Jobless in America: Stories from the Frontlines of the Economic Crisis
On January 27, at the end of a grim week of headlines announcing mass layoffs across the country, Nicholas von Hoffman posted a piece on the Nation website titled "Lost Your Job? Tell Your Story." By turns sad and scathing, frustrated and furious, the testimonials poured in -- what follows is only a sample. Inspired by this approach, AlterNet invites readers to send in their stories of how the recent decline in the economy has affected their lives. Email to: Crisis@alternet.org.
"I had just come back from attending the inauguration in Washington the day before I was told they were letting me go," a salesman named Robert Hinckley writes to The Nation. "My supervisor called me into his office and asked me if I believed in change. Before I could answer, he said he knew I did, since I was a big Obama supporter. Then he told me that the company thought I needed a change, since I didn't seem to be able to 'make my numbers' anymore."
In Maine there are skilled carpenters knocking on doors, asking for any kind of work, shoveling snow or stacking firewood. In Arizona Roger Barthelson, who has a PhD in biochemistry, says, "I am worried about losing my job, which pays about half of what the bottom-level salary is for someone with my experience--if I had a real job. Underemployment is bad enough. Now my little McJob may go away. Maybe I should retrain?"
Add that question to the one e-mailed to The Nation from "Anonymous" in Miami, who cries out, "Where are other people's stories? I have been looking online and, beyond this forum, they are nowhere to be found. Perhaps without an Internet connection, the worst stories will never be heard. Is that the reason for the silence?"
Every business day brings announcements of new layoffs at the big corporations. Layoffs in the small businesses, which comprise hundreds of thousands of jobs, do not get the publicity, but the consequences are the same--panic, worry, want and family disintegration. Animal shelters report that jobless people are bringing in the pets they no longer can afford to keep.
At the current accelerating rate of layoffs, we will be called on to deal with a catastrophe by the end of June. And at this time next year, the nation could be suffering 6, 7, even 8 million more Americans without jobs in a society singularly ill equipped to take on a disaster that many of the people in power thought could never happen.
Past recessions hit blue-collar workers and farmers the hardest and schooled them psychologically, if not financially, in alternating good times and bad. The white-collar wipeout is something new. We have no experience in handling the huge numbers of college-educated, technically trained unemployed.
Not only does unemployment ruin the lives of the people enduring it; it kick-starts home foreclosure rates and stimulates bankruptcies. The people who still have jobs, fearing that they could be next, stop spending money on cars, houses, clothes or anything else.
The past century of depressions, recessions, slumps, panics, dips, slowdowns, busted bubbles and crashes shows that jobs are the last thing to come back, that employment is the slowest to recover. Every job lost postpones the return of prosperity.
This is the moment for a tourniquet on the job hemorrhage. News of the millionaire class using public bailout money for their bonuses and private airplanes has left people feeling stranded and furious. They are demanding that something be done for them.
Washington should get money out to the states so they don't have to cut payrolls. As the bill stands now, it does that in part with education and health, but it ought to go further and make up the billions in deficits that at least forty-six states are looking at and save the thousands of state and local jobs that otherwise will soon be lost. California is already requiring state employees to take two unpaid days a month; before we can turn our attention to job creation, we need to stop the layoffs.
Appropriation of money that cannot be spent immediately should be put off for another day. Transportation money ought to go into running more trains and buses now. Construction on new infrastructure should be postponed, and work crews should be sent out to do repairs now. If a project is ready to start instantly--be it a research proposal, childcare or a theater group--put money into it now.
There are also some tax schemes that might have an immediate effect on job retention, such as Martin Feldstein's proposals to offer tax credits on the down payments on houses and automobiles. This is the time to make employing people as inexpensive as possible--a temporary suspension of the FICA payroll tax would save employers huge sums and put more money into paychecks. Another step might be to allow employers to double their tax deductions on nonexecutive salaries.
The operative word is "now." We must save the jobs we have and then go on to create new ones. Please send your stories and those of your friends so that the faces of the people whose way of life is collapsing are known and their voices are heard. The talking heads, professors, passing celebrities, politicians, experts, analysts and the barking seals of talk-radio and all-news television must not be the only ones who are heard.
