Unemployment Stories, Vol. Six: 'If It Weren't For My Children I Probably Would Have Killed Myself By Now'
America is in the midst of an unemployment crisis. Each week, we're bringing you true stories from the unemployed. Today: sex work, startups, suicidal thoughts, and more. This is what's happening out there.
The unexpected sex worker
I am 28 years old, a recent graduate of a UC and immediately after graduation I was flooded with opportunities for unpaid internships. I interned for [prominent person] and was essentially manipulated to work for free with the promise of a paid position that never materialized. After that, I worked minimum wage at a boutique, making less than when I worked at [a store] while in college (a job I quit so that I could focus on my studies and raise my child without going insane) and while I still work for minimum wage, I have been diagnosed with an ulcer and night terrors from all the stress after not being able to find a job. My story isn't really any different than anyone else who came from middle class or below in my generation: Debt, unpaid internships, single parent, etc. Though with all of the dedication I put forth in my University to "work towards a better future" I had to think quickly or else I wouldn't be able to afford the gas to get my child to school or pay for his piano lessons-not to mention eat. So while not destitute, I still live with my parents. I briefly considered Nancy Botwin-ing myself and selling weed, but fell into selling my panties on the internet, a surprisingly lucrative venture given that all these New York finance bozos were buying their little fetish prizes and tipping $100-$200 each time. How ironic that the same pricks that destroyed our economy were now tossing me little, sordid crumbs so that I could stay afloat. Oh, thank you. What happened after this surprised me, even though I've never demonized sex work, these guys were sending me messages begging for photos, videos and in some cases a romp in a hotel room. Now I have found myself dabbling in the occasional sex work to make ends meet where I meet 212 area code men in the bay area and am essentially a reluctant weird, glasses wearing call girl. I just wanted to work for a nice nonprofit and continue writing on the side. Dang.
That is my story.
The working class life
I grew up in a very stressed family; Grandma was home trying to take care of me, mom was working 40hrs a week and taking my father to and from his job and back to prison when he was done, and my half-sister wanted very little to do with me being 10yrs younger then her.
Needless to say college was NOT an option.
I started out at a McDonalds, and when my Grandma got horribly sick and was in and out of hospitals my managers were giving me tons of grief over having to call off due to family issues. So I quit.
Blockbuster came after that, where my scheduling manager just couldn't grasp the concept that I was taking the bus and therefore could not work before 1pm. I was continually scheduled earlier and then blamed for not coming in on time and then let go.
Next was a little middle eastern restaurant that was wonderful. Up until they closed down because the managers didn't know what they were doing.
When that same middle eastern store re-opened under new management I was called in to be a "cashier". Which included such managerial duties as the store inventory, the wait staff scheduling, and somehow knowing everything that was going on without being told for $8 an hour. One day a maintenance man was talking with MY supervisor in the kitchen, both ignored my questions to what was going on, and then mr. maintenance came out to use the phone. When the owner called a few minutes later and CHEWED me out for letting this maintenance man call him, I decided I was done. I mean, how was I supposed to know what was going on or who he was calling when NO ONE would answer these questions for me. So I walked out, thinking I could find another job pretty easily since I have never had problems before.
Since then I have been proved wrong. I walked out in October of last year and am still searching for a new job.
Since November of last year I have put in 3+ applications into McDonalds, Wendys, Taco Bell, Arbys, Burger King, Subway, every Coney Island in the area, every restaurant and hotel in the area, and any/all Craigslist job opportunities I can find to name just a few.
My boyfriends mom has helped me to get an EBT food stamp card so we're not starving at least.
To top all of this off, my mother had married a man who insisted on working and letting her stay at home, until the day came when he decided (out of the blue) that he was done with her and left. This was after he convinced her to take out a $50,000 mortgage on her home so HE could build himself a decently large building in the back of her yard, a new trailer for his civil war re-enactments, a second trailer and a motorcycle.
Thanks to all that my mother (who is 56yrs old) is having an even TOUGHER time finding a job since she is over weight and hasn't been working in 8+ years.
My food stamps are supposed to cover only me, but now they cover the food for 3 people.
3 people who continually put in applications and resume's everywhere they can and have not gotten a single call back.
