The enduring struggle of the long-term unemployed
The economy is improving and more people are finding work, but the good news is little comfort for the long-term unemployed who have tried and failed to find a job for weeks, months, sometimes years.
If you've been without work for more than 26 weeks, you fall into the long-term jobless category, according to the government. The Atlanta Journal Constitution talked with a half-dozen people who've been out of full-time work for as long as five years. They've burned through savings, lived off parents or spouses and lowered professional expectations. They remain the human faces of the Great Recession, which technically ended four years ago but goes on for many.
Comments edited for brevity.
–Hometown: Marietta, Ga.
–Last full-time job: July 2011.
–Brad's story: He worked as a public affairs officer in the Air Force until 2010 before moving to Atlanta with his wife and son.
–His words: I'm going to stick with public relations. I've sent out applications for two years now and I've only landed three in-person interviews.
I have good days and bad days. I have a lot of high hopes when I send out a resume and when I get a rejection, I get crushed. It's like in high school when your girlfriend breaks up with you and you have no idea why. You're crushed. But I keep at it. I'm a true believer in persistence paying off. And I have a very good supportive family.
My wife's primary job is as a technical writer. My primary job is looking for a job. She's doing really well and makes enough money to keep us afloat. But it's not enough to bring our debt down. We're like a buoy in the water: We're not going up or down, but we're holding steady.
We rent our house from my wife's parents; that keeps the rent low and keeps us above water. We also try to cut corners everywhere. We didn't need Netflix or Hulu. We cut our cell phone plans to the absolute minimum. We were paying $75 a week just for after-school care for our son. But I pick him up every day now. We used to buy very expensive Sara Lee white bread. But there's a loaf of Kroger brand bread and it's still good and it only cost 89 cents. That saves us $2 off the bat.
–Hometown: Birmingham, Ala.
–Last full-time job: October 2012.
–Drina's story: She graduated from the University of Alabama-Birmingham with a degree in communications and has worked in sales, a warehouse and a call center and seeks work in Atlanta and beyond.
–Her words: It's not the greatest feeling in the world, living with my parents. At this point I should be doing everything on my own. I feel uncomfortable because it's not my own space. My dad is ready for me to get a job more than my mom, who wants me to stay here as long as I need. I thank God for my parents every day.
Nothing has really changed in my lifestyle. I don't have friends over and I don't hang out all the time. I used to get my hair cut every week, week and a half. I now may do it twice a month if that. I don't have too many expenses beyond gas and car stuff. It's not as bad as it could be.
I've applied for some jobs I didn't want, like the grocery store or Wal-Mart. I thought it would be easy to get on with them. But a lot of times I've been told I'm over-qualified.
It's been almost a year without a job and I'm desperate.
I'll probably end up with something far from my degree. But I just want to do something where I feel like I'm giving something to that company and not just earning a paycheck.
MARY KATHERINE DUNN:
–Hometown: Stockbridge, Ga.
–Last full-time job: None.
–Mary Katherine's story: A 2012 graduate of Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., she has since taken a succession of short-term jobs, including sandwich-maker and baby-sitter.
–Her words: I intended to go into nonprofit work, which probably wasn't the wisest idea. I had an internship at a women's health center in Decatur (Ga.) which was totally unpaid. It was my second unpaid internship. Initially, I was totally on board with internships because people said they would pay off in the end. Now I'm totally disenchanted.
I'm like super-fortunate to be able to stay at my parent's house and they're happy about me being there. But it's been a whole year now. It's rough. At Thanksgiving, there were six people at the table and my dad was the only one employed. It was really sobering. It was the instant I realized how bad things really were.
I got my first student loan bill in December. It was $569.18. I just started laughing. There was no use being sad or upset. I owe $50,000. There's no way I'll ever pay it off. It's just a fact of life now that I'll always have this debt.
I stopped counting how many applications I've put in at 400. I'm looking for anything: receptionist, clerical stuff, data entry. I've applied at gas stations, but they wouldn't hire me. I've applied at Marshall's and fast food. But there are so many people looking for jobs right now they can afford to be picky choosing who's flipping the burgers.