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'People no longer had credit cards that worked'
I lost my job a week ago. I was working for a software company here in Southern California, selling educational programs and expecting people to come up with $170 over the phone and give out a credit card number. My manager assured me every day that our business was recession-proof. He said that people will always want to help their children, especially where their education was involved.
Unfortunately, the people I was calling no longer had credit cards that worked. It was sad to listen to some of the stories from people who had just lost their jobs, were expecting to or were worried about losing their homes to foreclosure. When I told them this was a very important purchase, they'd tell me they were more concerned with keeping their home or putting food on the table. Every day I went to work it became more difficult to make the sale. Then I was fired--for not getting enough sales each week. My partner is retired and on Social Security. He also gets a small pension. My income, however, was necessary. We do not know how we are going to pay the bills now.
'Is the George W. Bush Library hiring?'
My original career choice was to be a history professor. After a few years in graduate school, I decided that a career as a librarian or archivist would be more sensible, considering how long it takes to get a PhD and the student loan debt I was racking up. I graduated from library school in the summer of 2007 with $80,000 in debt and had begun my job search months earlier. I moved from Iowa to Oregon to live with my family while I continued to search for a job. Because my mother is also a librarian, she was able to get me a temporary part-time job at her library for five months.
In April 2008, I finally landed what seemed to be a really great job as a corporate archivist in the suburbs of Washington. I knew that this job was risky, as the company provided archival services for corporate clients, and the economy was already faltering. I remember the CEO of the company announcing in a meeting that we always did well during economic downturns due to the fact that we outsourced archives and were cheaper for a company than hiring a full-time archivist. A co-worker also told me not to worry about the economy because we had a financial backer who supported us whether we were profitable or not. I didn't really believe either of these statements because we were rapidly losing clients and not gaining any new ones.
On January 14 I was told that because I was the last one hired in my department, I was to be laid off. I had heard about the procedures for layoffs, but still I was surprised by how I was treated: I had to clear my desk immediately (my computer was already locked), and my co-workers could not even look me in the eye, nor did my boss say goodbye. I have not heard from any of them since that day, and I don't expect to.
It saddens me that so many people of my generation are in the same boat: overeducated, underemployed and in over our heads in student loan debt. It is hard not to be angry at my parents' generation for their years of out-of-control consumerism and lax regulations. Fortunately, a lot of us are ready and willing to work hard to right so many wrongs.
What I need most from the government is health insurance (my coverage ends today) and extended unemployment benefits if I don't find a job within three months. It also wouldn't hurt if libraries and archives received more funding. By the way, is the George W. Bush Library hiring yet? I'll be the first in line.
'Probably applied for about 200 jobs'
I am a married 35-year-old man with two young children at home. About three years ago, I made the decision to return to college and finish my bachelor's degree with the hope that it would help empower me to achieve more than the low-paying jobs in which I have worked for most of my adult life. I attended a top university, UC Berkeley, while working part time. I graduated with a bachelor's in history with honors.
It has been just over a year since I graduated, and I cannot find a full-time job. Believe me, I have been trying. I have probably applied for about 200 jobs at all sorts of companies, from Starbucks to Google. The closest I have come to landing a job was when I made it to the second interview for a County Department of Public Health analyst position. But before I knew what hit me, the county froze the position because of budget constraints.
I cannot express how discouraged I am at this point. My family and I are basically surviving off public assistance. I want to work and do my part, but nobody will hire me. I just do not know what to do.
'At least we are better off than a lot of people'
My husband had a promising career ahead of him when he began with Cleary Building Corp. (pre-engineered structures, such as barns and outbuildings) as a sales specialist three years ago. After his first year with the company he was ranked number two nationally in first-year sales. But then the economy started to change. In 2007 his sales plummeted, as did his base salary, from $335 per week to $250 per week. In 2008 his base salary dropped to a dismal $200 per week, to support a family of four. Less than minimum wage.
