The Year in Hard Times

In 2013, we heard true stories from lots of people who were, to varying degrees, going through hard times. Military veterans. Workers at various low-wage jobs. Unemployed people. Let's remember a few of the year's most memorable true stories.

The unemployed

We ran 40 weekly installments of our "Unemployment Stories" series, which wrapped up earlier this year. You can read them all here. There but for the grace of god goes any of us.

From a former social worker:

"The stress and fear and anxiety as I watch my life sink into poverty with loss after loss after loss is beyond description. Loss of job, loss of health insurance, loss of transportation — my car broke down and needs a repair that is beyond my reach. The equity in the house I've lived in and payed on for 17 years? Evaporated in the mortgage debacle. It is currently unsalable in this market unless I want to take a loss.

My modest savings? Gone. Unemployment benefits? Now, finally gone. And did I ever enjoy the constant anxiety of watching Congress play "will we or won't we" on extending unemployment benefits every few weeks. I lost 13 weeks of benefits because my state got triggered. Next loss on the agenda is my meager 401K (about $7,000) of which the government is going to take 20% off the top to punish me for taking MY OWN MONEY to support myself during financial hardship. It ought to last about 4 months. I haven't had a mammogram in two years , a checkup with my doctor, a visit to the dentist or been able to replace my glasses."

From a former Marine:

"I've spent many hours awake because I have no income and have no idea how to make any. I want to take my son to the movies. I want to take him to see hockey and baseball like my dad used to do with me. I want to buy him ice cream from time to time, but I can't. Instead I find myself slumped on the couch cursing some unknown entity for mine, and so many others, predicament. We're not lazy, we're not uneducated, we're not waiting for, nor wanting, a handout. We just want a chance to make a living."

From a former electrical worker:

"I miss having a job and being productive. I still wake early and keep working hours. I drive around and look with envious stares at people doing landscape or carwash work. (How pathetic am I? To be envious and almost stew with anger at minimum wage workers, wishing to be among their ranks...). All pride and self esteem are at all time lows for me... I was once someone who was proud, productive and had hope. I played on stages for years to crowds of people. Now I am nothing and nobody. I hang my head in shame and wonder how to provide for my children."

From an unemployed mother at Christmas:

"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...

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."

Veterans

We heard several stories from veterans who spoke about the hardships of life after war.

From a veteran's wife:

"When people look at my husband and say, "Oh he's fine, he can go back to work," I think to myself - do you know what my life is like? That my husband refuses to ever get back on a boat of any kind for fear of triggering an episode? That even the Staten Island Ferry is off limits? That the thought of going to the pool and swimming is enough to give my husband enough anxiety that he can't leave the house for a few days? That we can never go any place by plane because current airport security measures can trigger an episode? That there are some days, he can't get out of bed because he feels like a failure because he can't hold a job? That a nasty person can set my husband off? [...]

I wonder, if my husband, who has a wife to help him and advocate for him, has to fight for care and disability benefits, what about those veterans who don't? The vets who are homeless, physically and mentally disabled, who need long term care?"

"How much of me died in that piece of shit swamp?": "

During my deployment (to a country that wasn't officially at war) Children, woman, teenagers and men alike all met an indiscriminate end at my hand. On my best days I tell myself I killed to survive, on my worst my mind tells me I committed acts of madness so that i didn't go mad.

There are a lot of grudges that I hold close to my heart, in some sense it means that I will always be at war. At war with my actions, at war with my survival, at war with suits who tell you that you kill for a good cause and that we (the west) were/are the good guys."

Walmart workers

This year brought us (another) bounty of stories from those who work at America's largest employer.

From a cashier:

"It is so easy for you, as a customer, to look at our weary, broken faces and see that we've given up. It is so easy to lose your temper because this item is not in stock, and there is never anyone in the department, and the store is dirty. It's easy to scream for a manager because an employee walked past you without helping you, when they've been dealing with being kicked by little kids, yelled at by other customers, and having to do work far outside their job description and capabilities for the last 4 hours, and they just really, REALLY needed to go to the bathroom.