I honestly have no idea where I'll be in five or 10 years. I don't even know what I want as a career anymore. I'm so disenchanted with everything. I'm having something like an identity crisis. Physically, I'm an adult, but I'm more dependent on my parents than I ever have been. No young, self-righteous, twenty-something wants to feel that way.
–Hometown: Cumming, Ga.
–Last full-time job: December 2008.
–Regina's story: A newspaper circulation veteran, she worked for a pest control company and now puts in 20 hours a week photographing newborns at two local hospitals.
–Her words: My husband is a car salesman. We get by by the skin of our teeth. It's paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes it's paycheck to two hours after we put it in the bank.
You go to bed at night wondering, "OK, what bill can I afford to pay tomorrow? Put off until next week? Two weeks?" There are a lot of sleepless nights and short fuses.
You look and see what needs to be paid, make sure that shelter, food and clothes are taken care of, and you learn to do without stuff. We don't go out anymore. We got rid of our home phone. Our cable is down to a bare minimum. We're a one-car family now. We got rid of our PT Cruiser. We're hoping in another month or so to be able to get another car.
I've set up quite a few job searches on different on-line sources, probably 10 of them, including CareerBuilder, SimplyHired, ZipRecruiter, Bright, Indeed, Monster. Every day I get about 30 emails. A lot of them I just delete because they're so out of my field of vision. But I've had more interviews in the past month than I've had in the past five years. Trust me, I'm not looking to walk in and make $60,000 a year like I did 10, 15 years ago. But I want benefits and something more than 20 hours a week.
–Hometown: Stone Mountain, Ga.
–Last full-time job: 2011.
–Gerald's story: A business-development consultant in Washington, he moved to Atlanta two years ago for a similar job that ended when the company couldn't afford to pay him.
–His words: The most devastating thing is to walk away from a six-figure job and end up with nothing. You go down to the unemployment office and see all those people there and you have the "Oh, that's-not-me" syndrome. But the drive back home is really painful.
People say that my age group is the hardest to re-employ. But that can't be true across the entire economy. Now, I'm getting frightened. I'm looking to extend my retirement another five or 10 years easy. I've got to work longer now. I've been living off what I squirreled away for retirement.
I've gone through all of my 401(k) – $80,000. I live with my sister. I had never gone into a dollar store before or even looked at prices on a menu. Now, I buy the lowest-price regular gas. Foods that I used to think were basics – like cuts of meat, soy milk, almond milk – I put back. I never used coupons in the past. I do now.
How do I feel? How's my head? You remember the move "The Exorcist" when the little girl's head spins around? That's how I feel. It's hard to say I'm unemployed. When speaking with neighbors, they say, "Damn, you must be going crazy." I tell them things look bad, but there must be a reason.
–Hometown: Stone Mountain.
–Last full-time job: Fall 2010.
–Robert's story: He worked in health care for 25 years before a layoff led to jobs with Christian book stores that also let him go.
–His words: The layoffs opened my eyes to the reality of life. You've got to take whatever comes, go with the punches, learn to adjust because your lifestyle in every way changes.
The most important thing is to live under the circumstance and live below your means. Whereas I was once middle class, I am now at the bottom. But I still have a home, a mortgage and pay my utilities.
In between all the jobs, in the voids, I'm volunteering, networking, keeping active. I'm out there doing something.
Although I'm still focused on what I want to do, I'll take anything. I'll take the introductory job or new trainee job. I'll start from the bottom and work up again. But companies are looking for inexperienced, younger people whom they can manipulate, maybe only give 10 or 20 hours a week of work. It is very much unfair. Why get somebody who doesn't know much when you've got somebody who knows everything? When I go for job interviews sometimes my eyes just focus in the background and I see gray-headed, white-headed people older than me working there. I say to myself, "If they can do it, I can do it." I stay focused, positive.
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