When I entered the ranks of the unemployed, I was full of optimism. How hard could it really be to get a job? I asked myself. I have a college degree. I’ve been gainfully employed since I graduated.
Answer? Very hard. I was out of work for over a year and reached a level of desperation usually reserved for meth addicts.
Here are a few of the lessons I learned while collecting government checks…
The Bureaucracy Of Unemployment Is Unbelievable.
This goes without saying, so I won’t spend much more time on it. But God help you if you do any freelance work while on “unemployment insurance.” It’s a Kafka-esque nightmare of paperwork.
But The People At The Unemployment Office Really Want To Help!
When you go on unemployment, the government requires you to go to the main office for an orientation meeting. (And sometimes, if you’re not lucky, they’ll call you in to check up on how your job search is going.) When I arrived at Unemployment, I was expecting a lecture from a government drone with the charisma of a zombie. Imagine my surprise when a hilarious woman came in and gave my group an engaging talk on looking for work in New York. She was well-informed, patient, and eager to answer any questions we had. She also told us Unemployment has lots of free workshops to help people improve their resumes, learn computer skills and more. Wait, what? But that’s actually … useful?! I honestly wanted to send a thank you card to Unemployment after I was finished with it, but it would probably have gotten lost in a file cabinet somewhere.
You Actually Do Need Health Insurance.
The biggest concern my parents had when I left work was my health insurance. I didn’t think it was a big deal; none of my unemployed actor friends had insurance and they seemed to be fine. “But what if you get hit by a truck?!” my father protested. I was prepared for this: “My roommate told me you can get ‘emergency-only’ insurance for something like $100 a month and it will cover you in case of car accidents.” My father was not convinced. Luckily for me, as part of my severance my job kept my insurance going for a few months. I say “luckily” because shortly into my unemployment, my back died.
As a result of my new malady, I went from doctor appointment to doctor appointment, filled countless prescription, got multiple MRIs and x-rays, saw physical therapists, and was introduced to the wonderful world of electric “stim” therapy. (If you had told me last year that I would pay someone to literally electrocute my ass, I would have laughed at you. But this is the horrifying world we live in.)
I cannot fathom how much all that stuff would have cost me out of pocket. That’s the thing you don’t think about when you consider going off insurance: sure, the likelihood of getting hit by a truck is low, but the chances of some smaller catastrophe happening (like a broken leg) are high. And you don’t want to pay for that, trust me. Even with insurance I had to ask my parents for help with the co-pays. And yes, it did suck.
You Will Not Write Your Novel.
I was convinced I was going to get a million things done with all the free time I had while unemployed; I’d workout every day, get a bunch of writing done, clean my apartment ‘til it shined, and cook meals that would make Nigella Lawson weep. Want to know what I actually did? Watched seasons 1-4 of “Breaking Bad” on Netflix. Sure, you start out with a fire under your ass, but you’d be surprised — after hour after mindless hour of of emailing out resumes — just how quickly that fire goes out. “What can I accomplish today?” becomes, “Where are the Funyuns?” It took me months to resist the siren’s call of my TV and Xbox and finally get productive again.
Temping Isn’t An Option.
When I was first looking for work after graduating collage (back in 1923), I temped all the time. It was the sweetest deal ever: you did brainless work and if you were even slightly intelligent the client loved you. It was the easiest way to earn a paycheck that didn’t include an apron or “flair.” Cut to present day: here I was, a trained copywriter with tons of office experience. Surely it would be even easier to get temp work!
Nothing could have been further from the truth. I mean, the truth was Australia to me. I asked friends for recommendations of temp agencies and sent resumes out to all of them. Days went by and I heard exactly nothing back. I called the agencies to follow up and got either voicemail or someone who didn’t seem to understand why I’d bother them with a call. Weeks went by and still nothing. So I got dressed up, printed out a few copies of my resume and went to each agency (five in total) in person. I was met at each one with mystified looks. What was someone looking for temporary work doing at a temp agency? “We’ll call you if we have something for you,” I was told. With the exception of an email from one of the agencies months later asking if I was still looking for work, I never heard from anyone.
When temping utterly failed me, I turned to the only other thing I could think of: babysitting. I worried I’d get looks for taking jobs away from 16-year-old girls, but it turns out that a lot of people, men included, are watching kids for a living. “Babysitting is the new bartending,” a friend told me. And so I embraced my new, tax-free, job with gusto! (And then became the victim of an Internet nanny scam.)
And Everyone Judges.
But all wasn’t golden in my happy world of child-care. I knew people thought I was wasting my time as soon as dinner conversations became awkward. My boyfriend asked me for a prepared line for when people asked him what I did. My relatives stopped talking to me about my work at family get-togethers. But the real turning point came one day when my father suggested I babysit for a girl I knew growing up.
My parents were friends with her parents and she was willing to pay the highly-coveted price of $20 an hour. I was all for it, but my mother said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” When asked, she wouldn’t say why she didn’t think I should do it. She’d simply reply, “I don’t know. I just don’t think you should.” Suddenly it struck me: she was embarrassed! She didn’t want me to be “the help” for someone my family knew. Despite contrary evidence given by porn stars, it’s hard to continue on a career path when you know it embarrasses your mom, so I doubled-down on my job search.
So there you have it, my unemployment education in a nutshell. I’m happy to say that I have a lovely new job (knock on wood) and I’m no longer living from day to day. Honestly, though, it’s not easy to feel too comfortable in my new position because the hardest lesson I learned from being unemployed is in this economy you could lose your job at a moment’s notice. And if you do, you have a long wait before you get a new one.