Unemployment Stories, Vol. 35: 'I Can't Really Afford to Be Alive'

In most states, the unemployment rate is coming down, ever so slowly. Still, nearly 12 million Americans are officially unemployed, and millions more have dropped out of the labor force entirely. Each week, we bring you true stories of unemployment, straight from the unemployed. This is what's happening out there.

I hate myself

I am unemployed and I hate it. Even worse, I hate myself. I am one of over 12 million people (based on the January 2013 BLS stats) in this country that does not have a job but wants one. I never ever wanted to be unemployed. I never thought I could have my job taken away from me (I despise the phrase “lost my job” since it implies it was entirely my fault, like my job was a set of car keys). Sure, like many people, I found my job to be frustrating at times. When the time was right and the opportunity arose, I took a new position. Sometimes it was within the same company and sometimes it was with a different company. The point is that when I was employed and I wanted a new job, I was in a good position. I am unemployed. I want a job but I am in a terrible position.


Since 2003, I have endured at least 3 layoffs/downsizings/re-organizations. In the first instance, the company reduced its workforce. In the second, the company went out of business. In the third, the company used (or rather abused) it’s right of “at will” employment and cut me loose. Each instance was painful. Each instance was humiliating. It’s something that cannot be quantified in a BLS report, unless you measure it in terms of things like friendships lost or alcohol consumed. Before I mention what’s happening (or not happening) in my life now, I’ll take you back to 1996. That was when I got my first full-time job since graduating from college a year before. It was an entry-level position with a major cable television provider In Colorado... An internship at a nearby television production company enabled me to get a full-time job in 1999 with a premium movie network...Then in November of 2003, my employer decided to layoff 10 to 15 percent of staff to offset a sudden increase in programming costs in the wake of a bitter dispute with one of the biggest cable television providers...


So, I officially started my job search in January 2004 and honestly, it feels like I haven’t stopped searching since then. Unable to find full-time work in my field, I took a part-time job at an independent movie theater chain. Unfortunately, the company went out of business in June of that year. After telling the staff that they would lose their jobs, one of the theater managers had the audacity ask everyone to help clean up before the doors were locked. By July, both my severance and unemployment had run out. I began asking my parents for monthly loans, something I hoped I would never have to do. Still unable to get any meaningful work in my career field, I tried other low paying jobs: package handler, door-to-door sales, restaurant server, market researcher and office assistant...


I did have some luck getting television work, but it was only temporary gigs. A couple of hours at a sports television network. A couple of days at a regional cable network. I even got a couple of weeks at my old movie network. But nothing was full-time. Even taking a Final Cut Pro editing class in the summer of 2004 failed to impress any potential employers. Hands-on training is not the same as hands-on experience. In an effort to pull my financial weight and avoid asking my parents for money again, I cashed out most of my retirement savings. I figured I’d make up the balance some time later down the road. I assumed “later” wouldn’t be too many years away. I’m still hoping that’s the case. After a couple of months working part-time at a market research company and moonlighting as a mobile disc jockey at weddings, I landed a full-time job at a company in 2006 that owned and operated several lifestyle television channels. I spend my days viewing American hunting shows and European fashion programming for quality and content standards. The job certainly had it’s drawbacks and I was getting paid less than three years before, but it felt good to be working full-time (with benefits) at an innovative media company. I felt there was a good chance to move up the ranks. That feeling died quickly in July of 2007. The company was in a battle with a major satellite provider. In an effort to save its existence, the company slashed payroll before filing Chapter 11. Lots of people were let go on a Monday afternoon, including me. Another day of shock. Another night spent drinking heavily. Once again, I got severance, but this time, the check bounced. Due to the filing of Chapter 11, the company did not have to pay all its financial obligations. Eventually, the courts decided my former employer was not worthy of Chapter 11 protection and the company liquidated its assets. I had to do a lot of research to find out where the head honchos had run off to before sending them a letter regarding their act of check fraud. Fortunately, they paid my severance plus some interest. It was vindication, but it was an exhausting experience and took nearly 4 months to get closure.


