‘I felt guilty for taking unemployment’

By DW Gibson
June 12, 2012

Editor’s note: This week, Reuters Opinion is 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 Jessica Smith’s. Jessica, 32, was born and raised in Alabama. After stints in other states (New York and Virginia) and another country (Sweden), she moved back to Alabama in 2010 with her fiancé, Nick, and this is where they’ve made a home with their newborn.

Jessica has two master’s degrees. She has written for several years, mostly poetry, with some significant publications, but she’s on hiatus these days: “I have a job and a kid, and it’s just not going to happen.” Recently she was hired as a librarian at a nearby private boarding school.

It’s in Buffalo where her story of unemployment – and underemployment – begins. That’s where she and Nick were both working at a high-profile classical music organization. She was also an adjunct professor at the state university.

I received a letter that said I wouldn’t be able to adjunct in the spring. I got that letter, and then around Thanksgiving, I was laid off from the — Orchestra for the fourth time since I’d been working there. They just kept laying people off because they didn’t have enough money to pay them. Basically, they can’t make payroll, so you get laid off for two weeks. It was really stressful.

I got a call, and it was actually my fiancé, but we were not dating then. And he was like, “So we’re gonna have y’all not come in for the next couple of weeks, and we’re still trying to figure out how to restructure, and we’re just going to take a couple of weeks to figure this out.”

I knew that Nick was just the messenger. When he was calling me to lay me off, he was just the pawn of the system. I wasn’t mad at him.

This was right around Christmas. I actually ran into the executive director in the hallway, and I was like, “You can’t lay off people at Christmas. You can do it any other time. You can do it in January. But it’s just not right to lay somebody off at Christmas.”

I had nothing to lose, you know?

He was like, “Mm-hmm.” He was so far removed from the process. He didn’t even know who I was, really.

Two weeks later, I found out that I was pregnant. So I was like, “This isn’t good.” I didn’t plan to be pregnant, so I was really freaked out. And I didn’t know whether I could afford to be pregnant.

And two weeks later I went back to work. They had cut everybody’s hours based on their sales. So this was really horrible, emotionally, because if you’re a salesperson, you need a lot of emotional support from your organization to keep getting out there and getting rejected and still going out there and trying to sell stuff. I can’t make better sales if I’m constantly under this pressure of “you’re going to get laid off or your hours reduced if you don’t make sales.”

I think basically we all kind of scurried around and tried to find sort of our Hail Mary leads. Happily, this was a month before our subscriptions renewal period, which is when you call all of your members who are probably going to give you money, so basically I was just totally like, ballsy. I would call people, and I would be like, “Hey, this is the — Orchestra. We’re calling for your yearly subscription renewal. It’s going to be $1,158. What kind of credit card do you want to put it on? We take MasterCard, Discover, Visa.” The lead sales guy was like, “You have to read that script,” and I was like, “I’m not going to read the script. I’m just going to get the money.”

Late February, early March…it was cold. It’s Buffalo. It’s cold and dreary, and there’s snow on your car you have to wipe off every morning. And the last thing that you need is somebody laying you off.

The final one was a little different.

I was working with Nick, and I was like, you know, I can’t handle working here anymore. It’s just gotten too insane. They were working with a really skeletal crew. It was like there were so many demands on this very skeletal crew that I just wanted to go home and drink afterwards. And I was like, “I don’t want to be at a job where all I want to do is go home and drink. That’s not healthy.” So I was like, you know, “The next time there are layoffs, just lay me off.” And he did. Because at that point he was my direct supervisor – not to be confused with having any actual control over me.

He emailed me so that it was official, so that it was in writing.

And then we were like, “O.K., who’s going to pay for groceries?”

This was around the time that I found out I was having this child, so I had a lot of clout. What it did for me is give me unemployment benefits during my pregnancy and after.

That’s where I was when I started back to school for library science. I went back to get student loans so I would have this couple thousand dollars in the bank if anything went wrong. Every time anything came up, like a car repair or whatever, I was just shit out of luck. Like, anytime anything over $100 came up that month, then I would either have to ask my parents, put it on a credit card or ask for money from a friend. And it was just really eating at me, because I could never get ahead.

Then I was like, “I could just apply for unemployment, like everybody else.” I just never thought of myself as somebody who was unemployed. Who would take unemployment? That’s what other people do when they’re unemployed. Like those guys down there working on the construction site, when they get laid off, they apply for unemployment. If you’re a failed graduate student working as an adjunct, you don’t apply for unemployment, because that’s not, like, a real job. So you don’t deserve, like, real unemployment.

I felt guilty for taking unemployment, because I felt like there were people who really needed it more than I did, but that turned out not to be true, because it was like 15 months until I found a job.

The reason that I finally got a job had nothing to do with my resume. I had left my normal signature on the bottom of my email, which has my website on it. My boss read my blog – which, under ordinary circumstances, I would never want my employer to read – decided he liked me and hired me. It was just a personal connection. I didn’t know anyone there. He just decided that I, based on my personality, fit in with the people at my current job. And he was right. But that had nothing to do with how I formatted my resume.

I mean, basically I just lucked into getting a job. And so did Nick. I mean, we were both very lucky. But the other thing that unemployment reveals is how people who are employed basically are very just lucky, you know? Unemployed people get a lot of flack, but you can apply for literally hundreds of jobs, and it has nothing to do with you whether you get it or not, and it’s very hard to learn that lesson. You just have to keep pulling the lever and hoping the quarters come out.

I think the great tragedy of the current recession is how much untapped talent there is. How people like my fiancé, working 35 hours a week in basically a job that an intern could do, is not meeting his potential in terms of his skill levels and his educational background. And I know that’s true for a lot of my friends, and it makes me really sad, because I think my whole generation is just underutilized. Like, there’s all this great talent. I mean, really not everybody went to college, but pretty much everybody I know went to college, and most people went to grad school, and there’s all this knowledge…all this unharnessed energy and desire to give back to the community, to help other people, to really exercise all of your individual talent, and it’s just dumped.

I think we feel that something has to be done, which is why everybody’s at Occupy Wall Street. I mean, something has to be done. We’re not sure what. We know that the system is really not working, and that it’s systemic. There’s no one thing that’s going to help. But there’s hundreds of things that, if tweaked, might help. And since you got all of these great, talented people that are underemployed or unemployed, and they have time to go down to places like Occupy Wall Street and yell about it and maybe try to fix it.

It’s not like, you know, “The system is fucked up, and we’re angry.” I mean, they are angry, but they want to fix it. It’s not like throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s like, how can we help this baby, you know?

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