The Lookout

Down but not out: Voices of the long-term unemployed

Zachary Roth
The Lookout

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Tera Burbank and John Clark had been out of work over two years in February 2011: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

You can read all the stats you want on America's long-term jobless crisis. More than 6.3 million Americans have been out of work for more than half a year. The average jobless stint now lasts longer than nine months. We could go on.

But no facts or figures bring home the grim human dimension of this epidemic better than an account we received from an unemployed Iraq War veteran. "I have led men in combat, but my last job was a temporary cashier position in the women's department at Nordstrom's," he wrote. "I don't get many interviews, but when I do, I get a lot of handshakes and a 'Thank you for your service, but you're not what we're looking for.'"

Nor can they top this description from a reader of what it's like to go for months searching fruitlessly for work: "You start to hear a voice in your head that tells you, 'Perhaps you're just not good enough.'"

When we asked readers recently to share their personal stories of being out of work for an extended period, we expected to get a lot of responses. But we didn't foresee the flood that ensued. "I imagine that you will have to hire more staff to wade through all the emails you get in response to this article," one reader wrote. It turned out she was right: That's exactly what we did.

The thousands of anecdotes you sent us offer a heart-rending glimpse inside the reality of long-term joblessness during the Great Recession and its aftermath. They convey sadness, anxiety, anger, shame, and despair, but sometimes also humor, generosity, and a quintessentially American determination to roll with the punches. And they offer a portrait of out-of-work people who are smart, articulate, motivated, and resilient--a useful corrective to some of the negative stereotypes that too often shape perceptions of this huge group of Americans.

We want to thank all the thousands of readers who took the time to share their personal stories. For reasons of space, we can only publish here a fraction of the number we'd like to. So we've set up a separate website, "Down But Not Out," to showcase many more in full. [ Click here for readers' own tales of long-term joblessness at "Down But Not Out.""]

Meanwhile, here at the The Lookout, we've picked out portions of a smaller number of the most compelling responses, and organized them around some of the major themes that readers highlighted--from accounts of how they lost their job in the first place, to the emotional toll that being without work for so long can take, to the rare and unexpected silver linings that some respondents discovered.

How it all Began: "When the economy imploded in 2009, nobody was building anything"

Many readers described how they first became jobless, with tales that often seemed ripped from the bleak headlines of the last few years--taking in everything from the mortgage meltdown to the housing bust to government budget cuts.

• George C. from Brea, Calif., told us he worked for a bank that had a division that made sub-prime loans. After the housing bust hit, "the federal government ordered the company to cease & desist from all sub-prime operations, because they didn't like banks that were also sub-prime mortgage companies, so that division of the company was shut down," George wrote. Ultimately, the other divisions of the bank were sold, "at which time there was no more work for me to do."

• "I was a steel building detailer with just over 14 years of experience," Tom W. from New Haven, Ind., told us. "When the economy imploded in 2009, nobody was building anything. With no work, my employer was forced to lay off everyone."

•  Shannon B., a teacher and school administrator from Phelan, Calif., wrote that she lost her job in February 2009. "When the budget slashes hit, my position was the first to go."

• Jerry, from southern California, told us he had worked in the electrical distribution industry for more than 25 years. "I lost my job in August of 2008 when the housing bubble and second Great Depression were hitting hard. The branch I worked in closed, since the industry relies heavily on new construction."

• "I never saw being let go coming," wrote Elizabeth M., who worked at an educational center. "I simply showed up less and less on the work schedule. Then, after 2 weeks of not appearing at all, I received a voice mail via my cell phone that informed me they were actually letting me go. (Whatever happened to telling someone to their face?)"

The Emotional Toll: "I hide my emotions, but deep down I feel I am dying off"

Your tales of losing long-held jobs--often with minimal advance notice or human consideration--were bracing. But more compelling still were the numerous accounts of how long-term joblessness has affected you personally and psychologically.

• Perhaps no testimony was bleaker than a note we received from Peter K., who said he used to be a middle manager making over $100,000 a year. His life now? "Stay up too late at night and sleep too long in the morning. Drink way too much … stare at the computer screen, stare out the window, stare at your image in the mirror, stare at the ceiling fan … Social life--none. I'm no fun. Sex--none. Women would sooner hear you have Hepatitis then learn you're unemployed … Depressed--big time. Think suicide every day."

• Scott V. told us that when his money began to run out and he didn't know how he was going to feed his children, he had the same thought. "To be extremely honest I thought of taking the easy way out, which probably many people have. I read an internet article a couple of weeks ago about some 22 (?) year old ending her life because she had no job and too many bills that she couldn't handle. Of course I didn't do that, because I consider myself a strong person and I have a lot to live for."

• "Most of the time you can barely get out of bed because you worry so much about your future," wrote Todd L. of Houston, Tex. "I feel so behind, especially when talking to my peers. Several of them have already moved on from their first job to their second one. Many are in long-term relationships, something I know I can never have without a job and financial stability. I feel so ... behind. I have grown much more envious of others lately."