So in August 2007, I was looking for work yet again. I did have a new unemployment claim and some mobile disc jockey gigs to cover some of my expenses, but once again, I was borrowing from mom and dad. In addition, I was cutting back on my expenses, including my social costs. I wasn’t going to happy hours or dinners as often. I was reluctant to discuss my work situation with people, especially women. Unemployment is not a relationship builder, especially in this country where the first question you ask someone new is, “What do you do for a living?” In October, I found a temp job with an area film festival. The hours were long and the perks were limited. Still, I got to work with a great bunch of people through November. After that, things got quiet. Tons of resumes sent out and applications filled out. Still, no job offers. Not in television production. Not in anything. By the end of March 2008, the unemployment checks ran out. Then in April, things changed for, what seemed at the time, the better.


I got a full-time job with a field sports production company. Hunting and fishing shows. I was handling the logistics for 4 different television series. I built production schedules. I got plane tickets. I acquired hunting and filming permits. Plus, I got full health benefits. It was a fast-paced, ever-changing, always-challenging job... I was let go [in 2010] on a Monday at 5pm and management was able to recruit, interview, hire and place someone in my old position by 8am the next day. Another layoff. Another day of shock. This time, I didn’t get any severance after 2 years of dedication. Colorado is an “at will” state, which means an employer can terminate the employment of any employee regardless of reason. No severance required.


That was my last full-time job to date. That was also my last job in my career field. The only other work I have landed since then was some occasional wedding disc jockey work, a part-time market research job at a start-up company (which went through a downsizing in 2012) and a seasonal event staff position that ended in October of last year. My unemployment benefits, what little is left from my last downsizing, are almost gone. I’m looking for work, but every day seems to be an exercise in futility. I network and pass along business cards. Everyone’s posting a resume online and most of them are viewed by computers rather than people. I’m tired. I’m exhausted. It’s hard to compete with both technological innovation and a global workforce. I’m living alone and embarrassed to discuss my situation with friends and family. I’ve considered getting therapy, but it’s a costly option. Most single-payer heath plans don’t cover outpatient mental health (like mine) or they only cover it after the large deductible has been met.


I recently turned 40 and I’m at a crossroads: continue to find work in my career field or choose to learn something else and start at the bottom. Not an easy choice. Regardless of the path I take, I decided to write this in an effort to give the lucky (yes, I do say lucky, since there are no guarantees in life) millions of people in this country who are currently employed a glimmer of what is means, for me anyway, to be unemployed. I hope the people running both small and big businesses take these tales of adversity into consideration before flat-out refusing to consider anyone who’s got employment gaps on their resume. By the way Wall Street: your recent Dow Jones gains from October 2007 won’t mean much unless there’s a equally impressive recoup of about 5 million jobs (or 3.2% unemployment rate decrease) as well. Lastly, I hope that the leaders in Washington D.C. will make a genuine bipartisan effort to help over 12 million people (especially Hispanics, African-Americans and anyone under 25 years old) get their lives back on track. Of course, that last wish might just get lost in all the partisan yelling.

The contract worker

I have been officially unemployed since April of 2010. I am in my mid 50's and female. Let's talk about how many ways an employer can discriminate!

