This month marks two years since I lost my full-time job. At the time, I’d been working as a communications professional for 15 years, and the loss was devastating. I was a single mother with almost nothing in savings and no safety net. My four-year long-distance relationship had also just ended, and I felt scared and alone.
The last time I’d lost a job, as part of a mass layoff in 2003, I waitressed until I could get back to full-time office work. Unfortunately, waitressing was no longer an option, because I now had back problems (degenerative disc disease, scoliosis and spinal stenosis) that made it impossible for me to stand for long periods. I looked into getting disability benefits, but I made too much money from unemployment benefits to qualify.
Despite my fear, I was certain I’d have another, better job soon — long before my year of unemployment benefits came to an end. I am experienced and degreed. I consider myself to be intelligent, a hard worker, responsible, passionate about what I do, and an awesome member of any team or great working independently. I had fantastic references, strong work samples and a go-getter attitude. I had always gotten jobs easily and enjoyed the interview process. I threw myself into applying for way more than the two jobs a week required by the unemployment office.
But the current job hunting environment is much different than that of 2003.
Ghosting and ageism are terrible challenges for thousands of unemployed and underemployed people. So is the “gig economy,” in which companies book workers as “contractors” for short periods of time to avoid adding headcount or having to offer benefits. At one temp job I worked, a co-worker had been graphic designing as a “contractor” for five years. She never knew when they’d call her in, or for how long. It was hard to pay bills without steady income, she said, and she couldn’t build a freelance practice in case she was called in and suddenly became unavailable.
I was once offered a barely legal “full-time freelance” job, the likes of which the Department of Labor is increasingly cracking down on. Huge companies like Google are using workers this way: They come to the office every day, just like full-time employees, but aren’t eligible for benefits like health insurance or a retirement plan. Employers sometimes go through employment agencies to skirt hiring requirements, so the worker is an “employee” of the temp agency, with few to no protections or incentives. These kinds of “permalance” positions are increasingly common, because they offer all the advantages to an employer and there are so many unemployed people, they’ll take whatever work they can get. This feeds the cycle of using people for work when it’s convenient for the company, with no investment in the employee and no commitment to them.
While I continued to search for a full-time job, I took freelance work wherever I could find it. I liked working from home in comfortable clothes and eating a freshly prepared lunch while watching a DVD from the library, not sucking down a frozen meal at my desk while working through lunch. I missed having co-workers, but the work-life balance was great. I felt my next job was right around the corner, but as each month passed without one, I was more and more confused.
“To date, I’ve applied for more than 215 jobs, including full-time, part-time, contract and temp work, both locally and nationally.”
I applied to more jobs. I reached out to PR firms and marketing agencies. I networked, expanded my LinkedIn profile, worked with headhunters, signed up with employment agencies. I’d have terrific conversations during interviews and be told I was a “top candidate.” They’d introduce me to the team, and say “We’ll definitely be in touch,” or “You have everything we’re looking for,” and then I would never hear from them again. Tons of candidates complain online every day that ghosting has become such a widespread part of the job-hunting process. It’s hard not to let it get to you.
To date, I’ve applied for more than 215 jobs (I keep a spreadsheet), including full-time, part-time, contract and temp work, both locally and nationally. Mostly it’s writing and communications work, but not all of it is. I applied for transcription work, but am hard of hearing and couldn’t hear recordings clearly enough to pass the tests. I applied for secretarial/office jobs, though I haven’t done work like that for more than 15 years. I never got called to interview for that work. I was told by staffing agencies that I was “too experienced” (read: too old) for these jobs. They want people who are young and who would work for half of what I was making on unemployment. It would have been easier to stop trying and only apply to two jobs a week, but I knew my unemployment benefits wouldn’t last forever.
As I continued my job search, I simultaneously built my freelance business, one opportunity at a time. I networked harder. I asked for referrals and recommendations. I asked contractors from previous jobs for work. Friends were very helpful. If their workplace was looking for a writer for a project, they’d give me the work. If they had a job lead, they’d send it my way. I got a lot of compliments on my work from clients and it boosted my self-esteem. I began to think I could make a living as a freelancer.
