I don’t remember what’s it like not to have a regular paycheck.
For the most part, I’ve been gainfully employed since I finished college more than thirty years ago. The first time I had to apply for unemployment was in 2009, and I had to go online and figure out how to do it. It took me eight months to find another job, and I had a steady stream of (reduced) income during the entire period thanks to federal unemployment extensions.
Then came September of last year, when I was laid off by my broke employer. This time, I knew how to apply for unemployment. The funds that the state direct deposits into my checking account constitute only a small fraction of the income I had been earning as a middle manager. But you know what? I’m grateful for them. They allow us to put food on the table and gas in the tank.
A week from tomorrow, I will receive the last one of those precious checks. The lifeblood that keeps us going will stop, much like the last heartbeat of a life that has come to an end. The last grain of sand will have passed through the hour glass. Time’s up.
The state will keep you going for 26 weeks. After that, the baton passes over to the feds. But they’ve refused to take it, resulting in an early finish to this relay race.
I know that I’m more fortunate than most. It’s been more than 26 weeks since I was laid off; I’ve been able to delay the inevitable by doing a few weeks of temporary work in between. And we have the benefit of the economic and emotional support of extended family. And we don’t have children to feed. Hundreds of thousands of my fellow Americans don’t have these advantages. They’re just plumb out of luck.
Still, it is going to be a strange experience indeed to not have any money coming in. I imagine it must be something like the sound of one hand clapping, an odd sort of economic silence.
The state gives you a finite amount of time to find another job before it cuts you off. Beyond the argument about limited government resources and a fair distribution of tax dollars, the implied philosophy is that six months should be more than enough time to secure gainful employment (and if it’s not, then it must be your own fault).
When this theory doesn’t work out so well due to a lack of jobs in a sluggish economy, the federal government considers it an “emergency” that warrants a temporary extension of unemployment benefits. At the moment, however, our elected representatives appear convinced that the economy has improved enough, and that the unemployment rate is low enough, that no such extraordinary measures are needed.
The fact that I have applied and applied for jobs doesn’t seem to matter. There aren’t as many jobs advertised in my field as there were the last time I found myself unemployed. Still, most weeks I am able to find several to apply for. And then I go apply for several more in other fields, or for which I am overqualified, or which pay a quarter of my previous field, or which are located two or three thousand miles away.
The rewards of my efforts are mostly in the form of silence. Occasionally, I receive a form email containing such encouraging words as “Although your skills and experience met the minimum requirements for this position, we have had a strong candidate pool and you have not been selected for further consideration.”
I started out reacting to these kiss-offs with abject disappointment, then moved on to anger, and now have reached the stage of stoic silence. Like Diana in A Chorus Line, I feel nothing.
When I admit to be sick of writing insipid essays that are supposed to convince employers that I am qualified to be a manager in their companies, my mother helpfully reminds me that “applying for jobs is your job now.” And so I take yet another packet to the post office and pull out my stash of change while the clerk weighs the envelope.
This week, we are taking a longshot gamble. Tomorrow we will hit the road so that I can attend a pair of cattle calls 450 miles away in southern California. In order to avoid the necessity of making two trips, I was able to schedule one on Friday and the other on Monday. This means we must hang out all weekend and pay for four nights in a motel.
I expect scores, if not hundreds, of applicants to show up on Friday morning. But to really obtain a good picture of the scope of what is going on here, you must realize that this is one of six such sessions that the employer is holding. That’s right, folks, for one job. In total, I’m sure there must be thousands of applicants. As I said, it’s a longshot gamble. But what else have I got at this point?
I have already passed the first part of my application; after emailing a series of essay responses to the employer’s questions and sending off my résumé and references, I received a “congratulations” note inviting me to this cattle call. At least it’s an interview, right? Heck no! I will be sitting in a room full of computers writing still more essays, my “written assessment.”
In the unlikely event that I am lucky enough to be among the handful called back to interview, we will have to pay to make this trip again. It’s enough to make a person unsure of whether he wants to be selected or not. Believe me, my wife and I discussed the situation over and over again, analyzing it inside and out, in an effort to decide whether it’s worth going at all.
So we lay out my white shirt and tie, pack the suitcase, fill the gas tank and say goodbye to another $500 out of our dwindling savings. The trip involves eight to nine hours of driving, and I do hope that we are able to arrive back home at a reasonable hour on Monday evening.
I need to be up early on Tuesday so that I can dress up again, put on a smile and engage in firm handshakes as I pass out résumés at a job fair.