• Stefan K., from South Bend, Ind., told us  he'd been out of work for going on two years. "After a few months pass by, you start to take it personally," he wrote. "You start to hear a voice in your head that tells you, 'Perhaps you're just not good enough.' You know it's not true, but it feels true. You then began to feel ashamed when people, who know of your situation, keep asking if you've found a job yet."

• Paul K. described how both he and his fiancée--who is also contending with a long-term bout of joblessness--have seen their relationship suffer as a result of their shared plight.  "It's very depressing and has caused many arguments and led to a very unhappy life for us for the last 2-3 years," he wrote. "We now sleep late because we have no money to do anything. Gas costs too much so most days we stay home and just watch TV. It's making me anxious, depressed, and my confidence is all but gone. I pray for a miracle at this point."

• The pain of long-term unemployment doesn't only affect layoff casualties--it's also assailed many first-time entrants into the job market. Jill B. of Jonesboro, Ark. got a master's degree last year, but it didn't help her. "The hardest part of this experience has been having to come home, tail tucked, as a failure," she wrote. "Out of necessity, I am now living with my parents again in a rural, Arkansas town. For financial reasons, I had to leave the thriving job market of Austin, Texas to come back to a place where there are no jobs at all."

• "I hide my emotions, but deep down I feel I am dying off," wrote Jeremy L., from Waupaca, Wisc. "I smile less. Friends don't call me anymore to do things because I can't afford to. I feel like a hermit living under a rock. I feel worthless. I feel like I'm pulling my girlfriend and daughter into a hole with me. Our once loving relationship has turned bitter and sour."

The Financial Strain: "I am scared to death of what lies ahead"

Of course, there's no way to overstate the financial impact of being without a steady income for an extended period. The notes and comments you submitted show the remarkable lengths that some of you have gone just to keep your heads above water.

• A 62-year-old Ohio man, W.M., told us he'd been forced to take contract work in South Carolina and Indiana. "I am the new migrant worker," he wrote. "I get home to see my family when I can. I have about 1/3 less salary and no benefits but I can pay my way."

• Some readers said they were selling their possessions to support themselves. "I have also sold my clothing, many of our belongings, and baby items on Craigslist and in consignment shops," M.N. wrote. "I add oatmeal to many of my dishes to extend the idea of 'beef', as well as buying generics. We've [gotten rid of] all memberships to gyms and cable TV. We are trying to live a more simple life."

• Some have been relying on family or friends. "I am in default for last year's property taxes, and now stand to lose my home of 23 years," wrote Vicki J. of Garland, Tex. "Had it not have been for a friend of mine helping me, I wouldn't have even had electricity or food for the past three months."

• Others are seeking a fresh start. "We can't afford the house payments anymore, but our house lost about 50% of its value, so we can't sell," wrote Shannon B. "We simply cannot live on my husband's salary. We are filing for bankruptcy."

• Judy J. from Catawba, N.C., described paying for groceries with WIC checks--a form of government assistance--and worrying about delaying people behind her in line. "A few times I offered to let someone cut because 'this is going to take a while,'" she wrote. "[B]ut they say, 'No, it's okay. I'm on WIC, too, so I understand.'"

• Karen P. from Maryland told us she had to move back in with her mother at the age of 40, and that her jobless benefits will run out in January. "I am scared to death of what lies ahead," she added. "I have no idea if I will find a job or not."

• And in a harrowing detail that evokes the hardships of an earlier time, M.C. wrote: "My family is eating stir-fried dandelions out of yards to keep from starving."

Trials of the Job Search: "We can't hire any more old people"

Landing a new job in this economy is tough no matter who you are. But when you've already been out of work for so long, it can be even harder.

• We asked whether employers were wary of hiring readers when they found out how long they'd been jobless -- a form of discrimination that appears to have been on the rise lately. "Very much so," replied Susan W. "As if it were my fault I was unemployed, regardless of the fact that I had put out hundreds of resumes and applications."

• Many readers described a daunting level of competition for openings. "In my area, Elkhart County, Ind.., unemployment had gotten so bad that 1200 people applied for 10 openings at one company," wrote Jason G. (Incidentally, if Elkhart rings a bell, that might be because it's where President Obama launched his effort to get the economy moving again almost two and a half years ago.)

• "I applied at one place that literally handed out raffle tickets and the winning 100 tickets were the only ones that got to apply," wrote M.O. "Of course my number wasn't one of them."

• An enormous number of older readers said they think their age is part of the problem for employers. Paula S., from Acworth, Georgia, who said she was "sixty-something," described "two eye-opening experiences of blatant age discrimination . . . . One twenty-something supervisor asked me if I had ever thought about coloring my hair . . . . Another manager told his assistant with the door open when I showed up to complete an application and interview: 'We can't hire any more old people.' "

• Britt S. said he'd tried to transition into another career after getting laid of from his newspaper job. But, "if an employer has a choice between a 27-year-old with a degree and 3 or 4 years of experience and a 57-year-old with the same degree and no experience, who is most likely to get the job?" he asked.