It would be so easy to look at one of your cashiers, and just say 'thank you', or 'I'm sorry'. It would be easy to realize that we are human beings, working one of the most stressful jobs with absolutely no support, and have some compassion. We don't want to be where we are, and we all start out happy and cheerful and helpful; and then Walmart kills our souls, and breaks our spirit, and grinds us down. Walmart is where the poor go to work until they die."

Zen balance:

"There are very few women on overnights, and only one other that was close to my age. I would get constantly sexually harassed by other associates (often in front of management). One asked me every day if I wanted to fuck-I repeatedly told management, and they refused to do anything, and wouldn't even take care to separate us on the floor. Finally he was arrested, for smoking meth with and then raping a 13 year old girl. My store was full of such winners.

On another occasion, while helping an associate stock the pets department, a pallet of dog food fell on top of me after I cut the shrink wrap. I started screaming for another associate, and was greeted by one that frequently hit on me-he stood and laughed, as I lay trapped, telling me that he had seen "mosquito bites" that looked worse than that. I informed my manager, and he simply told me to "find my zen balance", and that it wasn't their problem."

From a former employee:

"It is so very true that Walmart feeds into the welfare and Medicaid systems because the hourly wage controls perpetuate poverty. Walmart employees are the dictionary definition of the working poor. Walmart permits employees to cash their paychecks at the register which is commonly eaten up by their cartfuls of food and other necessities. This company perpetuates a system where employee earnings flow right back to this colossal unseeing and uncaring corporation...

Walmart back rooms are filled with huge posters of inspirational quotes from Sam Walton about the strength and benefit of empowered workers. What a freaking joke. There would be charitable giving campaigns when the people most in need of charity were the employees. Ice cream socials would be sponsored for employees that had fallen on difficult times and the management would ask for employee monetary donations. Maybe if this multibillon dollar corporation paid a living wage and provided benefits they wouldn't need to call on employees that made less than 8 dollars per hour to help similarly situated financially strapped coworkers."

Amazon workers

Amazon is the future of retailing in America. And the future of retail jobs may involve a lot of warehouse work.

As far as the eye can see:

"I have to touch on the size of this place too. [...] like bigger than 12 city blocks. Last night when I drove to work it took me about 15 min - when you arrive there is a line of cars to get in. Waiting in that line to get to a parking space took 15 min the same time as my commute! There's no way for me to fully describe the size of this place. There are over 7 miles of conveyor belts. The two ends of the warehouse is where product is stored. Think of a library with very small isles. Now imagine over 250 isles deep. Now imagine over 13 long isles across. Now imagine three floors of that. And finally imagine that double since there are two of these "libraries" - one on each side of the building.

Your break is 15 min twice a day and 30 min lunch. But if you are in the wrong place of the warehouse you could easily walk a half mile to a mile to get to break and that time supposedly counts. So sometimes you get to your break sit down for 5 min and start your fucking hike again."

From a warehouse worker in Tennessee:

"What truly is alarming is the amount of people that get injured on the job. I was out for a month and a half due to severe leg pain caused by too much standing on concrete and not enough support. I'm in fine physical condition and have never had any issues with standing for long periods, but the stress and strain of standing in one place, and constantly doing the same garbage over and over again took its toll on me physically. It was suggested that I purchase new shoes, which I did - specifically for the job, that didn't help. When I saw the worker comp doctor, I was told that a steady stream of associates had been in for various physical complaints. If amazon paid any attention to their employees perhaps that wouldn't happen!?"

Walking concrete:

"I work at the Chester, Virginia warehouse. They paint this picture of it being a fun place. That you get to play games during breaks and have so much fun. The only games they play with you is mind games. That brings me to my 2nd complaint, unrealistic goals. They expect an incredible pace. I was in good shape when I got there, but I was NOT prepared for the miles of walking on concrete every day. My feet hurt so bad, I would have trouble going to sleep, I was in so much pain. My feet have toughened up, but the pay has not."

Fast food workers

Sick of low wages, dead-end job prospects, and an income that required the help of welfare benefits to survive, fast food workers and union organizers banded together for a series of national strikes throughout 2013. They will continue in 2014, barring an unexpected revolution.

Merry Christmas to everyone who struggled this year.

[Image by Jim Cooke]