November 22, 2011
Still unemployed: Out of luck but not out of hope
In July 2009, when everyone could see that the financial collapse of September 2008 was not going to be short-lived, I tracked down and interviewed for The Journal several people who had been hit hard by the recession. I also wrote about what Jewish organizations locally were doing to help and was heartened to find that the community had stepped up its efforts to reach out to those unable to find a job, pay bills or to put food on their tables — often middle-class people who had, for the first time in their lives, found themselves in need of help.
This month, two and half years later and three years into the economic crisis, I checked in again with those same ordinary people I had interviewed: a single mom looking for a new career when her job in the mortgage industry disappeared; a family with young children flattened by medical expenses when the mom, who didn’t have medical insurance, was injured; a former vice president in a huge entertainment firm who now couldn’t even get callbacks from her old connections as she searched for a new job; and a human-resources manager whose job had shrunk to 20 hours a week.
All but the injured mom agreed to be interviewed once more, to let readers know how things are going now. In a short conversation, however, the mom told me her injury had healed, and she is able to work again. She and her husband had gotten help from a nonprofit in getting their debt restructured, but after a few months that deal fell apart when they missed a single payment. The family had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, but she is hopeful they will eventually pull out of this mess, although she is still without health insurance.
Everyone else agreed to more extensive interviews. Like many Americans over the last three years, they have endured a continuing roller coaster of optimism and stress. Unemployment statistics and social service agency budgets tell one story, but the details of the lives of these people offer a more personal look at our times and the impact of financial stress.
From underemployed to employed to unemployed
Richard Banks had a job when I talked to him in 2009, but he was only working 20 hours a week and needed more. Today, the 64-year-old human resources manager who lives in Van Nuys is even further behind. He’s been out of a job since April.
“I feel young. I’m not ready for the senior center. I just want to work — I want to get out of the house, I want the social interaction, I like the idea of solving problems, of the energy of a workplace,” he said.
It took Banks 16 months to find a full-time job to replace the part-time position that wasn’t paying enough to cover his expenses. In December 2009, he was hired as the first HR manager at a growing Internet marketing firm. By January 2011, the company was sold to a competitor, and by June of that year, the California operation was completely shut down. Most of the 120 jobs at the firm were eliminated, with only a handful of people relocated to the Texas headquarters — an option that wouldn’t have worked for Banks, who has a wife and daughter, even had it been offered.
For the last five years, Banks and his wife, an editor, have traded spots back and forth being employed and unemployed. Family income has been about a third to a quarter what it used to be over the past five years, he said.
He has kept at the job hunt, working contacts, ads, Internet leads and building connections through a networking group he helped found at Temple Judea, where he was brotherhood president for several years.
He knows his age is working against him when it comes to job interviews.
“I’ve had so many interviews, long phone interviews, where everything is peachy keen, and then you meet up a week later and everything goes ice cold,” he said. “When you’re interviewing with someone who is half your age, there are issues — they want to be comfortable in their own culture, and it almost doesn’t matter what you bring into the environment in terms of education and experience. They’re just not comfortable with somebody they perceive — rightly or wrongly — who is not going to be around, or who is not going to get it, or who is not into the technology, or whatever the misconceptions are,” Banks said.
After Banks got laid off at the Internet firm, his wife got a job in publishing that came with health insurance, which was a good thing, as Banks — whose only stay in a hospital was when he was a bone marrow donor — was turned down for individual insurance.
Twenty-two days after his wife started working, Banks’ daughter, 23, was in a serious car accident, which has required follow-up medical care. It would have bankrupted them if they hadn’t had insurance, or if the new health care law hadn’t allowed his adult daughter to be on the family’s plan.
The daughter, a student, also works two jobs — as a food server and in retail. She pays about 90 percent of her expenses, and had to take out student loans when her father became unable to pay tuition after her first semester.
“I’m supposed to be there to be her safety net, and now I’m not that safety net, and that bothers me,” Banks said.
Cuts have come from everywhere. Banks said he’s always clipped coupons and doesn’t eat a lot of meat, so food expenses are pretty low. There have been no vacations and not much going out, and he had to give up tai chi, which had been helping to keep his stress levels down. He drives a 1986 Mercedes with no air conditioning and only one working window. He is collecting unemployment, but that will run out soon.
The house, in Van Nuys, is paid off, and Banks is repaying a small line of credit he took out against the house. He said he is relying on the house as his only asset.
And what about a retirement fund?
“I’m screwed,” he said. “There is no doubt about it.”
But he is staying hopeful and keeping busy.
Recently, he started meeting with another unemployed synagogue member to explore developing a Web-based business channeling volunteers to nonprofits.
He’s been helping a friend staff a new restaurant, and he started volunteering for One LA-IAF, an advocacy organization, where he is focusing on health care reform.
“I am walking the dog in the morning. I love to cook, so I’m back to making dinner. I am repotting the succulents and the cactuses because I love to see things grow — to keep the life force going,” he said.
He has no patience for talk about “one door closing and another opening.” But he looks for bright spots.
“I made a choice many years ago that no matter what is going on, you have to pull something out of that day that is good, something that makes you smile and makes you laugh. Something that keeps you positive.”