Why I Qualify for Unemployment

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I’m a graphic designer in an industry known to rely on contractors for short- and long-term projects. And there are a lot of us and the competition is fierce. When designers apply for jobs, they don’t just send out a neatly designed resume. They send out full on campaigns — sometimes clever, sometimes brilliant–that garner attention, but don’t assure them a job.

Employers love us when we arrive. We’re introduced as the wonder child who’s going to come in there and light up their brand. On the other hand, when they’re through with the campaign they’re through with you. We are accustomed to being the first to go since we’re not the numbers people and our jobs are really just about the “icing”. Once we make our employers numbers look all nice and shiny in their annual reports and presentations it’s time to say bye-bye to the designer. Or maybe we’re brought in for a rebranding campaign, where we’re told to “live the brand everyday” and put their shiny new rebranded logo on everything from the toilet paper holders to the new sign on top of the building. Once it’s over, it’s time to leave the brand behind and hit the pavement.

As one of the long-term unemployed (one year and counting) I always worry that I’ll get a call from the unemployment office (or not so aptly named, “employment development office”) telling me that I’m no longer eligible for benefits and if I’d like to dispute it, I’d have to write a letter.

I figure I may as well approach it the way I would a job application, explaining that I’m experienced, reliable, and eager, if not desperate, to continue to receive benefits. I’d love to work and be a contributing member of society, but as my story will show, nobody seems to want to hire a “seasoned”, experienced, reliable and eager designer. I know there are lots of people out there clamoring for benefits that are giving me some hearty competition, but I want to stand out from the crowd of “ne’er-do-wells” as we’re sometimes called.

I’m an excellent candidate for unemployment because I live in Sacramento, California’s state capitol, that has one of the higest unemployment rates in the state. A recent report ranked Sacramento as one of the top 10 cities in the country with one of the highest unemployment rates. Way to go Sac! The State of California is the main employer and then probably Starbucks. There are probably other big employers, but they don’t seem to be putting a dent in the unemployment figures. Just go to a Starbucks and see for yourself.

My unemployment “experience” dates back to just after 9/11 (yep, the 9/11) when the dotcom company I was working for decided that we were redundant and they appreciated all our hard work, but… I took it as a time to relax, explore new horizons, and find out what was behind the open door everyone talked about when the other one closes.

For awhile, there was an open door. I freelanced for the company that laid me off (go figure) and made enough money to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Tuscany with my sister. I almost decided against the trip hoping to jump into another job, but when I found myself standing in a 24-hr Kinko’s at 1 am trying to figure out why the font Impact wouldn’t print and kept defaulting to Courier and wondering if I would make the 8 am deadline to get the simple flyer to the client, I decided to take her up on the trip to Italy. I was still receiving severance benefits, plus a nice little retention package that allowed me to take the trip comfortably.

I came back refreshed after the sunshine, excellent cuisine, wine and visits to Florence and Rome. I was ready to go back to work and soon after found another well-paying freelance job for a multimedia company where I could work at home. It was one of the last bastions of the dotcom era, where they were still throwing money at programmers and designers. I worked at that long enough to earn enough money to ride for awhile without having to find a job right away.

Instead, I took time off to be with my sister who was struggling with breast cancer. The trip to Italy did indeed turn out to be our last trip together. I didn’t work for another six months to be at her side every day. It was the best time I ever spent not working. I wouldn’t ever do it any other way and I don’t regret it for a second.

After she passed, I couldn’t work for awhile. The grief, unemployment, and economy that was heading downhill even then (2003) took a toll on my marriage. My husband moved out shortly after my sister died. We had just moved to Sacramento because of his job. So there I was alone, unemployed, in a new apartment in a strange town (very strange compared to the Bay Area, but that’s another story), no car, no job prospects and my closest friends two hours away.

I worked at odd jobs for awhile–stocking shelves at RiteAid, putting up signage and displays at PetCo. I even assembled furniture at places like Staples and Office Max. I would come home so sore I couldn’t move. I was working alongside kids that could have been my kids, but they tolerated my pace. Being a woman didn’t help as there weren’t many women doing those jobs. The jobs didn’t pay anything, but they kept me busy and out of my grief. I didn’t have the mindset to design or put up with finicky art directors and antsy project managers. But it didn’t take long before I was running out of savings and needed a real job to pay my expenses. The joyride was over.

