Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Unemployment Diaries: Working


We’re taking a little unexpected detour from the fashion world today but, hey, the blog is called Inside Out so you kind of have to expect this sort of thing, right? 

I’ve done a fair amount of ruminating about unemployment, job searching, identity crises, et al. Not happy topics but in today’s upside-down world very real and to a helluva lot more people than just me. I’ve gone a couple more miles on this journey and feel compelled to share, if only because I think the majority of us are pretty lucky and move in worlds where we don’t always know what’s going on for the average person. 

In September, my unemployment ran out so I stopped being one of the lazy, slacker 47% mooching-off-the-government crew that Romney so firmly believes is holding the economy back. Because I enjoyed being on unemployment, right? Reality: I looked for a job every week and despite sending out over 200 resumes and individually written cover letters I got virtually no response. Not a single job offer in Portland, Oregon, which is where, for better or worse, we live and cannot relocate from. 

Last week I did get a job offer at a national retailer and as nothing has turned up in my field, I accepted. I’m not going to name them because then I’d have to put up all sorts of disclaimers about corporate secrets etc. but you’ve all shopped in their stores. I’ve been hired as a temporary sales associate for the princely sum of minimum wage and, obviously, because this is the new paradigm, NO benefits. You see, companies can hire temp workers to work 40 hours a week, but they don’t have to give them any benefits because they’re not real employees. It’s a slick new trick more and more companies are trying because they hate paying benefits. Does it make their profits go up? Sure. Does it build any kind of real corporate stability or a corporate culture beyond ‘how do I pay myself an obscene bonus without affecting the bottom line’? No, but the future doesn’t seem to be of much concern for these guys. 

So, at age 51, after over a decade working in an office environment, I now find myself expected to stand on my feet for 8 hours a day. I had my first day yesterday and by hour 7 ½ I was shaking with fatigue and knew my brain to be shutting down. I’m not exaggerating here, and those of you who know my medical situation know that fatigue can and will hit like Katrina. I have no levee to protect my functionality and when exhausted become like a small child—staggery and speechless. That plus the neuropathy in my feet means they alternately burn and cramp no matter how good the shoes, adding to the fun. Could anyone tell? Probably not, but it felt bad. 

What I was left with when I got home (and after the best husband in the world had fed me a small, healthy dinner and bundled me off to bed) was a multitude of feelings. One, a deep sadness that I may not be able to physically manage this job. Bottom line, no drama. If I can’t stand up, I can’t. Which begs the question: what if I HAD to have this job? Because right now, I don’t. I’m just concerned about having no income at this stage of my life so I took it. And if it’s problematic now then how likely is it I could do the work in another 5 years? There are hundreds of thousands of people out there doing work much worse than anything I’ve ever known and in pain and worsening health every day. I felt weak and spoiled. 

The other new person that trained with me yesterday was a man in his early 40s who had up and decided to move to Portland from Minnesota because he was tired of the weather there. I’m not going to linger on the obvious questions of ‘why not pick a state with a low unemployment rate, like Texas, to move to’ because people get all romantic about Portland. It’s a lifestyle state but without a real economy it’s going to become a welfare state and that’s not charming at all. Anyway, this guy had not only gotten this full-time job with me but had also been hired at Target working from 4am-10am 7 days a week. I can hardly type that. 4am is not even in my reality but it gets better. He was also going to go to REI and hoped that they would hire him for the seasonal rush and he could get the hours to work out with our store. Three jobs, all part-time, all NO BENEFITS. Again, I felt so spoiled but had to ask, “How do you do this? What do you do for health care?” He laughed that kind of laugh that’s not funny and said, “Health care? I haven’t had insurance in 10 years. Eight years ago my appendix burst and I had to have it removed. The cost was $15,000 and I had to declare bankruptcy. I’ve not been able to recover since then so this is what I do.” Are you listening? This is not some dude, maxing out his credit cards on cars and houses; this is someone who went bankrupt paying for an operation.  

I’ve covered a crazy amount of ground here—and it may seem odd that a single day in a new job could evoke so many strong emotions but there you have it. I’m scared, saddened, embarrassed, vulnerable, grateful, and worried. I wish my professional life had turned out differently and, of course, I wish I didn’t have a stupid disease that plays games with my wiring but all that aside, I am still so blessed compared to a lot of people out there. There are people who don’t know if they can pay the rent, who do nothing but look for more jobs just to stay afloat and the line between them and the 1% is growing into a chasm. One that many think they’ll never face but, as I’ve learned, is much closer than you know.
  

 

3 comments:

Abby said...

I know you're really mentally struggling with this, but I see it as a step forward and possibly a step to something else. No, it's not a "career" and doesn't offer the same benefits, but there's not accounting for connections that can be made and opportunities that can arise. I know that sounds Pollyanna, but it's true. Sitting at home you are exposed to the same things every day. Out in the open you're exposed to new thoughts, new people and maybe new opportunities.

However, your physical stuff is a different story. Are they aware of it? If they are, they may be able to provide you with a seat for part of the day. Don't be too proud to ask, as you have to do what you have to do. Hang in there. It's simply a new step on a journey ;)

tweedlibrarian said...

You are not weak nor spoiled, Catherine. You are a strong woman to take a job some might have deemed "beneath them" and you are giving it a go. Spoiled - not in my book. You consciously consider every penny you spend, practice frugality, and aren't asking for all that much. Wanting a job that either pays well or has benefits - that's supposed to be a normal part of life, not living a "spoiled life."

I admire your strength in dealing with unemployment and now underemployment. What a nightmare.

I am incredibly lucky to have a job with a good salary and benefits. I don't think I'd have the energy these days to work a standing job.

Catherine said...

Thank you, friends, for your support. It looks like they've got enough people that me being part-time is all right. Still doesn't help with all the people who are not getting by despite working two jobs. That's messed up.

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