• Even Dan H., a skilled telecommunications technician in Scottsdale, Ariz., who's not exactly long in the tooth, told us he thought his age worked against him. "I do believe that being 37 was a factor in being passed over for jobs," he wrote. "[T]echnology is a young man's game. Potential employers thought I may be rusty with my skills … Trained to an expert level, but no one can afford to hire me."

Tips for Jobseekers: "Any job is a good job"

Many readers who had ultimately landed a job were eager to share what worked for them.

• "Network, network, network.  I can't say it enough," wrote E.S., from San Diego, Calif. "LinkedIn is awesome, but enlist your Facebook contacts, or join a networking group. I know it's horrible to ask your friends to keep their eyes out, but in the end that's how I got hired. When you know someone who knows someone, who can vouch for you, you have a much better chance of getting a job with the company you want/in the field you want."

• Kurt G., from Seattle, Wash., thinks the face-to-face meeting is the key. "It doesn't matter what skills you have, and it doesn't matter what skills the employers say they want," he wrote. "What matters is having the skills that get you through the interview process. Focus like a laser on the interview process. If you're successful there, you'll get an offer, and after that, it's up to the employer to retrain you."

• Susan W. suggested making a nuisance of yourself. "I selected three companies I really wanted to work for, applied and kept going back and going back until they either told me to leave me alone or hired me," she told us. "Two told me to leave them alone, the third hired me."

• Chris C. of Modesto, Calif., had a different strategy: moving into a field traditionally dominated by women -- a trend that's said to be increasingly common for male workers on the job market. "I researched the employment situation where I am living and decided to retrain in something it appeared people would want," he wrote. "After I received my nursing license it took me 3 months to find a full-time job."

• And Cindy S. advised job-seekers not to be too picky. "Don't be afraid to downgrade your expectations," she wrote. "Right now, any job is a good job. When the economy recovers, it will be time to stretch out and seek a job for which you are qualified and paid well for, but right now, income is income."

Solutions to the Crisis: "The vast majority of us are on our own."

A lot of readers had thoughts about how to fix the long-term jobless crisis--or at least how to make things easier for its victims.

• Many respondents lamented the problem of having to compete with cheaper foreign labor. "Make it more difficult to offshore work, or to hire foreign workers at a discount," wrote Kurt G., in a typical comment.

• Yvonne P., from Spring Hill, Tenn. suggested that the government give a "small tax incentive to businesses who hire people who have been unemployed for 6 months or more. Call it, 'Americans Back To Work Tax Break.'" Not a bad idea.

• "There aren't enough resources for retraining, especially of college-educated people," wrote E.S. "The vast majority of us are on our own."

• And Todd L. asked for a little more heart from employers. "I want companies and those who represent them to realize that job applicants and the long-term unemployed are not just resumes in a system," he wrote. "We're real people too. Please treat us like one."

The Unexpected Upside: "We have made some memories that are priceless"

As is no doubt clear by now, the picture that most readers painted of long-term unemployment was overwhelmingly bleak. But that doesn't mean there weren't some respondents who had the strength of mind to also take note of the positives.

• Stephanie B. of Memphis, Tenn., told us she works three part-time jobs and is left on a tighter budget than when she was on jobless benefits. And yet, she wrote: "The one thing that has come out of this experience that I am thankful for and hope I won't ever forget, is the closeness we feel as a family. We can sit down to a checker tournament and play for hours. We can pull out the paper and crayons and create artwork we never had time to do before. There's no more running around nonstop all week long. Most days feel like Saturday when school's out. We entertain ourselves and each other on very little, and I think we have made some memories that are priceless."

• Dan H., who rallied to the challenge of unemployment by working with his wife to start a new business, told us: "If you cannot get a job, make one I guess. In the last year, in order, we've moved for a 'better life' across country, had a child (when we conceived all was good), lost job, had car repo'd, borrowed money from family to get wheels, went on public assistance, cried a river over my manly short comings, was inspired by my wife and am now an entrepreneur. Scary how quick life changes."

• Todd L., too, was able to look on the bright side. "I am blessed to have my family," he wrote. "They support me financially and emotionally … I have become more religious. I pray everyday, asking God for a job and a girlfriend. Does it help? Somewhat. It is better than no religion at all. Most of the time it just makes me feel better. God has given me time and comfort. But I am still waiting for a miracle--a job and a girlfriend."

• And Scott V., who's now working after being jobless for more than two years, told others not to give up. "It does suck, but you can make it," he wrote. "I have been humbled by losing my job almost 3 years ago.  Having ZERO dollars in my bank account and very little cash in my wallet. Without the support of my family and the love of my life, to help me get by, I would not have made it this far. I do thank God for all his good graces he has bestowed upon me, which I know I don't deserve. So whoever is reading this, DO NOT sit around waiting for something to happen, make it happen."

Galen Bernard contributed to this report.

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