The stock market is up. Corporate profits are booming. Very little of that money is flowing to the workers. And even less is flowing to the unemployed. Each week, we bring you true stories of unemployment, from the people who've lived it. This is what's happening out there.
Holidays on ice
We won't be celebrating any holidays this year. 2012 will not be going down as a good one. Our next-door neighbors are still rocking their usual Griswold-type light show, demonstrating their annual disregard for tasteful holiday decorations, and nearby suburban neighborhood blocks are displaying thousands of light balls in the trees, collecting food and donations from the thousands of cars that pass through, for Second Harvest Food Bank. Christmastime is going gangbusters locally, even as it kicks residential power bills into top-dollar ranges for the season.
There won't be any gifts, a tree, a wreath or any candles in the windows at our house this year. There's not much point, and we can't afford the extra cost on the electric bill. My kids each got a much-needed haircut, my son a couple of new sweaters and my daughter a new pair of boots. They need those things now, so they didn't get wrapped to place under a tree. As much as my son wants a bass guitar and my daughter a cello for school orchestra, they know those items will just have to wait and not even to ask.
It's embarrassing. We're doing our best to maintain appearances as a nice, middle class family. It's just not so easy any more. What's so difficult is that we realize how embarrassing it is for everyone else. If we show even a crack in the façade-that we are failing at being what we have always been-every one who knows us still has to pretend that nothing is wrong. Well, things are all kinds of wrong.
I've been out of work for over a year. There are no jobs for me locally. I am applying for jobs where the market is better, but I can't even get things started with a phone interview because there are plenty of candidates already living in the cities where I am applying and they are probably all younger than I am, since I turned 50 this year. No one is offering relo packages any more. I've considered moving in with friends and leaving my family behind, just so I can be "local" somewhere for a little while. I can only be sure I'll get UI for another three weeks, then, I'm probably getting pushed off the cliff. I bring in less than $400 a month from my two part-time jobs teaching classes at local gyms. My husband is self-employed and his work has been extremely slow for the last five months. We both work, all day, every day. I'm looking for jobs, contacting people about potential freelance work and making myself available for as many classes a day as my gym managers will give me. My husband is writing (mostly for free, because even big online publishers don't pay for articles, but we tell ourselves it's good exposure), contacting former clients, preparing job proposals, making calls to clients who haven't paid yet and exhausting himself trying to find that elusive long-term client with a decent budget and a project that has yet to be awarded. There's a lot of work going on but not a lot of money being made.
We're falling behind. The house needs work, windows need painting, faucets are dripping, and ceilings are cracking. Some bills and the taxes just aren't getting paid. We get at least three calls a day from some creditor, the mortgage, utilities, the orthodontist. We aren't that far behind, but these guys don't just sit back and wait any more. They don't want to be last in line if some money shows up. Our bank is actually the worst. Now, when we do manage to get a check in, they will hold the deposit from five to ten days. We are at their mercy, until they decide that we can spend "our" money. They think nothing of charging us overdraft fees if we set up an online payment but they haven't released the funds yet. This morning I got an email from them reminding me how "easy" it is to pay my credit card balance because they offer four different ways to make my payments and I should call them right away to get in on their amazing offer. Gosh, who knew?
I've gained 30 pounds in the last year. This is not a good thing for a group fitness instructor. We mostly eat pasta, rice, homemade pizza, tacos and potatoes. My hair is getting really grey. I haven't had a haircut since last April. I'm thankful that my kids wear the same size shoes as my husband and myself. They still need clothes for school though. It's weird when I shop in Goodwill and see our old stuff. If I actually got an in-person job interview, none of my clothes fit any more, so I'm not sure what I could wear and still look professional.
I cry a lot at night, when everyone else is asleep. I feel like crying all the time, but I don't want my kids to see me. They know things are not good, and they're pretty stressed out about it. Tempers are short and it gets harder and harder not to shout when they ask why we don't have certain things any more. This morning, the national news channel offered the helpful sound bite that kids who have happy childhoods, grow up to make more money as adults. My kids are so screwed. I am so sorry for that.
We sold our second car. I sold our wedding china. That was the last month we covered all the bills. I look at everything we own now and try to imagine how much we could sell it for. Is it worth one month of a credit card bill? My parents are retired, my Dad barely survives on his SS, my Mom is currently supporting my brother, who was unemployed for over two years, and now works a part-time job for $10 an hour. He has two college degrees but has gone back to school to get IT certifications. My sister's husband was laid off last month. My husband's parents have offered to bring a ham when they come to stay at our house after Christmas this year. This is an incredibly generous offer of help for them. I hope they like ham, because that's all we'll have to eat.
A lot of people will imagine that we brought this on ourselves. We had some really good years; we had savings. We took vacations. We chose to live in places that were interesting to us that may have been more financially risky, but we felt the overall lifetime value was good. My husband decided to start his own company in 2007. Our goal was to build the business in a safe market, with an eye toward growing first, then moving back to a larger metropolitan area when things got going. Now, we are stuck in a state with an unemployment rate still above 9%, with an interest-only mortgage, a maxed-out equity line and no options to refinance or modify. The house won't sell for what we owe on it. We can't move; we can't stay. Our savings are long gone and we haven't had health insurance for years.