I also downscaled as much as possible. When you don’t commute, never go out for lunch (or happy hour or dinner), and don’t have to wear nice clothes or makeup every day, your expenses go down a lot.
After a year, I answered the question I’d posed to myself in those early months of job hunting: What if nobody ever hires me for a full-time job with benefits again? How will I live? How do I get through this?
After two years, I’ve learned a lot and I have some answers I want to share:
1. Seek organized help. First, there is no shame in being on public assistance, or in being poor. Poor people are not lazy or failures. I grew up poor, and was briefly on food stamps when I graduated college, so I knew to get help right away — I applied for aid the day I lost my job. Resources exist to help you, many of which you may not know about. With food stamps, I got a list of food pantries. These can take hours to visit, and sometimes the food is rotten, but I got a lot of food, and stocked up on things like toothpaste, dishwashing liquid and shaving cream, which you can’t buy with SNAP. I visited pantries on a rotating schedule so I would hit each once per month, as allowed. There is a feeling of solidarity at food pantries that is hard to describe.
I blogged through difficult times. I enrolled in the Affordable Care Act when my health insurance ended, and in a hospital’s financial assistance program, which covered what the ACA didn’t. I got on Medicaid after my unemployment benefits ended because my income went down. I went to a free clinic for dental care (FYI, almost no dentists accept Medicaid patients). I got an emergency grant for writers that paid my rent one month. Talk to your county job and family services department about job training and resources.
2. Seek emotional help. The stress of chronic unemployment and poverty takes a huge toll. After wallowing in grief, anger and terror, I used my free time to better myself. I taught myself Spanish. I took online classes to develop more skills (Rosetta Stone is free through many libraries, Coursera offers financial aid, Hubspot is free). I enjoyed daytime walks and made peace with winter — when you don’t have to commute in the snow, winter is actually pretty. My friends were wonderful. They were always there for me when I was down. They donated to a fundraiser so I could get a dog. Many surprised me with gift cards, groceries or an occasional bottle of wine.
Being honest and real is important. Lots of people are struggling, but many folks feel ashamed and don’t talk about it. It’s OK to be poor. It’s OK to tell people you are having a hard time making ends meet. I even spoke on a panel at my hospital about how the financial assistance department helped me, educating health care workers about the emotional aspect of health care when you are poor and physically broken.
3. Readjust your focus. This was a big, tough lesson. After I hit the one-year unemployed mark and realized I might never again work full-time in an office, I expanded my work. In addition to freelancing, I did easy, low-paying work to keep the lights on. From counting boxes of 3D glasses at a movie theater to secret shopping for free food at chain restaurants to writing photo captions for a national hotel chain, I found I could do small things to earn small amounts of money, in high volume.
I sold tons of personal belongings in Facebook buy/sell groups. Most people have way more things than they need, and people will buy almost anything if you clean it up and photograph it nicely. I changed the buttons on an ancient, fringed leather jacket I bought at a flea market for $5, and sold it for $20. If you are able-bodied, there is a lot of available work. If you’re not comfortable driving strangers around for a rideshare company, try being an Instacart shopper or delivering pizza. Grocery stores are often hiring reliable workers. Think strategically: Could you get a job at a place where the employee discount might make a big, positive difference? Mow lawns. Walk dogs. Pet-sit or babysit. Cobble that living together. All income matters. Never give up.
This shift in my life also caused me to majorly redefine my relationship with money. When you have no money, you can come to see any money as a gift. You can become grateful for the ability to pay even one bill. You can become a skilled negotiator and problem-solver at finding ways to lower expenses and cut spending. I developed a resilience that increased my confidence, which in turn has helped me seek and land more freelance work. I embraced the uncertainty of freelancing, and my status as an experienced, innovative worker.
Paying bills each month is still a gamble. I spend a lot of time on marketing, networking, continued training, billing and collecting — this is what it’s like running your own business. I never wanted to do that, but at my age, nobody seems willing to hire intelligent, experienced workers who have at least 15 if not 20 more years of good work ahead (my grandmother lived to be 102, so I’ve got time) — people like me with a solid work ethic, excellent work product and an engaging personality.
