On Being Unemployed

Cross-posted from Working America’s Main St. Blog

Picture 003 I am unemployed, and have been now for a little more than three months. People like me often say “I lost my job” — as if their situation were the result of some personal failing or act of stupidity. Like “I lost my car keys” or “I lost my wallet.” No. Let me say, instead: My job was taken from me.

For nearly a year, roughly 15 million Americans have been officially unemployed, according to the monthly reports. So I know I am not alone. But there are many times when it doesn’t feel that way.

On a freezing night with a biting wind, around the holidays this past winter, I went to see the film Up in the Air with my wife, her sisters and my two teenage kids. Laura mentioned the film in a great post last January. The film’s protagonist, played by George Clooney, works for a firm that gets hired by other companies to fly him around and fire people from their jobs. In addition, he has the temerity to promote a kind of sidecar career for himself, lecturing people looking for work about how they need to clean out their backpacks, or whatever.

I sat there trying to contain my anger, while part of me felt a deepening sadness — not just for the people being thrown out of work, but for the spreading epidemic of corporate callousness and for the needless devastation wrought by this monster recession. On the way out of the theater my kids asked me what I’d thought of the film, and all I could say was “this all just makes me so angry,” adding I was glad that I still had my job.

Two months later, I did not.

For nearly twenty years I had managed a successful, multi-million-dollar retail store, part of a specialty chain. In a move to further reduce store payrolls, which along with overall benefits had already been reduced several times in recent years, it was determined that my modest salary — which was below the median household income in my state — no longer fit the new payroll scheme. The day I was informed of this I was also told it was my last day.

I was stunned. To say that I had been the face and the name, the personification of the store and the company in a highly coveted market would be an understatement. Yet, no new role was offered, no severance, nothing. Less than a year earlier, after a significant restructuring in which a number of long-time employees had been let go, particularly at the firm’s headquarters, the company’s president had indicated to me that my job was safe. So much for that.

I came home to find my wife having lunch in the kitchen. When I told her what had happened, she cried. I held her and told her we’d be alright. But part of me didn’t really believe it. That I haven’t cried yet probably isn’t a healthy thing.

Within a couple of weeks, my long-time assistant manager was also let go. We happen to both be 59 years old. It had been determined that the new payroll scheme would not support having two assistants. Apparently, the private equity group that had financed the company’s buyout several years earlier now wanted to see more of the ‘R’ part of their ‘ROI’. Think back to my post titled “Sharks”.

I applied for unemployment insurance for the first time in my life. I began submitting claims online, but was told on the phone that I would not see any payments for a while, because my eligibility had to first be determined in a telephone hearing — and, because of the high volume of first time claims (this was, by the way, late February 2010) that hearing wouldn’t be scheduled for a month. Fortunately, I had filed my 2009 tax returns early and we’d already received our refunds.

I filed to continue our family’s health insurance with the COBRA administrator, and for the federal COBRA subsidy — the one that, while you’re unemployed, temporarily reduces monthly premiums by 65 percent, but that got stripped out of the jobless aid bill in the House last week. So, unless the continuation of that program is restored, newly unemployed people will no longer be eligible for the reduced premiums.

Despite the lightning fast online application process, COBRA insurance approvals appear to take weeks. So prescription medications, of which there are several for my son and myself, were paid for in full until the COBRA insurance was confirmed. I postponed an annual physical checkup.

Meanwhile, of course, the networking, resume writing, posting, emailing and door-knocking began and has continued unabated. Unlike many folks I’ve heard about, I’ve actually had several responses and even some interviews. But, as yet, no actual offers. Have I mentioned that I’m 59 years old?

The stories of these mundane details may vary from person to person. Mine are certainly not unique. What are far more significant are the stories of how being unemployed affects your life, your thoughts, your emotions, your self-esteem and your sense of social worth.

On these matters, I can only speak for myself. What struck me most immediately was that, without my job, I had no place to go to. Not just the routine of going to work, but having a sense of ‘place’ and belonging in and to a place, was suddenly taken from me. The psychologist James Hillman has written extensively on the subject of the soul being nourished by its sense of place, and that our workplaces are, or should be, vital places that help instill a sense of shared purpose, of mutual encouragement, so that they themselves have a sense of soul.

But increasingly our workplaces are being robbed of their soulfulness, replaced by the cold domination of callous cost-cutting and disregard for people. The layoffs don’t just harm those laid off. It is as if the lost souls of those laid off linger in the workplace, haunting those who remain on the job.

While it is difficult to admit, for me the sense of rejection has been palpable. Several decades of experience and prior accomplishments at times feel all but negated, as if they not only mattered little but may as well not have happened at all. I find myself struggling, at times to fight off a sense that society has deemed me expendable.

And a fear of the future, which while I was working had receded largely to lurk only in a far-off corner somewhere, is now back with a vengeance. What will happen if I need surgery? What if my old car dies on me? Will we ever be able to have a real vacation or travel anywhere again? Will I be able to help my kids go to college in a couple of years? Will I ever be able to afford not to work? Will I ever be able to work?

The staggeringly huge number of unemployed Americans has been fading from the headlines. In a series of diaries posted on Daily Kos in the spring and late winter of 2009, I noted to the astonishment of some that with nearly 15 million unemployed, the number of unemployed Americans was more than it was in 1933 at the depths of the Great Depression. I made note of that fact again in my very first post here on Main Street last September. And it’s as true now as it was then.

Now, however, there appears to be a growing sense that mass unemployment is something that must be accepted, as if it’s somehow unavoidable. Moves are already underway by some in Congress to chip away at and begin to dismantle the jobless aid programs for the unemployed. Two months ago, when I wrote “Wall Street Declares War on the Unemployed” some readers probably thought I was exaggerating in order to make a point.

Where is the outrage? Where the fierce urgency to find and implement effective solutions to this, our most pressing national economic emergency? My sense of being socially expendable is increasing. When a society begins trashing its human capital on a mass scale, it is headed down a very ominous road. How can this be happening?

One reason, I think, is the sheer invisibility of much of our current-day unemployment. Gone are the Depression-era breadlines and the mass street demonstrations of the 1930s by unionists and the unemployed. There’s no longer a need to stand in line at the unemployment office to file your claims — it’s all done so privately and invisibly online. And the sense of isolation, which Susan wrote about here, is reinforced by the media’s disregard and the implicit message that if you’re unemployed it’s your own fault.

But it’s the silence and the impersonal invisibility of our nation’s unemployment nightmare that must be countered creatively. Perhaps this blog post will help.

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