We keep going out to pawn shops and onto craigslist and everywhere else to sell anything that we can part with (which has been some very sentimental pieces like my fathers guns ((he died back in 2003)) and some of my grandmothers jewelry) just to try and keep our electricity, phones, and internet working.
My mother just found out that she can cash in the interest that has accumulated on a life insurance policy her mother bought for her back in 1956 (right after she was born), and thank god for that because otherwise we'd lose the internet and electricity the same way we just lost the cell phones. Now my mother worries about what we will do when she dies...
I hope I haven't bored you with my many many complaints about my life, but you did ask people to write in and talk about how it is to be unemployed. And I'll tell you one last thing before wrapping this up; when you get $200 a month on an EBT card, you learn to "love" beef ramen noodles mixed with the cheapest can of vegetable beef soup you can find.
I've been unemployed 32 of the last 41 months. After being laid off as a writer and editor for a Viacom website in March 2009 (the year the company posted net earnings of $1.6 billion), it took me until January 2010 to find a contract job that lasted just four months (which I hated, but at least it allowed my unemployment benefits to stretch further) until the work ran out.
Despite applying for upwards of 100 jobs a week - including doing all the right things, carefully crafting cover letters, networking, spending "full-time hours" on the job hunt, even trying to start my own business - it took me until August 2011 to find a full-time job, as an editor at a weekly magazine in Chicago. In the meantime, I did a lot of odd jobs: I taught blow-job classes, served as a transvaginal ultrasound model, proctored law-school exams, took freelance work where I could find it. I have a disability that limits my ability to do intensive physical work like working retail or in a restaurant, but even so I've done day labor and worked retail because there was nothing else. In the end, I just couldn't sustain that sort of physical activity, but I'm not disabled by government standards because I can work, just not doing certain things.
Despite the salary at the magazine being about the same as I earned at one of my first jobs in journalism (14 years earlier), I was thrilled to have a full-time job once again. Sadly, I was laid off in January 2012, when the magazine decided to eliminate the section I edited from its roster.
I have 2-1/2 weeks of unemployment benefits in my account. Even though I worked six months at the magazine, for some reason the government decided I needed to go back on extension benefits from my prior claim. Those are the benefits running out in 2-1/2 weeks. No one can tell me what will happen at that point; will I get to open a new claim, based on those six months of work at the magazine? (One representative at the unemployment office accused me of trying to "double-dip" when I even asked.) Or am I basically screwed (which is my suspicion).
The impact this has had on my life has been tremendous. I was in the midst of a custody scuffle when I was laid off, and I've effectively lost custody of my children as a result of having no money to pursue the case, not to mention that no court will award custody to someone who has no job and a precarious living situation. To make matters worse, I was evicted from my apartment in Chicago; I lived with a friend in a roommate situation there for a while, but the jobs just weren't there in Chicago (as if the past three years hadn't taught me that already).
I decided to move to New York City because it seemed writing/editing jobs were more plentiful here. I have had some success finding freelance work - once again, stretching out my unemployment benefits - and have a free place to stay while I get it all figured out (which is more than many people can say). Because I'm not paying rent, I've been able to make a few trips back to Chicago to see my kids, where they live with their dad, but soon that won't be possible anymore. The idea of not being able to see them on a regular basis is also a very scary one for me. They are older - 15 and almost 10 - but my absence is still felt deeply.
I'm back at applying for dozens of jobs every day, many of them requiring much less experience than what I have. (I have two MAs and 15 years in journalism.) Many of them seem to be positions available only if you have an "in" - I did get some traction with with one of the editors at a freelance job I finished last week, but she's only one person who has a job of her own… she can't exactly drop everything to help me make the connections.
It's becoming increasingly depressing to think about what will happen when my benefits run out in 2-1/2 weeks. I have child support to pay, and I know that it's common nowadays to throw people in jail if they can't pay. I'm applying for everything I see, even things I think I'd hate, just to have a job. It's demoralizing like I'd never have imagined. Four years ago, I had a 401k and six months' savings and a good job. Now, I'm one couch away from being homeless. I've even researched homeless shelters. I don't have family to stay with unless I want to move to a very small town in the South where my job prospects would be even worse, so that's the only next step if nothing pans out. I can't keep staying with my friend for free forever. I don't know when I'd ever be able to see my children if that happens; I'm trying not to think about it.