I still dream I’ll find a great full-time job, make gobs of money and be able to save for retirement instead of paying bills, but I couldn’t wait around for the employment world any longer. I began making my own luck. Losing my job has changed me as a person. Looking back, though I enjoyed many jobs I held and liked my co-workers, I often struggled with toxic bosses and challenging work environments where there was screaming, harassment or cliquish favoritism. Now, my dog Indigo and I trade off who is Employee of the Week. As a freelancer, I never know what the next month will be like financially, but I now have much less fear of the unknown. I know what it’s like to be at the bottom, to scrape and fight to survive.
I know now that uncertainty is normal, but also that I have all I need, even though I have fewer “things” than ever. I have a wonderful partner in my life, one who loved me at my lowest. I reset my mind and heart, and found new love. I already know we can weather any storm, because we met in the middle of the hurricane.
This summer not only makes two years since I lost my job ― it also marks the end of my time on public assistance (at least for now, and hopefully forever). I now make just a little too much money freelancing to continue to qualify. I call this gray area “the gap.” I make too much to get help, but not so much that I can easily pay my bills. I will work hard to move through this phase and into the black, but it is not easy.
There are millions of Americans in the gap — making too much to qualify for help, or too much to qualify for disability. Physically able people in the gap work multiple jobs or go without food, medicine or other necessities. Others take care of children or aging family members while working, grinding through a painful, difficult day-to-day reality that is dangerously stressful and frustrating.
It’s important for people to understand how difficult is to be poor. There’s a world of difference between donating food to pantries and being the one on the receiving end, hoping someone has dropped off something special instead of cheap canned tuna they got at a dollar store. A jar of almond butter on the shelf at my pantry was so special a find it once made me cry.
The hoops you have to jump through to obtain and qualify for aid — not just once, but daily, weekly and monthly ― are incredibly difficult. You spend hours on the phone or in line for mostly unhealthy food, and you regularly have to provide adequate proof to continue to qualify. The mental and physical struggle is horrible, and it shouldn’t be this way. Unemployment, underemployment and poverty are not problems that can be solved overnight, but removing the stigma associated with struggling and needing help can happen immediately.
Pressure should also be applied to employers: those who take advantage of workers, classifying them as contractors to skirt providing benefits; those who rely on scanning software to kick out qualified applicants because of their age; and the rude, horrible ghosting problem ubiquitous in hiring today. Employers who cut out older workers are likely missing out on super-qualified, dedicated, hardworking employees. Companies that rely on resume-scanning software should bring back a human element. The “human element” should also include considering and responding to every applicant as a matter of courtesy, especially those they’ve seen in interviews. Candidates shouldn’t be the only ones thinking outside the box and getting creative.
“It’s important for people to understand how difficult is to be poor.”
Employers should also consider dropping arbitrary requirements — is a degree truly necessary for every single job? Most importantly, employers should look at the heart of their company and their purpose as an institution instead of seeing people only as figures on a balance sheet. They must find their ethics, as it seems to me many have left them just outside the boardroom door.
If you find yourself in a situation similar to mine, keep fighting and don’t give up. I am proud of how hard I’ve worked to survive these last two years, but it should not be this hard to keep your head above water, to get help, to find decent work with benefits. The way wealth is distributed in this country is designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer — it’s nearly impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you can’t buy the boots, or you’re ashamed to ask to borrow boots, or if your boots are judged at the grocery as too nice or too shoddy in the eyes of someone who isn’t even wearing them. If you’re lucky enough not to have to worry about where your next meal is coming from or how you’ll keep a roof over your head, stop judging and demonizing poor people. The daily hell of poverty is hard enough.
I’m not sure what the future holds, but I am tough, and will continue to do whatever I can to survive. I hope that by honestly sharing my struggle, I can help others know they aren’t alone, and maybe they can learn something from my experiences that will be helpful in their own journey. We’re all on this planet together, and we need the love and help of each other to survive.
Nina McCollum is a writer living in Cleveland. Her work has appeared online at sites including Good Housekeeping, Scary Mommy, The Financial Diet, BELT Magazine and Café Mom, and she has self-published two Kindle stories. You can read her blog about life as a Midwest mom at rockandrollmama.wordpress.com and view work samples on her website, ninawritenow.com.