In the beginning of my job search I decided to open up to the idea of contracting. I decided that this was a perfect way to stay current in my chosen profession. Plus, if I like the employer and the employer likes me than, BINGO, I could be offered a regular position. Contracting is a way to stay off of unemployment and allow me to pay the bills. I have had good contract experiences and terrible experiences. Still, I am lucky to have this work. The down side is, regardless of how much I try, I am unable to save enough money to put into my IRA or savings account for emergencies. In addition, now when employers look at my resume, they don't think that I want a permanent job. They think I prefer contracting to a regular job. Many employers expect you to work until the job is "done". This may mean expecting you to work over 40 hours but not intending to pay you for that work. This of course is illegal. I refuse to work over 40 hours unless I am paid to do so. I know a few contractors who do work longer hours, with out pay. They work hoping that they will be hired full time. Then the contract ends. No job, and you are exhausted from all of that work! I did not mind working long hours and when I was employed, I usually did work longer hours. I found as a contractor, employers will take advantage of you if you do. Don't ever expect to hear the employer say thank you! They either turn a blind eye or expect you to keep on working those hours.
Some employers treat contractors as second class citizens. I have learned to ignore this. Still, I have to say that it bothers me. It bothers me the way contractors can be mistreated by some employers. Sometimes I feel that our work culture is moving backwards into the industrial age. Contract workers or, as some call us, contingent workers, do not have paid holidays, vacations, bonuses or health insurance. Sometimes the agency offers insurance after you have met a certain waiting period. The insurance is usually not worth the money. Typically you will see high deductibles, no prescription drug coverage. Often by the time you are eligible to receive coverage, your contract ends, leaving you to pay high COBRA fees. In addition, those of you who have contracted may have had the experience of being given the worst computer in the department, and often find that you are working with limited lighting, and don't even bother asking for an erognomics evaluation.
Lately I find myself feeling that I should start a momentum about contractor rights. I hear the workforce is quickly moving towards the direction of using more "contingent workers" in the future. If that is the case, contractors need to make sure we are treated fairly and well. Contracting may be a necessary evil for an individual who is trying to be productive. However, the evil ways that employers can miss-treat contractors make this a "hard row to hoe".
What is an unemployed person suppose to do? Stay home and sit on our "butts" waiting for the phone to ring or, get out there and let people know you are ready to work? I say we keep this moving forward. Everyone who is out of work and looking, needs to find some kind of work. The right contract work can be a way to empower you again. In the end, all of us, who are looking for a decent job, deserve to find something that provides us with a feeling of pride and an sense of empowerment.

The graduate

My diploma is hanging on the wall. It arrived two days ago. It took me a bit longer than most, but I finished, and for a brief moment I was so very proud. Getting that degree has been my life from when I graduated high school at 18 until now at 28. There were no illusions. The job market was bad; my money situation worse, everything I had was spent on the hopes of furthering my education. Let’s be honest, I know I’m in debt, I knew it would not be easy, and that a degree is no guarantee of a future. And despite that I chose to go to school, not once, but twice.

Some of my loans came due the very next day after the schools official graduation. It was a Saturday. Before I was even awarded my diploma. I didn’t notice; too swept up in the giddy belief that I had achieved something, and the relief at finally finishing. Had I realized, or stopped to think I might have rethought all the money I spent on graduate school applications. Spent more time job hunting and less time studying for finals. I won’t deny that I’ve made mistakes, who hasn’t, I’m just not sure what those mistakes are.

There are plenty of things that they don’t tell you about college, especially towards the end. In that last year I was so busy just trying to make it to graduation, to finish so that I wouldn’t have to take out anymore loans, and not feel like my life was in a sort of limbo with me waiting for it to really begin. I was unprepared for the shock that came after. There was suddenly nothing to be done. No chapters to be read, no papers to write, no experiments to be performed, nothing. There was also no more money. In one day I went from college student, to unemployed and broke.

At my first interview after college they were concerned that I’d been unemployed for so long. Upon which I reminded them that I had only just graduated. But as my unemployment continues and the date of my graduation grows further away, I will not continue to have that excuse. So no job, no money, and no grace period on student loans, I can’t help but be depressed.

After I’m finished with my daily job search I’ll get ready and head to the museum where I volunteer as an archaeological collections assistant. Each week I find myself spending more and more time there. It makes me feel like I am doing something, contributing in some way. It also keeps me busy, distracted from the numerous problems welling up around me, threatening to overwhelm me. Part of me is in shock, and the other part of me is lost, and neither one is a good place to be. But I don’t know what else to do.