I hear a lot from people like Mitt Romney that there is a safety net for people. If there is, I haven't been able to find it - and as a journalist with five years of graduate school, I think I know how to do research. I get $105 a month in food stamps, which works out to about $3.45 a day. When I do get unemployment benefits, they total $417 a week after child support. My editing job at the magazine in Chicago netted me about $480 a week, so even working I wasn't in much better of a place than I am now. Even when I had that FT job, I couldn't even come close to paying the minimum on my student loans (about $1,600 a month).
I don't know what can be done, but getting answers from the unemployment office should be easier. There should be job placement help, not just for blue-collar or entry-level workers, but people like me who have experience and education. I've had multiple job-center employees tell me that they can't do anything for me.
This is rambling, I know, but it's a difficult subject to talk about. Many people tell me they "know what it's like" to be unemployed, but these same people have been jobless for maybe six weeks, six months at most. Having two graduate degrees and fifteen years of experience - and being good at what I do - is so demoralizing, that if it weren't for my children I probably I would have killed myself by now.
The would-be startup millionaire
I grew up struggling for money. I've always worked and never been fired. I've always dedicated myself 100% to my job because to not have a job, is to not eat. Today is my third day of unemployment. I worked in finance for fours years before being lured by an up and coming startup. "You'll become a millionaire if you stay with us," the CEO promised a few months in with a look of crazed sincerity. I gave up my private life - working all the time and when I wasn't working, I was thinking about work. Work. Tick-tock. Work. Work. Who cares about friends when I had Work? My relationship began to suffer because I was cheating on my boyfriend night after night with Work. I was doing the job of 3 / 4 people and taking on more and more responsibilities. I received title changes without raises. I celebrated my 30th birthday at my desk with a cake from Work. How sweet. I had a review two days before I was fired and was told I was doing a good job and given 100% of my bonus. The next day I mentioned the equity I had been promised and the raise I had not yet been given. And, the next day, I was told we were going to have to "part ways" as there was no longer a place for me at the company. The CEO, whom I had worked directly with, vacationed with, was told I was "sister from another life", the one who told me I would be a millionaire, and the one who, not even a month before, told me I was a "valuable, trusted employee", did not show his face to fire me. He did not follow up with a "thanks for your contribution" email. He did nothing.
Look, I know work is not "personal". You're supposed to keep your head down and take care of your shit at work. But at a startup, you're like family. You know your in this crazy race together. You drink a beer a midnight with your colleagues at your desk and smile a little, because you know you're contribution can change the world. "I'm a part of the next Apple, the next Facebook, the next Google. Who needs raises? Who needs a life? Work is enough for me." And Upper Management said that often. "You're lucky just to work here." I was "lucky".
After I was sent home, after we "parted ways", I sat stunned on the couch. I cried. I cried a lot. I couldn't eat - save the food; I'm going to need it as I no longer have a job to pay for food (a bit hyperbole but hey). I poured a glass of cheap white wine and started calling old friends and family. A common sentiment was, "I'm so sorry but this is really for the best. You haven't been the same since you started working there." And, to make a long three days short, they're right. I would never change my time at that company for the world. I learned so much - what to do and especially what not to do. But, ultimately, I lost myself at that job. I would never had the courage to quit - even though I thought of it often...
I really hope, for all of us that are unemployed, we have the strength to get off the couch and lay off the wine (at least a little) and get what we deserve - a job where we are valued, where we can make meaningful contributions. But, if not, life is not over. My dad, a vibrant man that went from being the VP of a very successful company, to being an old man running the cashier at WalMart says: "Work is what you do to pay the bills. You make the best of it. I have the longest line at WalMart because people want to talk to me. I know all the football players and ladies in town. I got in trouble for talking too much to customers. Ain't that some shit? Darlin, you're gonna be just fine. Life always goes on. You just keep your chin up and make the best of it."
