Nearly 12 million Americans are officially unemployed. Millions more are chronically underemployed, or have dropped out of the work force. This week marks the next-to-last regular installment of our true stories of unemployment. This is what's happening out there.
I am not in a good place these days, apart from feeling angry and depressed about being unemployed after 28 years as an LPN, I am approaching 1 1/2 years out of work, I am now living with my elderly parents after losing my house of ten years. All my collective belongings are now in a storage locker. After sending out numerous applications and receiving little if any offers I did receive a job offer in July 2012 and was finally again working following a termination in December of 2011. I soon realized the culture that existed within my new job was not one that was tolerable of an older worker that would not be condescended to or browbeaten, and eventually I saw that my days there were numbered. It wasn't long before any situation was created where I would be accused of violating a resident's right to refuse medication. They subsequently informed me of the situation and I was then suspended without pay. Following a cursory investigation by DSHS, they found their complaint had no merit and declined to investigate further. Undaunted, they attempted to appeal the decision to grant my unemployment and following a subsequent hearing the judge again found their argument had no merit and thankfully I received unemployment.
Although I am grateful to receive unemployment, it does not grant the self esteem and pride that comes from employment. I see my elderly parents who have worked all their lives Including my father that never quit working until he was physically unable and I'm embarrassed at 52 to explain why I am not working.
I have worked extremely hard, and have garnered much experience in every aspect of my chosen field, but I am chagrined that at this time in my life, the doors to employment seem closed.
The woman in tech
Like many of these stories, I believed I was doing the right thing – that my parents raised me to believe that life was a meritocracy, and those who work hard and try to get along with everyone will succeed – or at least stay employed. I’m pretty sure that’s not valid anymore – if ever. I’m writing this on the plane to my new destination where I hope to find work. I wish I could say I’m optimistic, and to outside employers I put on a positive demeanor. On the inside, uncertainty and fear gnaw away at me.
I’m a woman in my late 30s working in tech – ironically enough in a particular role that has gotten more and more publicity over the past couple of years. I know contracts come and go in tech, but since about 2009 it’s been rough. I was unemployed for 2 years – including depression, death of a family member, being fired – and finally found a job consulting, which luckily I was at for 18 months, but just got laid off from that one as well. I won’t get into the backstabbing and stress – there’s no point in going into massive amounts of detail of the past, when my stresses are with the present. I can’t get through to the unemployment folks on the phone – I spend hours each day trying getting through. I would have filed online, but have to speak to a person because of my last job, where I was traveling to multiple states and filed taxes in each one. At this point, I will take support from any state – just something to cover rent would be nice.
I definitely need to give up on the job ads and directly contact companies and network like hell – which is difficult to do convincingly when you know you come off sounding desperate because you don’t have work. I’m trying to remain hopeful –I’ll land in New York, which will be expensive and the stress of living in boxes and couch surfing until I find a place to live is high. I don’t know how I can find a place to live when I don’t have a job – I will have to try to convince landlords that having savings and unemployment AND looking for work makes me responsible, as does a good credit history and references. It’s a gamble, but better than the town I was living before, where there were little prospects. Like most Americans, now I am itinerant – friends and family all over, and little sense of feeling like there’s a home. I know the days of a golden watch are gone. I never expected those days to happen. But now, approaching 40, the dream of a home isn’t going to happen, or vacations or any of that traditional middle class stuff. Heck, a stable rental situation without having to share with a group of people is the goal I’m shooting for. I’m lucky not having student debt – paid it off out of university because I was a good girl – but each layoff dips into savings, and retirement not only seems far off, but little chance of making enough to put away for retirement.
Something I plan to do – and have to make a priority – is to help out others when I’m employed, or do some volunteering where I can, especially with people trying to help with resumes, networking, and supporting my fellow middle class warriors. The government increasingly just doesn’t have the money to cover services to take care of us, and corporations don’t really want to – we live in a country of at will employment, which means they don’t even have to have a reason to quit us. If we were dating a person like that with such little disregard for others, we’d be saying how sociopathic that behavior is. That leaves small businesses – who need our support to keep going since they’re the heart of this country because of their values, and each other, who must help each other out. The only way to make periods of great stress survivable is to have a support system - which includes those reading, and those writing these stories. Keep your dauber up. And support each other. You never know if one day you’ll be adding your own story here too.