It felt good to write this all down. I can't talk about our misery with anyone. That would be rude. It would be unfair to disrupt the norm. It's become very hard to look around and see any good. I see waste and overspending, disregard and disrespect for those who are suffering and an incredible sense of entitlement amongst those who will never have to worry about their child's next meal. Black Friday made me want to vomit. I'd like to hold close to the idea that things will work out in the end-the economy will improve, people who need jobs will find them and families will be able to survive again. This year, my holiday spirit is crushed.
When I was 21 I got pregnant and became a single mother. I had no viable means of supporting my son, so I moved into family housing on a university campus and put myself through college, becoming editor of my college newspaper and earning a degree in journalism (smart move, huh?).
In addition to the small amount of welfare money I received when I was in school (full-time), I also typed master's student's papers at night, hostessed at a restaurant at lunch time, cleaned the day-care center director's house to help pay for care for my then-toddler, and cashiered at a grocery store on weekends and nights.
But, I got my degree and then jumped into newspapers. Over the last 20 years of working 65-75 hour weeks, I advanced from a reporter at a small town newspaper to a bureau chief to an executive editor to an editor at a major metropolitan newspaper. Along the way I earned multiple awards, including several national ones.
In the meantime, I married and had another child. When my ex-husband and I went through our divorce, my son ended up living with his father because of the crazy hours I had to keep in my career. I rarely got off work until 8 or 9 p.m. and often worked weekends. Luckily, both of my sons are well-adjusted and are just starting their professional lives.
About eight years ago I left the major metro because layoffs were coming and I was offered a managing editor position at a small newspaper. I took the job, and five years ago I was laid off. I was lucky, however, to almost immediately get offered another job as a magazine editor. Like so many others, the magazine folded in less than a year. At the exact same time, my husband was laid off as a construction manager.
Then when the market crashed, we lost every penny of our retirement 401ks. It took my husband over a year to find a job that pays $15 an hour. I have yet to find full-time work. I do freelance work for a variety of publications, but payment is almost always an issue. My personal income has fallen from $85,000 annually to about $12,000. With my husband's income, our combined annual pay fell from about $140,000 to about $30,000. We've lost our home and have sunk deeper and deeper into debt despite the fact that we haven't used a credit card in over four years.
Things got so bad that we finally filed for bankruptcy, and our court date is coming up in a couple of weeks. Some of our creditors are fighting this and are asking the court to garnish my husband's wages.
To top things off, I had a CT scan for a stomach issue and they found a mass on my ovary. My doctor wants to do a hysterectomy, but the hospital won't allow it because they want the 20 percent (about $6,000) paid up-front that our insurance won't pick up. This was after the insurance company tried to initially claim this as elective surgery.
I've applied for any type of work available. I've even been turned down for waitressing jobs, with the employers saying that when a better job comes along I'll just leave, so why should they put time and money into training me?
Despite all of this, I am grateful. My husband and I have weathered this together and he still finds ways to make me laugh. Our children are terrific and we have four beautiful, healthy grandchildren.
The thin, low fence
My spouse and I work for a company that provides retail services. Around the time of year when all retail hell breaks loose, our little slice of the grind goes absolutely dead. It's like clockwork. For eight weeks of the year, we're dead in the water.
When the work is there, it's hard work, tedious and at all hours of the day and night. Our bodies are worn down, our minds turned to sludge, but we hang in and rake in with both hands because of one simple truth: it will not last. Unemployment is coming again, too soon, in just a matter of months.
A handful of weeks per year without income is plenty to keep a family of two on the wrong side of the poverty line. I've read in this series how surprised people are that one can go from employed to destitute in a short period of time. I know the time limit is in weeks. No matter how forewarned one is, the reality is still as breaking this year as it was the last.
Depression? You betcha. Self-hatred and loss of pride? A Christmas gift each year. The only thing that separates us from the shoals of total unemployment, and how grateful I am that there is this thin, low fence! is that we know the day the suffering ends, even before it begins.
And I am truly grateful. Before this job, I was unable to work for nearly two years. My spouse supported me through that time. Some years previous, it was my spouse who was unemployed while I kept us afloat. Now we work together, as the awesome team we are. When, as I said, there is work to be done.
I am also grateful to be experiencing this in the context of a loving relationship. It is this that has kept certain personal dreams alive. My spouse makes me use the annual down time to write the stories I dream of during up time. Certain sympathetic publishers continue to look kindly on my efforts. These are small hopes to hold, but I have them.
I know that without them, an indifferent world will soon unmake me as capriciously as it created me.
