Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Twenty-Six Weeks and Counting, A Friend’s Unemployment Ordeal
Awhile back, I wrote a post that included an anecdote from my high school days when my best friend and I waited in a long line in the middle of winter to apply for part time jobs at a new hotel opening in our hometown. It was kind of a lark for us…we were just looking for some extra spending money, and working in a hotel seemed like it would be kind of fun. We didn’t get offered a job—it was smack in the middle of the early-1980s recession and a couple of thousand applicants turned up to apply for a few dozen openings. It was the first time I had ever seen a large group of desperate adults queued up for what I now realize were menial, low paying jobs. As such, it was quite an eye opener.
Flash forward to the first week of this year, and in a tragic irony that same friend of mine, who I will call Joe, was laid off from his retail manager’s job without even so much as two weeks’ notice after 14 years with the company. Though we were best buddies back then, and are fairly close today, Joe and I took much different career paths. I spent six years scraping together enough money to get through college—taking a detour into the Illinois Army National Guard along the way—graduated with high honors and moved easily into the white collar ranks. Joe wasn’t really university material. He attended classes at the local community college for a couple of years before quitting to begin his retail career.
Always a hard worker, up until this year he had never had any problem finding a job. He worked at several other stores before obtaining his most recent gig upon relocating to not far from where I live in Virginia. It was a complete coincidence that the two of us, small town boys from Illinois, both ended up a short distance from each other in the Old Dominion, especially since we had largely lost contact in the meantime. Joe moved here after divorcing his first wife so he could be with a woman he met on the Internet. They were married not long after, and he eventually adopted her quadriplegic son as his own. It was just the kind of selfless act I would expect from my deeply religious and good-natured friend. He’s always been a better man than I am.
That’s why it pains me even more to see what he has been going through. Joe is about to exhaust his traditional 26-weeks of unemployment insurance and will be transferring over to start receiving federally provided extended benefits. The same benefits, as it was reported last week, that Congress is getting ready to eliminate as part of their budget cutting zeal. The chart at the top of this article really sets the insanity of that plan into stark relief. What it shows is that it is now taking unemployed people an average of 40 weeks to find a new job, assuming they ever do. That's nearly double the previous all time record of just 21 weeks set during that same Reagan recession all those years ago when Joe and I stood in line to apply for those hotel jobs.
During his six months of enforced idleness, Joe has sent out hundreds of resumes but has had exactly four job interviews. Just last week, he was optimistic that he might be hired to be the manager of a local thrift shop, but even that fell through. Had he gotten the job, the pay would have been $16-an-hour--$32,000 per year--or about half of what he was making previously. It’s okay, he said to me when I expressed my condolences, something’s gotta turn up eventually.
Fortunately for Joe, his wife still has her job, and more importantly her health insurance as their son requires constant medical care even now as an adult. They’ve had to tighten their belts, but they’re getting by. And given his normally optimistic outlook, I am actually much more fearful for Joe’s future than he seems to be himself, at least right now.
When talking to Joe, I am almost at as much of a loss as to what to say as I was to Leslie, the young college graduate with $100,000 in student loan debt who stayed at my house a couple of weeks ago while on her job search. I am very fortunate in that not only is my job currently secure, I am actually planning to retire in just three years.
I am also not so arrogant as to think that just because I completed my university studies I made better life choices than Joe did. Heck, but for the grace of having been born when I was, I could be in Leslie’s position today, saddled with huge debts and unable to find a job after college. Joe has always worked hard and done right by his family. His bad luck was to be working in a profession far more vulnerable than my own to the effects of the Great Recession.
This is also the reason why I’m not rooting for a peak oil-induced fast crash. The effects of these early stages of what author Jim Kunstler calls The Long Emergency have already made Joe and Leslie quite vulnerable. Additionally, I know a number of other friends and family members whose jobs will likely be in peril when the next economic shock wave hits. I do not relish the idea of watching helplessly as they get pulled beneath the waves. Extend and pretend, kick the can down the road, sustaining the unsustainable; whatever you want to call it, I’m not looking forward to the day when it finally proves to be no longer possible.