The war veteran
I am a child of immigrants. Or I should say I am someone who moved to this country at a preschool age with my parents from a war torn European country (the Balkans region) full of bad memories, nightmares and lost hopes. Needless to say I was awed by my new homeland and often dreamed of being a US infantry soldier and fighting all the bad people around the globe because USA USA and FREEDOM FRIES just roll off the tongue. After high school I enlisted immediately and would proceed to kick ass in training and especially in combat against those "bad people" of Iraq. I wore my ribbons with pride and probably more often than not I wore it because I tried to mask the feeling of being had by our government, losing any belief in the existence of God on the roads of Baghdad.I was wounded in combat and soon after diagnosed with PTSD which I also tried to hide from anyone inquiring into how my life was going at the time. A months later I was given my medical retirement papers with 50% disability rating. In a month I have lost 2/3 of my income and proceeded to survive on my savings and credit cards. Abandoned by my government and ignored by my conservative muslim family who could never understand why I wore the uniform in the first place and never spoke to me again after I scolded their world and faith in some higher being who didn't care that 20 children would get massacred by a suicide bomber for no reason. Few years later and I'm all alone. No credit, no credit cards, one shitty payment from VA that barely covers rent, electricity and food from Dollar general stores. In the beginning I was hopeful that with a 30 point advantage on other federal applicants I would find employment quickly but for some reason I never even got a even a worthless phone call after submitting 30 applications in my field of training. Then came the harsh reality that I would have to go out and compete with other "civilians" for manual labor jobs. Walmart, Target, Home Depot.. you name it I applied for it. I never received even one response. What's with all the press releases by the WH that veterans returning from war would have a job opportunity? What's with all this nonsense about Wal Mart hiring 100k+ veterans? Where is my place in 2013? 20+ years to the day after I landed at JFK as a refugee I have to wonder if I'd be better off being a fresh body landing at JFK tonight with an I-94 in my hand, a working body, normal brain and most of all HOPE.
I have a BA from one of the most expensive private colleges in the country. I met the most amazing people in the world there, and I met my future husband there. I owe a lot to that school. Specifically, I owe them $80,000. I think the biggest slap in the face was senior year when, instead of a traditional senior gift the FINANCIAL AID OFFICE asked us for a $5,000 donation. Seriously? You need $5k? Where the fuck did my 80K go, then? But I digress.
I knew - I KNEW - that degree would be worth it. No way would I not find a job. I have been supporting myself since I was 17 and was no stranger to job hunting. I thought I was a fucking pro. And I did get a job at first. My then-fiance and I moved to a big city and I found a job within the first two weeks. Bingo. Didn't make a lot but it was something. I saved some money but spent it all on our (very small) wedding and soon after we moved to a military town in the south. Again I thought, no problem. I can do this. No sweat. Let the job countdown begin.
But God in Heaven there is NOTHING here. It is going on four months now and every day I struggle to feel positive and like I am making some kind of progress. I've applied so many places just to receive the ringing in your ears that tells you you'll never be hearing back. I actually made it to a training - as a fast food delivery driver - but I broke down in tears during my lunch break. Hadn't I struggled so much to get to college so I would never have to work in fast food again? It just felt so cosmically unfair that after taking out mountains of loans to pay for a dream school I thought would be worth it I should have to end up in that stupid fucking polyester shirt and visor again. I texted my husband 'I can't do this' and left, sure that something else would come along. So far only a part-time gig at a coffee house an hour away from my town has, and I can't really afford the gas to get there and back if I'm only working a few hours a week. And yet I feel guilty that I didn't take either of these positions. I feel like I should be grateful for any bone thrown my way, however putrid and lean. I don't talk to my friends that much because repeating my non-story of listlessness and boredom is tedious and embarrassing. I am having trouble not complaining. How are people allowed to get away with charging so much fucking money for school? How is the minimum wage still so low? What can POSSIBLY be done about it? Will I really be paying for these until I'm 50, or will my Mom who co-signed be paying after my inevitably low-wage job can't cover the payments? This is the last month my savings will cover my monthly payment and I am terrified. I swing between feeling like I deserved to reject the delivery job and like a fucking idiot for throwing it away.
If it were just me, if I weren't married to the person I love and respect most in this world, I would just disappear. I would run away and change my name and never been heard from again. Maybe I'd become a stripper. Whatever. I don't see much of a future for anyone in this economy. I just don't want to be the brick that drowns my husband.