Finally, in October, he was let go. Cleary then tried to deny his unemployment and withheld his last paycheck. We had to solicit the assistance of our local Representative, Diana Fessler, to assure his unemployment. Cleary appealed the decision once his unemployment was granted.
The worst part of this layoff is that my husband carried our family's health insurance. With my two part-time jobs, I make just over the amount allowable to put my children on Medicaid. Luckily, Ohio has a plan that if you keep your children uninsured for six months, you may be eligible for a buy-in health plan through the state. But what about those six months? Do you want your children to be uninsured for six months?
On New Year's Day I went to a party with some old college friends. I discovered that one of them had been laid off from Miller-Valentine, where he had worked for more than twenty years. He was the sole support of his family of five. I think at least we are better off than them, than a lot of people. I still have a job.
'Class war has begun'
I have been laid off since September 5. I am an electrician with IBEW union membership. Although I work from a pool of workers on an "out of work" union list, we have seen no new calls for some time. Last fall, before I was laid off, there were few wind-farm jobs available. I am a 54-year-old woman, so I feel the outlook for a decent-paying job, or any job, is growing quite dim. I am collecting unemployment, and thank God for the extension allowed by the federal government. I do have a little in savings, but I fear the day may be nearing when I must use it for monthly payments. My husband is still employed, but this could change at any time, as no one seems safe. My worst fear is not that I will have to work for a lesser wage--it is getting into trouble with my mortgage.
Who knows where tomorrow may take us? We have been truly wronged by the greed of many, the lack of good stewardship of our government, the attempts of many to continue this damage. It all turns back to greed. Corporate America no longer represents American interests, as it is owned by outside interests and the hunger for big profits. This country was built on the people's strength to revolutionize against those who wrong us, and soon this may be necessary again. Class war has begun.
Red Wing, Minn.
'My little McJob may go away'
After being laid off from a slowly dying biotech company at the end of 2001, I looked for a job for a year but had trouble even finding a reasonable job to apply for. My wife and I moved to Tucson in 2003, and I took the third postdoc of my career because that was what was available. I have now moved up to assistant research scientist, which is essentially super-postdoc. So far, very little grant money has come through for me, and my boss is getting squeezed, as our state government looks with glee at the idea of cutting back expenditures on all education.
Arizona is already number forty-nine in the fifty states for money spent on education. We're going for fifty. The idea of killing government and cutting taxes is still big in this largely Republican state, and Janet Napolitano, the one adult in state government to provide some moderate supervision, is gone. We're now stuck with an almost all-Republican government. As education funding gets cut, my co-workers and I get more and more nervous about losing our jobs. So, even though I'm 54, have a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and twenty-five years of productive research and teaching experience in cell biology (including drug development), I am worried about losing my job, which pays about half of what the bottom-level salary is for someone with my experience--if I had a real job. Underemployment is bad enough. Now my little McJob may go away. Maybe I should retrain?
'I received no severance, no unemployment'
For more than fifteen years I worked as a proofreader of textbooks, from college chemistry on down. The company was at first family-owned, then it was bought by a national firm, and then that was bought by an international corporation based in New Delhi. Can you guess where this is going? The Los Angeles office was closed in December.
Because I was an independent contractor, I received no severance, will get no unemployment compensation and forget about COBRA health insurance, which is not affordable anyway to the unemployed. I have little hope of finding such specialized work at all, much less at the hourly rate I was paid. Here in California, the official unemployment rate is now 9.3 percent, but that doesn't include people like me, and there are a lot of us.
'There will be a revolution'
I was a successful senior writer/instructional designer with more than twenty years of hard-earned experience, and I lost my job on November 19. I worked for BBDO, an advertising agency whose primary customer in the Detroit area is Chrysler. I had a good salary, good healthcare for my family, benefits like a 401(k) and paid time off. That's all gone now, and my family and I are struggling with the realities of this new situation we find ourselves in.