Luckily, I found a design agency that actually functioned as a design agency and actually placed you in jobs because they actually had jobs to place you in. I ended up working for a small bank, in an even smaller town, south of Sacramento. The only reason I knew about the town was that it was the place I stopped to buy produce on my trips to Tahoe.

But I made the best of the assignment. I was glad to be back at work after a long, painful hiatus, working at what I loved–graphic design. It was a short-term assignment, but long for me–6 months, subbing for a woman on maternity leave. I did a great job, the people loved me, even though they were reticent at first. I wasn’t what they were used to seeing. I was this older, city girl working in a little rural town, not to mention an African American city girl. But they ended up liking me and my work and didn’t want me to leave.

But the law is the law and when the six months was up, the woman on maternity leave returned and again, I found myself out of a job. Fortunately, it was only momentarily. Along came an assignment for a small, struggling non-profit right smack in downtown Sac, ten minutes from my house. Again, I was overjoyed and did great on the job. They loved me, or so they said, but they couldn’t hire me because they just didn’t have the funding or the need for a full-time designer. It was, as the agency said, “another feather in my cap.” But still no job, accolades don’t pay the rent.

A string of excellent assignments with large companies followed, but “always the bad economy” kept them from hiring. I worked for a company that just sells jelly beans that needed someone to step in for their seasonal catalogue rush, but once the rush was over I was rushed out. (I learned more about one of our former presidents than I care to mention walking by the shrine to him at the office entrance and a giant portrait of him made out of jelly beans.) I ate too many jelly beans and jelly bean shaped hot dogs, but I enjoyed the sugar induced pace of the place. They kindly sent me off with armloads of sugar.

Next thing, I was called to work in the advertising department for a major metropolitan newspaper (as in, “Bee outsourced”) who ended up sending their design work to India. That move made me ask the question to myself, “Is there a Raley’s supermarket in New Delhi?” But good fortune followed and I moved onto a Fortune 500 insurance company responsible for most of the hiring in the area with a four building campus just north of Sacramento. They had a hiring freeze right after all of my managers signed the paperwork to hire me in 2009. I almost took it personally, but I saw a lot of full-time employees let go while contractors were retained.

Oddly enough, I wasn’t completely discouraged. Beaten down, yes, discouraged no. I kept finding jobs, just couldn’t keep them “because of the economy.” Between those jobs and unemployment insurance, cashing out a 401(k) and one desperate call to my equally desperate brother, I managed to stay afloat.

In 2010 the Fortune 500 company laid me off because they couldn’t legally keep a contractor longer than two years without hiring them. They worked their contractors hard and we felt like sub-employees, not the annointed insiders who got all the benefits, bonuses and perks. We couldn’t even eat cake on “cake day.” Someone asked me, “Did they have a crumb day for you guys?” At this point, I was tired. I was again told how great I was, how I would be missed, had a big sorrowful going away party, a handshake, then a “cya, wouldn’t wanna be ya, don’t let the door hit ya” send off.

I was officially burned out. That six months of unemployment sounded good! But I didn’t like being on unemployment because I heard so many horror stories at that point about people getting cut off for no reason or some small infraction on their form. Even though my checks came regularly every two weeks I was always surprised that I was getting them for doing nothing. At this point there was little shame associated with being unemployed as every other person was or knew or someone who was without a job or about to lose one.

It’s always a nail biter whether the unemployment check would arrive or not. What if it didn’t? Who do you call? There’s no boss, no human resources. Nothing except a number answered by a recording that leads you into a Kafkaesque bureaucracy and mystique that is intimidating at best, and downright menacing at worst. Did I fill the form out right? Would Congress decide to sign the bill that would cut us all off? Would the stimulus package go through that would allow extensions? Thankfully, I never had to use, the “Where’s my check?” number? I called it once out of curiousity and just the recorded voice made me shudder asking for more documentation than the IRS.

To my disbelief, after sending out resume after resume (the agencies had dried up at this point and had their own despicable business practices too long to mention) I got a contract-to-hire position with excellent pay and for an excellent company and I found the job on, of all places, Craigslist! I worked there for three deliriously happy months as a contractor and was hired full time after the three months. Finally!! Nirvana had arrived, the sun was shining again. Health benefits, 401(k), a Starbucks coffee machine in the kitchen, no longer a sub-employee, but one of them!

It was one of the most demanding jobs ever, except for the newspaper–nothing beats that pace, but I loved it. Again, my supervisor said I was doing an exceptional job and they had little or no complaints about my work. But soon after I was hired, the tone changed. The big account I was brought in for was about to end, new accounts were lost, clients were holding onto their pursestrings. I was the newly hired and the lowest on the totum pole. And I mean lowest.