The social media manager
I had been laid off before years ago but the really bad stretch started in 2011 when the cable operator I worked for merged with another large company. On the day of the merger many at my channel were let go but I remained. The new management came in and quickly started working towards eliminating more by asking those terrible questions you never want to hear. "walk us through your day" or "Is there anyone else who does your work". Team infighting was horrible and I dreaded going into work each day. I only managed to survive a few more months until my day came in fact. I saw the full list of staff laid off and it was in the hundreds. How could a company whose reported billions in profit need to cut this much staff? It was a harsh corporate reality I had to wake up to. Luckily I had some work lined up but that was tenuous at best as this company reported hundreds of millions in losses. I go from one spewing cash to another in the red. Hopes weren't that high. Getting laid off twice was not something future employers want to hear because many still operate under the laid off = fired syndrome but I had to take it. 3 months in the worry became reality... [Later] an old colleague of mine called with an offer for a few hours freelancing. Not enough to pay the bill, but enough to keep someone's mind from going to dark places. A few months in I got news that that channel was shutting down and I was to be out of work again at the end of the December. Then a week later I ran over a cat on my way home. As a cat owner this devastated me
I actually keep track of the amount of jobs I've applied to because I'm sadistic and also because the state requires me to do so for some reason though they never check. In 2011 alone it was 300 jobs. In 2012 it was over 400. Understand that I was a social media manager who has extensive web production background with a good cache of brand experience - my skills are not exactly on their way out. Furthermore I know how to target jobs that are appropriate. See: I don't waste time on jobs I couldn't possibly do. I have an online portfolio, and even multiple resumes catered towards certain skills. One of them is an infographic one! I've reached out to multiple recruiters with personally written letters on linkedin or even on twitter to try to get their attention. I've personally written many catered cover letters but it's all the same: radio silence. And that problem I projected before about multiple layoffs is always an issue even if not implicitly stated. That awkard pause after my response to why I'm no longer working at the last two jobs. The rejection letters almost mean nothing to me anymore. 3/4th of jobs don't respond - despite requiring a large time invested in the application process. I think it's the phone screens I've done that wear me out the most in the process because it gives me some hope. I've done so many I've lost count.
My wife and I also bought a house in 2010 and then my first kid, a daughter, was born a month ago. I don't want to say any of that was a bad choice to but it was risky given the situation. I really couldn't have predicted it would be this hard given what I have to offer but it is devastatingly so. I post to a news blog of mine to try to keep some semblance of "doing something" but it's mostly a lie I tell myself. It's a daily and sometimes hourly struggle to keep my sanity and hope. Now I'm a college educated stay at home dad with years of experience (but not too much) who ran over a cat looking for a job 8 hours a day. When will things change?
I feel like I've read close to twenty of these unemployment stories, so I will tell my own.
I'm not really sure what happened other than being born in 1988 to be forecast into a dead economy when the coming-of-age job market is supposed to be a sea of opportunities. Freshly graduated with a depression and overall mental exhaustion, I opted to take a job as a member of the night shift at an all-night cafe in a university town. Getting metaphorically shit on by the children of the one percent was grand, but what made it better was the 9.50 I made. At one point, closing at 2:30 am after a fully drunken legion of asshole 20year olds with millionaire parents verbally assaulted me for pizza bagels
(our cafes speciality) and milkshakes, I screamed out (in full view of my supervisor) "WHY DON'T THEY JUST PAY ME IN SHIT?!" making the other cafe worker, a university student who now has a cushy job buying clothes for Saks, laughed out loud... Needless to say, I gathered a reputation as a bitch but also the only one who could keep the drunk and high college students from ripping the place apart at 1am...
I left when the little twink of a forty year old poet got promoted to manager and wanted me to metaphorically suck the dicks of the little shit heads. I called in one hour before I was scheduled. One month later I was hired at the same owner of the cafes new restaurant, to the horror of the cafes staff, and was the hot new hostess of the hot new restaurant in that town. That position was also a bust, the management at that staff being WORSE and trying a strange post-Marxian we're-all-equal-at-this-restaurant rhetoric combined with cutting hours at random to see who would stick it out. Oh yeah, and setting incredibly low prices for the already half good food that put our tips at 5.00 that we would then split between wait staff, kitchen staff, and host staff. I think I cleared $8.00 an hour. I left that job in a fit of fierce tears, then within one week was dumped and told I would not have a renewed lease because my gaping asshole landlords needed to renovate my apartment. No affordable apartments, I moved back to my notoriously rainy upstate hometown which now plays home to a nice new heroin epidemic.
I've been unemployed since May and have stopped looking. I can't. I was hospitalized in August after
suicidal ideations due to living in a stressful, abusive family environment which I cannot escape. I was hired at an insurance firm shortly after my hospitilization but was unable to take the stress of having to learn a strange, new insurance language, a decision I kick myself everyday for. But I couldn't get my mental illness under control enough to stay calm to learn the shit to pass the test I was shelling out $75 for, the classes to take the exam (apparently required, also costing ridiculous money which I would not be reimbursed by the company for) and generally not connecting with the material at hand. Now that I have some time away, I realize that was an immature young adult decision I could be paying seriously for for a long time...
I have thought about becoming a stripper but am too fat (I have gained weight, it is hard to exercise when you don't want to get out of bed) and afraid to go into that type of environment. I believe I may ultimately make that choice. It used to be stripping to pay for college. Now it will be stripping with a college degree because you should have stripped in the first place, dumb cunt. I'm only dumb for being born, apparently.
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. Photo via AP.]