this was mostly pre-press work. It wasn't hard, but I could get done in three hours what it took the previous people in the position an entire day to do. So most of the time I sat around pretending to look busy. I made it a full 2.5 years without missing a bill. Then in December of 2011 I suddenly was missing all of them. That additional stress plus the fact I was didn't like the work and was bored all the time, they eventually let me go.
By some miracle, I found a job at an ad agency. The bad news it was on the other side of the state, a 2+ hour drive away from the kids. I didn't see much choice though as I kinda needed to move out before I the electric was shut off or I was foreclosed on. So off I went, living for the first month on the couch of an internet friend I'd never met in real life, in a city I'd never visited before the interview.
I found a cheap apartment and moved in. Finances were turning around, and for the first time in a long time I was happy. That lasted all of one month as the ad agency lost its largest client and I was laid off. I moved across the state for a job that lasted two months, through no fault of my own. Over the next six months I looked for work, sold the house at a small loss and divorce papers were filed. Eventually I ran out of money again and am now residing at my parents, in a third corner of the state, while I await my sister clearing out her attic so I can move in there.
My unemployment ran out again just today. I'm looking for work, any work right now. I've been told by one interviewer (at a gas station) that they weren't interested in me because I had had a desk job, and therefor wasn't likely to stay at the job I was interviewing for, for very long. Even third shift Waffle House advertises "Experience Required." As far as the career type job interviews go, most are for graphic design positions, I feel like most see my portfolio and see that I can do other things and write me off as over qualified. The other half see I designed food advertising and write my sample work off as disposable, which most grocery advertising absolutely is, but that doesn't mean I don't have the talent and skill.
I've done everything I can to stay afloat, eBay and craigslisted possessions, I've sold blood twice a week for more than a year, I've done freelance work. Still no end in sight. I still plug away daily though. Still send out applications and still hope I can find a way to get my life back.
The universe's punching bag
I graduated from college four years ago. I was in a prestigious journalism program; I knew tons of kids who'd graduated a couple years before I started college who'd gotten incredible jobs right out of college - as in, being hired directly by the New York Times, LA Times, or other major papers. I felt like I was set.
Then the economy collapsed, during my last year of college. I spent 6 months desperately searching for a job while slowly running out of the tiny amount of money I'd saved working part-time in college, and finally wound up unable to pay for an apartment anymore. I moved in with my fiance's parents and kept looking. At long last, I found a job - a receptionist position, paying $10/hour with an HMO, about half an hour from my home. I'd already sold my car to pay rent, so I had to bus - an hour-and-a-half commute, two ways, every day. Finally, between the two of us, my fiance and I managed to scrape together enough money for a down payment on an apartment in the projects. It was even further from my job than before, but it was the only place we could afford.
Two months later, my fiance lost his job, and I was now the sole bread-winner. On $10/hour.
A month after that, I was laid off to balance the budget. "It has nothing to do with your job performance, you've been great," they said, which is even worse than if I had done something. If I'd done something, then I could just say "I'll do better next time" and hopefully not get fired. But if I'm perfect and I still get fired?
I was lucky, I found another shit job again in about two months, right before we ran out of money again. (My fiance was supporting us doing private tutoring, but it was pretty unreliable.) This time, I was working for a local synagogue as a general administrative assistant, and making $12/hour with no benefits, so it was slightly better.
This was easily the worst job I've ever had... And I couldn't quit. I tried to find another job, but there were none to be had that would support my household. (My fiance was now going on two straight years of unemployment.) I tried to consult a lawyer to see if I could sue for a hostile work environment, but despite the fact that I was severely depressed and anxious as a result of the job, was developing stress-related health problems that I couldn't afford to treat because they didn't provide me with health insurance, and was beginning to have suicidal thoughts, I was told by lawyer after lawyer I had no grounds to sue them because I wasn't being discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, or any other "protected category." I just had to suck it up and keep going.
And then I got laid off. Again. It was also for budgetary reasons, and it was the second time in two years.
Now I've been unemployed for almost six months. I'm doing some private tutoring on my own, and I found a part-time data entry job that makes barely enough for me to just cover my half of the rent (with nothing left over to pay for food, bills, anything else). I still have a month left of unemployment, so I'm just desperately saving that money, trying to make it last as long as possible. Thank God my fiance finally found a job - not enough to pay our living expenses alone, but it helps. I try to be optimistic about things - I'm looking into freelancing, just until I find something reliable. But at this point, I feel like the universe's punching bag. I have literally no confidence that I'll ever be able to do all the things I dreamed of - own a home, have a family, save for retirement. It doesn't seem like too much to ask, but so far, the world has said "No."
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.]