Working for companies nowadays is especially difficult because you know and the employer knows that there’s a line of people waiting to replace you, they’re calling them everyday. They’re banging down their doors. And they’re qualified, over-qualified and bonified and they will do anything short of cut you to get that job. The managers use this to their advantage making unreasonable demands and know they won’t be challenged and if they are–next! Plus, because the workplace is so tense due to the unstable economy, everyone is on-guard.

There’s backbiting, undermining and what in any other economy would be called a hostile work environment. I don’t know how many times I was “thrown under the bus”—a term I became brutally aware of in the last 4 years. But you dare not utter a complaint or a word, because they’ll threaten you with somebody ready and willing right now who won’t mind being treated like a piece of dirt to work there.

I put up with that for 9 more months. Nine months of full-time employment. Nine months of hating to go to that job everyday–anticipating my boss’ putdowns, embarrassing me in front of my co-workers. My emotional reserve was shattered. When they brought in a twenty-something, beautiful designer I saw my days were numbered. They sat her right next to me. Oddly, she was also African-American with a German accent. She looked a little bit like me when I was in my twenties. I ended up looking like her Mom sitting next to her. She was the younger, faster, better version of me, plus she had the bonus of the German design aesthetic, so loved in the design world.

She was hand-picked by one of the owners and given the red carpet treatment. Because she was the owner’s pick, she couldn’t be touched. My aunt died at Christmas and I had to take a 2-week leave to make arrangements for her funeral. There was talk about having to let people go. I prayed that I would be one of them.

And I was. On a Monday afternoon after working a full day that seemed no different than the others, except that my boss seemed a little nicer than usual the CFO came to my desk and said he needed to speak to me. I followed him down that long hallway, to the little room, with the HR person waiting inside. It was a textbook layoff, even down to the “would you like a glass of water?” (to this day, I wish I had said, “Yes, please, with a vodka back”). They informed me me that they had to let me go because a client had decided to take their work in-house. They were so sorry, they would miss me, they wished me luck. They gave me a one month severance, plus a nice profit-sharing bonus (“You deserve it…”) and also informed me that my medical insurance ended that day.

I didn’t get angry, or cry or even ask why, but I also didn’t want to listen to the CFO’s “from the trenches” pink slip story. I just stared at him blankly when he tried to share his “I’ve been there” line. Yeah, but you’re sitting over there now, and I’m way over here, so spare me, please. They told me I could gather my things and leave. I didn’t want to go to that desk ever again. I never wanted to see my mercurial boss ever again. The HR person got my purse and umbrella. I said I would get the rest later. I never got any of it–I didn’t want any reminders of that place. (As a long-time contractor, I was accustomed to not bringing much to the office. All I left behind was a mug, a notepad and the company t-shirt and sweatshirt that I wouldn’t have worn anyway.)

So much for job security. I questioned whether I should have stayed on unemployment and avoided that whole humiliating mess. Turns out a full-time job was just as unreliable as I thought unemployment was. I had no recourse, no amount of talking, reasoning or begging would have gotten me that job back. I was given a stack of paperwork to sign that would prevent me from taking any legal action against them. I wondered what would have happened if I didn’t sign, but people told me that if I didn’t they could hold up my unemployment. I didn’t want to take any chances, plus could I really fight their pricey team of lawyers and would I want to? I was glad to be out of there, but I wish I could have left on my own terms. If I quit I wouldn’t have been able to get unemployment.

I haven’t spoken to any of them since. I have never left a job where I didn’t retain some sort of relationship with a coworker or manager. I’ve always left on good terms. I don’t believe in burning bridges. But this is a newer, crueler economy. The callousness of Wall Street has trickled down to Main Street.

That was February of 2011. I’ve been unemployed for just shy of a year now. I just received notice that my unemployment has been extended for another six months. I’ve had some interviews, some referrals for jobs that didn’t pan out. I’m fortunate to be able to say it has been one of the most eye-opening, productive times ever in my life. To see the light you have to experience the darkness. People ask me “What are you gonna do!?” I just tell them, I’m going to have faith and not be led by fear in making career choices and life choices. I’m going to take risks and learn to be the authentic me, I’m going to follow my bliss and the rest will follow.

And when the six months is up and I haven’t found a job and the checks stop coming? I’m going to hope that they give me a chance to explain why I’m qualified to be on unemployment. Stay tuned.

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