I have always been comfortable knowing that my life had a certain path. Finish high school, go to university, get a job and live happily ever after. I knew that I may never be rich and famous, and live an overall ordinary life. Its been I-don't-even-want-to-count-but-probably-around 8 months since I graduated college. I don't know what to do. I have applied for 500 jobs in one of the best economies. I have had 2 interviews.
These three facts will almost assuredly make me cry when I say them out loud. Its the helplessness which strikes me the hardest. Like someone punching me in the stomach. I don't know how many times Ive asked myself what Im doing wrong. I remember how happy and proud my parents were when I graduated with honors, and now the only conversation I have with them is about how I need to find a job and am costing them too much money. Not that I blame them, its just an overwhelming amount of guilt on top of whatever other stress there is.
The few times that I have had a tiny amount of hope have been amazing. There are no words anymore to describe how irrationally elated I become when there is just a sliver of hope. I probably ruin it myself, come to think of it, going to the interview more giddy then a teenager who has just been given a car, kissed by their crush, and named prom queen all at the same time. Then when it doesn't work out it just feels dark. Dark and empty and hopeless and you're clearly useless to the world and just terrible. My personal lowest point was when I got passed up for a job in retail. Retail. Nothing tells you that you are worthless more than "we don't think your capable of operating a cash register or folding clothes".
Not to mention, on top of it all, having no health insurance. I injured my ankle badly and didnt go to the doctors or anything (note I said injured because I don't know if it was sprained, broken, or whatever) and it still hurts about 5 months afterwards and occasionally swells. Then there is the dizziness. It could be an inner ear thing, it could be an iron deficiency, it could be a brain tumor, or it could be panic attacks. Your guess is as good as mine. Even with my own body I am helpless. 6 months of sudden dizziness attacks and I have to just let it be.
Most people tell me I should just go and do my masters or phd. I have thought about it but it would mean about adding 200,000 dollars in debt on top of the debt I have from my bachelors. After being told that my bachelors would be a worth while investment which would ensure my awesome future (keep in mind this was pre-recession 2008 talk), you can imagine how willing I am to put myself further into debt for an empty promise.
I know I'm not the only one, and that there are people who do not have parents or anyone who can help them through unemployment. But that's the thing, when you are unemployed you do feel like you are alone. While everyone goes and live their lives and complains about their shitty jobs, it isolates you. You regularly are reminded about how no one wants you, no one thinks you are valuable, and that overall, your existence doesn't matter.
A person close to me just passed up a fantastic job that paid extremely well because it was not their "dream job". When unemployed, these things seem like you're being hit in the face with a baseball bat.
Off the grid
I grew up on a family farm in rural Southern Illinois for the first 18 years of my life. At the age of 28, after two degrees and daring a cross-country move that ended badly, I'm back living there again.
I was the straight-A student who never skipped class and, though I strayed at times, I always tried to make choices with an eye beyond the hay bales and wheat harvests. It's a good and decent life, but it's not mine. I began working nights and weekends at 15, finished my bachelor's degree from a state school with little debt, and even accepted an assistantship from a Tennessee school to defray some costs of pursuing my master's. For my whole tenure there, I lived on the bottom level of a wacky professor's house, no less. Just like his ex-wife, who came and went during my stay, I was happy to cut ties altogether.
An account executive position at a major city newspaper was my first adult gig after getting my degree. Selling newspaper advertising in a tough economy was almost impossible, but I managed well enough to maintain my place in the pecking order there for 18 months and made a few friends to boot. An independent book publisher came calling in August 2008, and the salary offer and fringe benefits looked too good to resist. In April 2009, a good chunk of the workforce got laid off due to financial issues and management "difficulties."
After a brief period of pajama mornings and milkshakes at midnight, I picked up extra work at my part-time job and started piecing together a few freelance writing projects. An emphasis on "free," at least at the beginning. (Now they're just cheap.) Unattached from the regular pace of the working day, you tend to get out of rhythm and lose touch with friends. You take on any task to make ends meet. In the past few years, among other temp gigs, I've distributed Slim Fast samples, sold plant food at Costco and, when a local plumber hosted a promotion, I managed a carnival game that involved tossing beanbags into a toilet. Dues paying, which I did without complaint.
Finally, I gave up my little one-bedroom apartment and moved in with some people I knew to cut costs. Even for a private guy like me, the arrangement worked just fine. More steady work came in the form of a low-paying job as editor of an alternative newspaper, which became a constant flurry of black-tie affairs, Broadway shows and big-wig luncheons. The exact opposite of my home life. It was exciting for a while, the wining and dining and whatnot, but eventually the bulging egos and axes to grind get a bit old. The furious, 24/7 demands of print media and a difficult boss, too. Unemployment stats disguise the number of people who are utterly miserable where they work. My health suffered. Strep throat twice in three months. Again, I retreated to my part-time job, where the low-key, laidback and mostly fun environment was better suited to my taste. And I took on more freelance, of course.