The pedigreed lawyer
Two years ago I was on top of the world – at least from exterior appearances. Barely past 30, my salary was approximately a quarter million dollars per year, I was living in a luxury high rise with a view of Central Park from my balcony, and it seemed I was on the fast track to a successful career. Now 18 months after losing my job at the end of 2010, I've learned a lot of valuable life lessons but find myself wondering, constantly every day, is there any hope left? The Manhattan apartment is long-gone and replaced with a room at my father's house in the exurbs of Atlanta, a house I helped him buy five years ago. I've applied for over 750 jobs in the last year, but still I wait. This is my story.
We hear a lot of talk about the employment crisis these days, from both sides of our so-called political spectrum. No one has much in the way of solutions, and the options for the unemployed seem to be Republicans that tell me what I need is to have my unemployment cut off – then surely I'll be motivated to find a job. Democrats at least don't think starvation will improve my job hunt, but beyond affording me my luxurious life on unemployment, I hear scant dedication to anything that might actually improve the employment outlook. I remain a voracious consumer of news and from what I see and hear portrayed in the media, the unemployed in this country are generally older, often former factory workers. We hear much discussion of how to address these workers in a nation that may no longer offer employment they have experience in. I feel for these workers and don't mean to diminish their situations – but I was supposed to be exempt from that. In fact, based on what the media says, I don't exist. I attended an Ivy League college and a top 5 law school (at least according to US News' rankings). My first real job, which started shortly after my 25th birthday, paid a salary of $125,000. That salary had doubled within 5 years. I was lucky enough to have the chance to go to some of the top schools in America, and it seemed I was enjoying the rewards of obtaining such a pedigree. Then it ended...
The question I find myself grappling with these days is "is this the best we can do?" I've spent months focusing on not being jealous or angry, and I've largely succeeded. I really am happy for my friends that are having children, and going on vacations, and otherwise moving forward and living their lives. But is this a country where one false move (in my case, working at the wrong law firm) can essentially end your chance at a productive life? I admit I had an arrogance prior to my layoff – I never imagined this could happen to me. I was no conservative, and I sympathized with and believed we could and should do more to help the unfortunate in this country – but I never believed I would be in that situation myself. I was told from childhood on that a good education was the path to a better life – and that if you were willing and able to work hard and had something to contribute, you'd have opportunities in this country. Where are those opportunities?
The most striking thing to me during the coverage of the Occupy Movement last fall was the "counter-protestors" (read: miserable assholes) yelling things like "Get a job!" I would love one! As I mentioned previously, I've applied for over 750 jobs in the last 18 months and continue to apply for 30-100 jobs each month. I've applied for jobs at law firms, scores of jobs with the government, jobs at corporations, jobs at non-profits, jobs for lawyers, jobs for non-lawyers, jobs as a paralegal, jobs as a writer, jobs, jobs, jobs. I've applied for jobs from Seattle to Miami, from San Diego to Boston, and I've applied to jobs overseas. Have work? Will travel. Of course, while employment is improving marginally overall, it hasn't improved in the legal sector. Total legal employment is lower now than it was in 2008, despite the abundance of law schools in this country pumping out nearly 50,000 new lawyers each year. I admit that I have not yet applied to work in fast food or retail as I maintain the hope that somehow, some way, I'll eventually find a position which could eventually lead me back to a semblance of my old life. That said, I don't see an abundance of "Help Wanted" signs at McDonald's or Best Buy. The notion that people can just "Get a Job!" in this market is laughable. The government's own numbers pretend that over 8 million Americans have dropped out of the workforce in recent years; while you may know of someone that struck oil in their backyard and actually retired in their 30s or 40s, I'm confident most of these people are simply unable to find employment. I wonder how they afford food – I fear for my own future when unemployment is cut off.
I continue to have some hope – I keep trying to tell myself that I have great experience and a great background, and eventually that will mean something to someone somewhere. I know I'm hard working - I billed well over 2000 hours as my mother died of cancer in 2009 because the firm expected nothing less. (For the non-lawyers reading, that translates to working 60+ hours most weeks.) I also wonder and worry about the larger country – if finding work is so hard and seemingly hopeless for someone with my background, someone barely into their 30s, what is it like for older workers with fewer credentials?
