Unemployment Stories, Vol. 36: 'Shittycity, USA'

The official U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7.5%. For African-Americans, young people, and Europeans, the situation is much worse. Each week, we bring you true stories of unemployment, straight from the unemployed. This is what's happening out there.

I don't know if we will recover

My husband was fired in May of 2011, four months after our son was born and four months after the bank started proceedings to foreclose on our house. He was certain that he’d bout out of work a couple of weeks, a month tops because he had a couple of other companies tell him that they’d take him if ever he decided he wanted to leave his job. Just in case, though, he signed up for unemployment.

What he hadn’t counted on was the non-compete clause he had signed when he was hired. Hidden in his paperwork, never pointed out to him or explained when he signed, was wording that precluded him from working in his industry for a year after he left his company. Despite everyone telling my husband that non-competes were rarely enforced no other business in his line of work would even talk to him once they learned about it.

(As an aside, we learned later that his former company went after another fired employee three times trying to sue her for breaching the non-compete clause. They only stopped after her new employer threatened to countersue for harassment.)

He sent out resumes, he hit up all the temporary agencies, he went to job fairs and called up his friends and former coworkers for leads. In the first three months he landed three interviews. And that was it. Companies didn’t respond to applications or resumes. He didn’t hear anything. It was like he was shouting into a void.

My husband was unemployed for eighteen months. Eighteen months of fighting the bank for our house. Eighteen months of me working every waking hour sewing to make up for the lost income, while he took care of our son and daughter. I doubled the number of conventions and events I did. I took on commissions that I really didn’t have the time for because otherwise our phone or some other utility was going to be turned off. I left my husband home with our six-month-old to fly to a convention across the country because we couldn’t afford to bring them along.

We kept telling ourselves that it would get better. We just had to hold out a little longer, tighten our belts a little more. We just had to work harder or smarter and we’d make it. Every time we had to choose between gas and food. The week the two of us ate only rice and green beans because we needed to save the milk and eggs for the kids. The day they finally did turn off the phone and the internet and we knew it was going to be at least a week before we could pay to have it turned back on. It would get better. Soon. Hopefully.

After eighteen months he did get another job. He was hired by the former coworker above at a competing business. By then his unemployment had run out and I had started eating less to stretch what food we had. I didn’t know when we’d have the money to buy more.

My husband has been employed since September of 2012. He is considered an hourly exempt employee, which means he is not paid for any hours he works over forty. He staffs warehouses in our area, dealing with jobs that pay $9 and hour and that treat employees like cogs. He’s not happy at his job but at least he has a steady paycheck and we have health insurance again. I have had to close up shop because the active toddler makes sewing impossible, and he can’t take time off to watch our kids when I’m at conventions. I’ve started another business, which I can work on in the evenings. It’s a start up and so isn’t pulling in much of anything yet. We got into a program that helped us catch up on the mortgage and work out a solution with the bank. We don’t have to worry about the roof over our heads.

I think those eighteen months changed us in ways that we’re not going to recover from. We constantly fear that if he says no at work, he’ll be fired. Despite the fact that he works hard and gotten excellent feedback from his supervisors, he can’t shake the anxiety. I’m short-tempered and depressed a lot of the time. Whenever a bill comes in the mail or the phone rings I tense up. I keep waiting for some new horribleness to come along and take away what little gains we’ve made over the last couple of months.

I don’t know if we will recover from this. I hope so.

UPDATE: The writer of this story tells me today, "Last Monday my husband came home at lunch to tell me he had been let go."

My dad

I drove up my parents' driveway on a sleepy April afternoon. I noticed my dad's car in the driveway, with a full banker's box on the front passenger's seat. Having been laid off two year's prior, I knew what had happened before I walked in.

"What are you doing home so early?" I said as I entered. I knew, but I didn't want him to know that I knew. "I lost my job," my 58 year-old father said. "Your mother isn't going to like this." I knew my parents were having problems, and I knew that my mother just needed one final straw to file papers. This was it. He hadn't told her yet.

He had worked in this job he despised for 35 years, making a good salary and supporting our family, while my mom taught in our town and we went to the colleges of our choice. They were high school sweethearts. He started off as a writer at Reader's Digest, but when my mom became pregnant (unexpectedly) with my older sister, he took a job at GE that his brother in-law had got him. My mother arranged it. He knew the needed the extra money, so he gave up his journalism career (dream?) and started in the medical instrument manufacturing and distribution field. Thrilling.

The departure was decent. After 35 years of service, he parted with a year's pay, plus accrued vacation and sick time. He had an IRA. He was eligible for unemployment. He had experience. But he was staring 60 in the face.

