‘If I can’t do that, then I’m worthless’

By DW Gibson
June 11, 2012

Editor’s note: This week, Reuters Opinion is going to be publishing five excerpts – one each day – from D.W. Gibson’s new book, Not Working, an oral history of the recession. Gibson spent months traveling across America talking to people who had been laid off.

Today’s entry is Heather Dupree’s. Heather is a 38-year-old who lives in Marietta, Georgia. She grew up in Miami and went to Florida International University. Her dad worked for Pan Am, and her parents relocated to Atlanta when the company was acquired by Delta. After college, Heather followed her parents to Georgia. She shares a home in a wooded neighborhood with her partner, Leslie, and Leslie’s sixth-grade daughter, Gabby, from a previous relationship.

This is Heather’s story.

I actually went to school for a couple different things; I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. Originally, I wanted to teach, so I have a minor in education. And then I decided late that I wanted to get into computers. So I got my bachelor’s in communications with a bunch of computer classes underneath it, and I started doing websites when I was in college.

I got on with a healthcare company. They brought me on as a contractor to rebuild their website. I was with C. for seven years, and in March of 2010 they laid me off. My boss walked back into my office with me and shut the door, and he just started crying. And then I just lost it. I tried to be strong, but I can’t actually sit there and watch a man cry without crying. So I was pretty upset. And then I just called Leslie and said, “You’ve gotta come pick me up.”

And she’s like, “What’s going on?”

I’m like, “You really just need to come pick me up.”

She got there, and she thought that they had let my boss go, and that’s why I was upset. And I was like, “Nope. That’s not really it…” So that’s kind of how that went down. And I really didn’t even have a chance to, you know, say goodbye to anybody really at that time. They were kind of just, like, “Hey, get your stuff and pack it up.”

What I found out later was, that same morning they had called him in and said, “Hey, listen. We’re going to demote you.” They said to him, “We’re going to demote you, and we’re going to need to let a couple people from the department go, but you have to agree to this demotion.” I guess they gave him a 10 percent salary cut or something like that, and what he had told me a couple months later was that if he would have said, “No, I’m not going to take the demotion, I’ll just walk,” they would’ve kept me instead. So I guess he wasn’t thinking about that at the time obviously, right? Because he’s got his own mortgage and kids and everything else, but we had had that talk a couple weeks later, and he was like, “I just feel like I’m responsible.”

And I’m like, “Listen. What’s the difference, really?”

And honestly, eventually everybody from that department was let go. So it’s not like he saved me. It’s like, you gotta do what you’ve gotta do for yourself and your family. I mean, I don’t expect you to throw yourself on the sword for me by any stretch.

So it was the first time I got laid off in the last two years. And then I would say it was about eight weeks before I found another job, and it was a contract position. It was a 90-day contract position. It could have turned into permanent. It did not.

So then I started looking for another job. I think about 30 days afterwards I found a job with a startup. They were sort of in IT, but they built software for mobile devices.

And I was with them for almost a year. And then they could not get funding anymore. So they laid off myself and probably half of my department, and then eventually they sold the business and now everybody’s been laid off.

I’ve got to start from scratch, and thinking about, “God, how’s that going to look on my resume?” I worked for someplace for seven years, and then now I’ve only been here 11 months. You know, all those types of things, and you still go back to that place of panic, of here-we-go-again. So we’ve had basically almost a year to build up our savings, and obviously we’re not at where I’d like us to be at for me to be looking for a job again and all those type of things.

That whole optimism in the beginning? You’re like, woo-hoo, it’s fine, I’ll be good, don’t worry about it, and you’re trying to be strong.

It’s just a lot of self-convincing. It’ll be fine. Just take a breath. It’ll be fine. Don’t panic. That type of thing. I’m telling Leslie, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s fine, honey. I’ll find something. Don’t worry. How much do we have in savings? O.K., it’s cool.” And then, you know, when you get to that point of four weeks and you haven’t heard anything, you start to get defeated, like: What is it going to take? What am I doing wrong?

I would get up the same time every morning. I didn’t want to do the whole stay-in-bed-till-noon type of thing, so I would get up every morning at the same time. I would get on the computer, go to all the job sites, check my email, see if I heard from anybody, and then, you know, you can only do that for so long, right? So then it’s about 10 o’clock, and there’s really nothing to do for the rest of the day. So what did I do? I did a bunch of house projects. We had just moved in here not that long before, about six months before that, so you know, started fixing stuff that needed fixing, just trying to keep myself busy. Did a lot of yard work, ‘cause I just couldn’t fill the day. It’s really hard to fill the day. And you’re here by yourself.

Gabby’s in school, Leslie’s at work, and you’re just here by yourself. And I used to tell Leslie that I talked to my three friends today: Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray and Ellen. ‘Cause those are like the three highlights of my day. Ridiculous. Daytime TV is horrible, by the way.

Obviously, when you get laid off, the roller coaster of navigating your way through, like I said, trying to be optimistic and then inevitably going, “Oh, God. I’m never going to get a job, and I’m not going to be able to support my family, and this is going to be horrible.” And, you know, I think I took that part the hardest. Like, I look at my role as a provider, and when I couldn’t do that, I felt like, O.K., if I can’t do that, then I’m worthless. So as much as I can clean the floors and make dinner, that’s really not providing.

So probably another eight, nine weeks before I found something else. It’s a company called M. I’ve been with them for just a couple months now.

It’s actually going really well. I really like the company. They’re part of CC., but they actually operate like a startup. So they’re really laid back and have a pretty good attitude. So far, so good. I’m still a little gun-shy. Nervous, you know? Twice in two years. You never know what could happen. It’s hard to get comfortable. You’re like, hmm…I wonder if I’ll be here for a while.

Seven years, and then I worked for one place for 90 days, and the next place I worked was, like, 11 months, and you know, a lot of what I was looking for when I was interviewing this last time was longevity, like “How long have you been here?” and asking people those type of questions. But then again, at the end of the day, you don’t know. You have no sense of how long something’s going to last. Four or five years? I mean, I would be surprised. I would love it, obviously. You want to stay someplace where you feel comfortable and build relationships with people, but I just don’t think corporate America’s like that anymore.


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Heather (and anyone else out there looking for a job): when you’re looking for a job, you CANNOT rely on the computer. A tiny percentage of jobs are found online. The NUMBER ONE way to find a job is still personal contact. Yes, you should certainly spend some time searching and applying online, but that is NOT the best way to find a job. Once you’re done with the computer search and it’s only 10AM, GET YOURSELF OUT OF THE HOUSE and meet people. How? Join a club, go for a walk, play a sport, volunteer — do anything to get in contact with other people. In particular, try to interact with other people in such a manner that they can form valid opinions about your character and qualities. THAT’s what gets you a job — when a decision-maker, or someone who knows the decision-maker — can honestly say “yeah, I know Heather, I worked with her on a volunteer project and she was able to manage the entire project on her own and got it done on time and in great shape.” Just playing sports is a great technique — people get to see how you act in a competitive situation or a team situation and get to form opinions about how you might be to work with. One of the big advantages of these situations is that you don’t have to self-identify as “unemployed” — maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. DO NOT immediately let everyone know you’re unemployed and need a job. Rather, just engage in the activity and then, at some point — probably if you’re asked what you do — THEN you tell people that you’re unemployed. Now you have a group of people who like you and personally know you’re qualities ready and willing to consider you or recommend you to others for a job. Yes, playing sports while you are unemployed is more likely to get you a job than spending all day on the computer. Employment is still primarily driven by personal connections and the computer will never replace that reality. Try it — get out there and let people get to know you. This works. Good luck.

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