The managers and politicians are only focused on their next quarterly earnings or their next re-election bid and don't seem to understand that the loss of my job doesn't only affect me and the ones I love--it affects every business my family and I come into contact with. How and where will I and millions of others find jobs like the ones that have been lost? With no job, how can I afford to buy a new American vehicle or TV or shoes for my son or food for our next meal?
The people that we've elected, and those entrusted with this nation's corporate and financial assets, better get it together fast because soon those questions will be resonating a million times over, and the noise from the masses may well topple the walls surrounding their gated communities and country clubs and rattle their gilded cages. We were told, Work hard, play by the rules, and pay your taxes and you will get ahead--you will have the so-called American Dream. That's a damn lie, and I for one am mad as hell about it. God help those in charge should I and the millions of other people like me (our numbers seem to be growing exponentially by the day) reach a point of desperation and no return. There will be a revolution and no redemption for the people who caused this mess.
Joris B. Rapelje
Clinton Township, Mich.
'I save seeds'
Because of a couple of chronic illnesses, I've ended up cleaning houses to get by. As my customers lose their jobs or have salaries slashed, my income is also being whittled away. Because my husband has a job that still has health insurance, I am not a good candidate for disability. Because my husband is a well-skilled carpenter, his employer is able to get him jobs a couple of days a week if we're lucky. This week, there is no work.
Because my husband has work at all, he can't qualify for unemployment. The unemployment office doesn't even take calls every day. The answering machine at the local office said to call back in a few days just to get information. So we both look for work, hoping to find something that will get us over the next hump, something that will enable us to pay our household expenses.
I have been putting off treatments for my health conditions that could possibly make me more functional--even with health insurance, the treatments are too expensive for me at this time. We also have four pets acquired during better times, and I am terrified whenever their health needs attending to; I'm sad to say that I am often forced to take care of their health problems myself.
I've organized a documentary movie night so my friends have something cheap that they can do on the weekend and a place where we can gather together as a progressive community. Next movie night, I'm showing a film on the healthcare crisis. At this time in history, we all have to strive to be one another's teachers and be there to support one another. Even though I've never been a churchgoer, I know what it is like to pray every day for the simple necessities. I have a victory garden now. I save seeds. I hope that our struggles will soon pay off.
'Embarrassed to be a foolish American'
A year and a half ago, I was working as a carpenter in Boston making over $30/hour plus a reasonable benefits package. Now I am laid off; so is almost everyone I used to work with. I can't even find a job for $15/hour without benefits. I have exhausted my unemployment insurance and will probably end up landscaping for $12/hour in the spring. I thank all the politicians in Washington who were looking out for my best interests and all the Wall Street lobbyists who also had my best interests in mind when they paid (read, bribed) the aforementioned politicians to deregulate banks so that they could swindle the workers of America. Let the markets run free until there is no money left. Then the government can step in and pick up the tab. No regulation when there is a profit, but socialism when it all falls down. Unless there is a revolution soon, I am moving to Europe. There won't be a revolution, though--all the sheep will just keep investing in 401(k)s and taking it in the you-know-what. I'm embarrassed to be a foolish American.
James M. Rich
'Is it pride--or shame?'
I am an Ivy League graduate with a master's in architecture who has been self-employed for nineteen years. I am in an increasingly precarious position without any safety net. Architecture work has dried up since September, and there is no government help for the self-employed. At 58 years old, I cannot find affordable health insurance. I am a renter with no family and, because of a health problem four years ago, no savings. I can possibly keep this up for eight more weeks. After that, I have no idea what is going to happen. (Actually, I do, but it's unthinkable.) I have a beautiful 2-year-old pup that I dearly love. I know I should make plans to rehome her, but I just can't bring myself to do it yet. I could stay in my current circumstances on only $2,200 a month, yet there is nothing coming in.
Where are other people's stories? I have been looking online and, beyond this forum, they are nowhere to be found. Perhaps without an Internet connection, the worst stories will never be heard. Is that the reason for the silence? Is it pride--or shame? I despise the greedy bastards who got us here, and they are still being rewarded for their malfeasance. It's sickening beyond belief.