My mother filed for divorce within a month. She had her reasons. My father was unfaithful, and suffered from severe depression. She wasn't going to sit around and support him emotionally AND financially now. She had her own life to live.

My father is 62 in May. He held a 6-month contract position at a medical equipment manufacturing facility, and quit/was fired from a similar full-time position since his layoff. He continued his lifestyle by spending his severance and spending his IRA. He's broke now, and will move in with my family of 4 within the year. He's tried to kill himself, and tried to gamble his assets for living expenses. He won't get hired ever again, and he has nothing to show for working at a job he hated for 35 years, except three highly educated daughters with low-paying jobs. He doesn't have health insurance and his meds cost more than my food. I have no answers for him. I wish I could give it all back so he could have been a writer. At least he would have that while sitting broke and idle through his 60s/70s/80s.

The Madison Avenue veteran

I am one of the “old” people in the UNDERCLASS!...

I started in NYC at the bottom in an ad agency on Madison answering phones in my early twenties. My receptionist job was mastered in 2 months time. The owner of the agency kept telling me I had to stay at my reception desk but I couldn’t. I had to be in the main offices with the art directors and the copy writers. Why? Because I had to be in the “advertising business” in an important way and contribute significantly. Soon I was promoted to a manager and I had fled the reception area forever. That was 34 years ago! I am now 57.

After climbing the white collar corporate ladder for years and years I finally made it into management and leadership! My resume is outstanding. Three fortune 100 companies. In total, 34 years of experience. Every step I took was measured and thoughtful on my way up. I built it! And I also made sure I was saving for retirement. Blessed yes, but I earned it! No one gave me what was once my stellar career! I built it with my tenacity, courage, intelligence, spirit, drive and hard work into the midnight hour. I did all the “right” things and tolerated some really horrific political environments but I never quit and never gave up until I succeeded. And I did!

I am unemployed since January 1, 2011. That is 2 years and counting! I apply everywhere I can for positions that I know I qualify for. I interview. These interviews are always on the phone. Rarely have I had any interviews in person. And when I did I always made sure I was well dressed, professional and polite.

I do not expect to earn the income I had all my life but this situation of being unemployed at 57 and a single woman is absolutely crippling. And demoralizing. I am at wits end. Depressed. Isolated. Alone. Broke. And crying all the time. I went through my savings. I am now reaching the end of my IRA. Everything I worked for, any dream in life I once had before this condition is now gone or going as I write this. And I cannot seem to accept that I am soon to be completely broke.

The few friends that call me every once in awhile tell me to take anything. But in order for me to take anything I need to be offered something. And before an offer I need to qualify. I am not qualified for all of the “smaller” positions. I wish I was! I have an expertise and a specialty that was built over 34 years. These friends mean well but they have no idea that employers do not hire you if you have too much experience. They only hire you if you have the exact industry, exact skill sets and exact knowledge of THEIR business. So those positions that only require 3 – 10 years experience are out it appears. The outstanding career I built that proved so well for over 34 years is now against me. NO! I take that back! The real issue here is they don’t want someone that is 57 years old AND with 34 years of experience.

My living situation, my small apartment and car is not by any means “living large” but am I now to believe I have to go into someone’s garage? And if that is the case well then I don’t know anyone that will let me stay in their garage. Do you? Might as well just shred my resume and throw it out the window because it’s apparent! My resume is now irrelevant! And so am I!