As another day starts in the exurbs, I sigh. It's another day of nothing. I'll look at the usual job boards. I'll read the 10+ emails I receive each morning with updated job listings. I'll head to the gym. But in general, another day will come and go and nothing will change. Maybe I'll receive a rejection letter or two. Maybe I'll find a new posting for a job that would be perfect – if only they decide to interview me. But really, I just wait. I watch the clock spin in circles. I watch my life pass me by. I wonder how much longer this can last. And I wait.
The Five O'Clock Club
I just read your feature in Gawker..I got my own story to tell.. I worked for nearly 20 years for a major magazine publisher..I was in administrative services..it was one of those jobs I just fell into. The company was cool and heavily involved in the news and entertainment business. The perks were great..books, music, concert tickets. Could not be happier. And then I had the misfortune to have a knee injury..and then another knee injury. Before I was laid off in 2008..I had six surgeries. I did great work..but could not stay on my feet. I was a goner. I accepted it..a business decision. I was more valuable than my supervisor but I had to go regardless.
For almost a year..I just said screw it. I'd go to ball games and apply for jobs. Something will come up. I joined the Five O Clock club..learned about networking and redid my resume countless times. Something will come up..I just know it. The Five O' Clock club was not cheap either. I just finished getting a certificate in business from Baruch..I paid it off with my credit card..huge mistake. Interest rates went off the charts..I started out with 7K debt..it morphed into 30K..literally over night. I had a gym membership that was paid automatically..I could not keep up with it and it just went out of control. I got a 401K. I will be fine..maybe bankruptcy is the way to go.
A friend of mine suggested Green Path..a non profit to help with my bills. I took advantage of them and they are still helping today..got my interest rates down quite a bit. I'm hanging in there. Got recalled to my old job to fill in for a while..three months.. More knee surgery. Did volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity. Thought about career changes..maybe medical coding? Took a class with about 20 cute Puerto Rican girls and me..total rip off..one of the instructors used to council hard core criminals and always was breaking my balls. Another did back alley (not kidding) resume writing deals..literally on the fire escape. Nothing came out of it.
More knee surgery. More rehab. I had to tap into my 401 K to keep up. My health insurance ran out. Then my sister found out she had a tumor in her lower back..she survived breast cancer surgery. We thought she was a goner..the depression for her and I was devastating..but eventually she got a great doctor and it's under control. Both political parties were fighting over a budget and if they could not agree on one there would be economic chaos on Wall Street. Every report I heard said 401Ks could lose as much as 12k from the debacle. This was a hit I could not handle. I bailed out of my plan..huge mistake. Found out I can't declare bankruptcy without a chance my savings would be attacked. So now I pay $600 a month for bills I can't afford. My retirement savings has been cut by 2/3. I need a knee replacement or at least some on going treatments than I'm not covered for so I have pain everyday. Some days are better or worse than others. I can't get a job I can easily do on my feet like Fed EX or UPS..I'm qualified to work for those guys in a pinch. I need to sit..applied for every assistant job under the sun. Applied for some retail outfits as well. Not even a sniff. I've taken every aptitude test that reveals I should be writing or working in a creative gig. Kind of hard to do when you are in your 50s and your competition was watching Sponge Bob Square Pants not too long ago.
Just spoke to a friend of mine who suggested ways to build up my resume..I'll do it but in the end my bills are still here. At least I have pursuits that challenge me..but I want work that will as well. I see guys literally off the boat in my neighborhood that can barely put a sentence together in broken English driving expensive cars. I see obviously well to do Russian women using benefit cards at my supermarket in fur coats. I got a degree..tried to build on it..and had the misfortune to have a bad set of legs. I can't believe there is a political party that thinks universal healthcare is some kind of communist plot to take over America. I can't believe they think people in my position are just fucking lazy or won't apply themselves. When I was little..it was in the late 60s..the future just seemed so amazing. It just seemed the world was going to be ours. Now..I just don't know..I muddle through. Something will come up.
Unemployment Stories Volumes One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.
[Thanks to everyone who wrote in. All stories are being read. To submit your own unemployment story, or to get in touch with someone you read about here, email me.]