The small stuff, though, started to accumulate. And I sweat it. When your world is full of unpredictability and unpaid bills, your foundation shakes. I applied for more permanent, full-time positions, but to no avail. The steering column on my car broke; the student loans were intimidating; the roommate's rent check bounced; the overtime hours and under-paying work left me unsatisfied and plain tired. Last spring, just six months after a kidney infection, I had a nasty sinus episode that then turned into a gum infection. Only over a dozen dentist visits and a couple doses of antibiotics ensured that after a whole lost summer, I finally wouldn't wake up to a pool of blood on my pillow every morning. I had no health insurance.
It's a fast-paced world and I felt lost and forgotten in all the noise. Dejected and defeated, I needed to break loose. Friends in Denver had been encouraging me to make a change. So after a few months of cajoling, I did. I applied for a position at a downtown office, and surprisingly received an enthusiastic response. So on Oct. 1 I arrived in town around 6 in the morning, interviewed at 11, and was hired by 2. It was basically a call center environment, and the pay was pretty mediocre. But a job's a job.
It didn't fit right. I struggled to make friends. I dealt with new apartment repairs and old memories. You build a wall, needing to protect yourself when people approach because they may hurt you. I had a hard time even speaking some days. I guess the lesson is "don't let things bottle up."
The rest is like a fever dream. Last December, I had a delirious spell. I fought with the parents on the phone, my childhood friend got an earful of my problems during a freezing phone call, and a person who I'd really come to care for sent a flagrant text that really stung. To make it up to me, we went out with some others after work on Friday night. A few drinks, a couple jokes, and then a twist in the conversation that hit too close to home. I felt ugly and useless. After so much devastation, I'd snapped. Only on the inside, of course.
I walked 20 minutes home alone with no coat. I'm not sure now if I even slept. The body is exhausted, but the brain churns on.
My friends drove me to the airport the next day. I cried as I said my goodbyes in front of the terminal. I'd return to collect my stuff, but it was over. In just 18 hours, I had broken my lease and quit my job.
I am not a crazy person; I am only human.
It felt claustrophobic enough in graduate school renting space from the professor, a basement apartment usually reserved for bike racks and barbecue grills. In this little shack, the suffocating feeling has returned; there's no room to think or even breathe. It's all really a series of "What if's?" and endless questions anyway. Why not pursue another field? Am I unemployable? Does anyone care?
I sit by as close friends and acquaintances experience success and happiness in their careers. I also know some of those achievements involve selling out or compromising in ways I can't imagine. It's hard not to be jealous, regardless of how the rewards were gained. The next person to tell me to hang in there better be pointing towards a noose and an open doorway.
Everyone has advice; no one has answers.
Gone too long off the grid, and I'm afraid I'll be in danger of becoming a slice of rancid meat that no one wants. At this point, I'd rather ease off the grid forever than be driven to extinction by my lack of family money, hot connections, technical skills, six-pack abs, or whatever it takes these days to succeed.
A lot of people will read this and try to brush it off as no big thing, offering some gem of wisdom. Odds are that eventually I'll persevere and be employed and invested in my life again. "You worked so hard and deserve it," they'll say. It will all be a load of crap. Hope and faith and hard work are wonderful things (and I still do believe in them very much), but they're not always linked to tangible results. Some people just fall through the cracks on this earth. The responsibility in our lives is to be grounded and act gracefully so those around us don't. When the worm turns, I'll be a lot more careful when giving inspiration and a lot more subtle when sharing my successes, both in person and online. And a lot more inclined to offer my story as comfort.
I'd love, for the first time in a long time, to feel valued. For now, laying low, being humbled, and offering a message to others of "Hey, I've been there too" will have to suffice.
The full archive of our "Unemployment Stories" series can be found here.
[Next week will be the final regular installment of our "Unemployment Stories" series. My sincere thanks to everyone who has written in. We are no longer accepting direct submissions. We would like to build a Kinja page so that people can continue to submit their stories to our site. If you are interested in being the administrator of that page (posting emails and maintaining the page), please email Hamilton@Gawker.com. Image via Getty.]