Shittycity, USA

My husband and I recently moved to another state for his IT job. I work in marketing, have two degrees and extensive experience. I was fortunate to find a terrible job (then another...then another) after moving, but I quickly learned that the job postings on job sites and "online professional networks" are complete and utter bullshit. One cannot expect to find a job sending out resumes online...that's the equivalent of a Facebook 'Poke' now. I have to meet people. Networking is very difficult when you're new in town, especially to a small town. Where are 'the people' exactly? I live in a suburb of a suburb...Chicken Country. There isn't shit here except chicken shit.
That being said, after a year of horrible jobs, I found steady work making much less than I should be with my experience—$11,000 less to be exact. Why? Because the only job I found after three years in this new state is a state job. It costs money to work; the money I pay in gas and car maintenance just to get to work (an hour away) dips into the red after all bills are paid. I can't save for a new car...I have to pay bills. I spend around $5,000 a year to have this job. I need to make a bare-bones minimum of $36,000 just to make ends meet before transportation costs to my job are paid. We already refinanced our house to get a lower interest rate, but selling our home to downsize isn't really an option in Shittycity, USA.
My husband doesn't seem to think I am trying hard enough to "make opportunities." Some people don't think I'm doing enough, or the right things, but they don't have any other suggestions. For Christ's sake, I've been job hunting since April 2010: going to Chamber of Commerce events, meeting Rotary Club members, joining leadership programs, attending conferences, networking with other industry folks, checking job postings with the paper and said worthless job sites. What the fuck else am I supposed to do? I can't just quit because the money I do make does help some, but the money I spend to make this money begs the question of holding the job long-term. Forget about pay raise. State workers haven't seen a raise in at least 4 years, and as many as 7. As I put it to my friends who tell me to 'just ask for a raise': "Did YOU vote for a state worker pay raise? No? Oh, okay. Just checking." Because I make the absolute max for this position.
I recognize my situation is not as bad as the Veteran with the JD, but got dammit, can I ever sympathize. That condescending bullshit of, "Oh, if you just do XYZ, you could get a job!" WHY, THANK YOU, I NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT. For the ones who have never been jobless, the employed certainly like to spout off job hunting advice. I definitely drink more now to forget the "what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-with-my-life" thoughts, and I'm not even mentioning how it feels to receive unhelpful and often condescending advice from someone who has no clue what it's like.
If anything, I guess the point of my story is to tell the Holy Employed to lay off. Some of us are busting our asses to get a better job; it only seems easy to them because they are on the outside looking in. They haven't received rejection after rejection after false lead after a job posting that's been up for 6 months. After headhunters call. After pouring everything you have into a cover letter only to be directed to some canned, automated online application. After your spouse tells you to just try harder. Job hunting is exhausting; it is more stressful than actual employed work. So shut the fuck up, Thy Holy Employed. It's easy to cast judgement from your throne.

The expat

With some retrospect, I could probably identify a few points where I took the wrong road, though at the time I was soaring. I felt invigorated by my early adulthood decisions. After finishing from a respectable university with honors, I hit the road to find myself. My undergraduate adventure was generously supported by my school, so I could graduate with no debt and some savings which I had expected to spend at school. With a social sciences degree behind me, I only had the vague notion that "doing good" was important. Unfortunately I didn't really have the skill set to implement this desire.

My oversized backpack and I visited South America first. Seeing the poverty which had always been taught to me as abstract statistics hurt. I felt compelled to do something but had no clue what, other than continue along with academia. I kept traveling and eventually enrolled in a master's course in Europe. My idealism was still strong, but when I realized how many professors were sleeping with their students and the relatively loose morals, I questioned what good I would ever do writing academic papers. So, I left that world and slowly entered reality. And it quickly pained me.

Realizing I had limited opportunities back in the States, and worrying about my father's finances (he would soon lose our family house due to his own long-term unemployment), I lingered in Europe. I found odd jobs teaching English, consulting with firms on their marketing, and basically trying to dip my hands into anything where I could pull a few bucks. I would drop by hostels and guide them on tours. I'd meet foreigners and help them find flats. I became a middleman to everyone I could think of. I was proud to be resourceful, but knew I was just getting by. This continued for a couple years and most of my relations suffered. I drank too often. I socialized too much. I partied as if I were an undergraduate, probably making up for the relatively benign years I had had before as a self-professed nerd. Then I fell into the dream job, making a huge impact and helping the environment. I was paid a ridiculous sum because I was a foreigner with a master's degree. I was saving thousands a month, living sweetly, and most of my worries disappeared. Over time, the job would turn out to be less ideal than I expected. The impact was more beneficial to the boss than anyone else and after a couple years we mutually decided not to extend my contract.

Then came a year of unemployment which destroyed my three year relationship, ate my savings, and left me with a deep despondence. Eventually, at 28 years old I found myself a glorified paid internship in the humanitarian sector, leading me to relocate again. I worked my ass off to afford to take this on by managing a hotel at night. I slept little and for almost a year this was how I got on. I burnt myself out but I was doing work I was proud of. My skills were developing and I was receiving recognition. I ended up getting a fantastic offer to do the work I was best suited for and resigned from my internship and the hotel only to have the offer rescinded days later. I ended up fearing another year unemployed, but within a week I had an invitation to India. I'm here now, leading the life I always wanted, helping the most impoverished of this world with the skills I've developed over the years. I'm not teaching English and then abandoning the children after I've had enough, I'm not doing yoga, I'm not an evangelical: but I am making an impact. Each day I see these dusty streets, open sewage, and the people stuck in these places, and I realize how good my unemployment period was. My worst would be the best for much of the world. I have rediscovered my youthful idealism and though I live on almost nothing, I get by. I miss my friends and much from a past that's become too distance and expensive to return to, but being able to do good work seems to be enough. And so it goes. It took many steps, but I found the happiness I was seeking.

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]