I have been told many things upon graduating from college: congratulations, good job, that I should have never gone to school, and that I deserve my situation for my poor choices. Some will read this and be horrified that someone would say that to me, but I find myself unable to argue with them. Because it is quite possible that I have, and am currently, ruining my future. Unable to pay my loans, unable to find employment, unable to make my way in the world, and my greatest fear is that I will never be able to get out of this situation. Honestly, I can’t really afford to be alive right now, it’s just a luxury I’m unwilling to give up.

I truly feel empty

I started a new job in August of 2012. It was perfect. An engaging job at a stable company in an industry of instability. I had fun, really I did. It was only part time, but it paid well. At a certain point it became obvious that I didn't really fit in. I mean this is normal for me. I'm a quiet guy functioning in a space with fast-talking loudmouths. For a multitude of reasons, I did not make it past the probationary period. I timed it well, to still be in that fucking frame. In my eyes, this was nothing less than personal and something less than legal, but this is an at-will state, and their official reason was legal.
After that, I rejected one low-paying job outright. That was particularly crushing, since at one point in my life I had thought that was my dream job. It would still be good, but the details were just enough for me to gather my last shreds of dignity and say no. No to my erstwhile dream job as a truly unemployed person. In the last couple months of 2012, I worked a seasonal gig and had one contract gig. Those were great experience with good, familiar folks, but they cannot provide steady employment.
Now, I'm living off savings and the occasional cash injection from a writing or consulting gig. On one hand, I feel like I should take anything, and on the other hand, I've been rejected for grocery stocking jobs. It's exhausting trying to network through acquaintances and virtual friends, all while re-writing your resume everyday. I've discovered that people think I still work at previous employers. I'm surviving on what are basically handouts, be it work or other, from my friend, mentor, and ostensible business partner. I do not know where I would be without him and I am exceedingly grateful for his help. Yet, I truly feel empty.
My parents taught me to be devoted to work and to find fulfillment through work. That isn't what I believe, but it still sticks with me. There has to be something for me, right? Something worthwhile and fulfilling. Due to my education level, I hear people think I will get bored. I don't care about being bored. You know what is more boring? Being unemployed. On a similar note, because I have worked in the entertainment industry, people think their job, company, or industry will not engage me. Again, who cares? It's more likely cover for just not liking my resume, but who knows. I'm left to wonder in my free time.

How did this happen to me?

I am 26 years old, and i graduated with my master's in international affairs 9 months ago. i have interviewed at 15 different organizations here in new york, several of whom i was a final candidate with— it seems like there's always someone who's just a teeny bit better than me getting the job. although i logically know that i am doing everything that's within my control right, it's become increasingly difficult to keep a clear head.

I feel like i'm losing my self-concept— paradoxically, i'm great at talking myself up in interviews but increasingly unsure of what i want to do, where i should be, and where i am going. it's hard to imagine going anyway. i feel crazy because i don't know how much of it is me (am i just a lazy, useless, directionless person, wasting all day on the internet?) and how much of it is situational (i'm just feeling lost because so much of our definition of self comes from a career).

I spend most days completely by myself, applying to a job or two and then wasting time on the internet for 8 hours until my boyfriend gets home from work. he is pretty much the only thing making me happy. i babysit part-time, but have started to hate that, too. it only adds to how useless i feel. occasionally i sign up for a volunteer event, which i then have to drag myself to, if i don't cancel at the last minute. i constantly berate myself for wasting time and for failing to develop myself in some meaningful way, but nothing i have considered doing feels meaningful or enjoyable. i can't seem to stop comparing myself to others, many of whom seem to be enjoying their lives, making exciting career and life choices, and growing as people. i feel like i'm stagnating. like i'm wasting my life. it's as if nothing i've already achieved matters anymore, the fact that i am blessed to have a great relationship, somewhere to live, people who love me— it feels impossible for me to appreciate them knowing that i have failed at what, especially in new york, is the defining factor in success: having a job. having a career. having a path. i see no future. trying to think about it makes me feel even more confused and shitty about myself. how did this happen to me?

Previously

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 to Hamilton@Gawker.com.]