ON THE DOLE — An Open Letter to Lawmakers

by Patricia Sauthoff

Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t read about one of you lawmakers somewhere who opposes unemployment benefit extensions. While I understand that these benefits are expensive, I want to address you, the legislators across America personally, because until one experiences unemployment, it’s easy to point the finger at us, the unemployed, as being part of the problem rather than the solution.

Here’s the thing, legislators. I know Former House Speaker Tom Delay thinks, “that these extensions of these unemployment benefits keeps people from going and finding jobs,” and Republican Senator John Kyl testified before the Senate that, “if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work,” but guys, you are so wrong.

Now, I may not be in the group most affected by unemployment — I’m an educated white female, actually one of the groups least affected — but I’m willing to put myself out into the world as a case study to explain to you all just what it’s like to wake up everyday jobless. (By the way, I’m unmarried and childless as well, two lifestyle choices that bump up my chances of being unemployed.)

Before I get into what it’s like now, I should tell you a little about who I was before I was unemployed. I was (and am) a journalist who supplemented an already painfully low income by also working as an adjunct professor at a local college. Before unemployment I lived, fairly comfortably, on less than $35K a year.

Nearly a year after becoming unemployed I receive what amounts to $20K in unemployment benefits, which I’ve stretched out by several weeks by collecting partial benefits when freelancing or teaching. These jobs pay miserably and simply help me extend the time in which I can collect benefits. Thankfully my student loan company has allowed me to defer my payments during this time.

I can’t go back to school under the current unemployment rules because I already posses a masters degree and programs to go back to career development only apply to undergraduate students. I also can’t take a position as an unpaid intern because I’m not currently a student and my benefits require me to be available for work at least 20 hours a week. Either of these activities would help me get back to work sooner but to do so would risk my benefits and compromise my ability to squeak by financially.

You say you don’t think I’m looking for a job or that I’m content not working. This is blatantly untrue. I send out multiple resumes a week to companies all over the world. There are not a lot of jobs in my field in the city in which I live so I’ll be forced to uproot my life if some employer somewhere bites.

Could I try to get a job at a coffee shop or restaurant? Sure, but I’m not actually qualified for those jobs and they really don’t want someone like me because they know I’ll bolt as soon as a professional job comes my way.

If someone in a far away land offers me a job I’ll probably have to sell 90 percent of my things to move — relocation cost reimbursement is about as likely as my cat suddenly shitting hundred dollar bills — which I will do without complaint at the drop of a hat. But, most employers want someone local and I can’t afford to move to another city just in case they happen to have a job open that I’ll be competing with dozens of others for.

As I told you, I’ve been freelancing and teaching, so I guess I’m in between un- and under-employed. I do both of these things for several reasons: 1) to keep my brain busy and my work ethic strong, 2) to keep my resume from atrophying, 3) in hopes that one of these way less than part-time jobs will lead, eventually, to full-time employment.

If I’m trying so hard to find a job, I’m sure you wonder why I don’t have one yet. Me too. Of the hundreds of resumes and cover letters I’ve sent out in the last 11 months I have had exactly ONE interview. I’m not applying to be Rupert Murdoch here or running for your jobs, I’m applying for jobs in my field that match my experience and interests. Sadly, not only do I not get interviews for these positions, I never hear back from employers at all. I can only guess that any job that opens up gets so many applicants that it’s impossible for employers to keep up. Rarely do I, or most people I know, even get a courtesy email to say the position has been filled.

Despite all this I persevere. Occasionally I get depressed, but mostly I continue to stay motivated. I began this website in order to have something to do and as a supplement to my already strong body of work. I make no money from this, nor do I expect to, unless it is because an editor somewhere stumbles across it and offers me a job or a book deal (unlikely scenarios).

Take away my benefits and I have to move to another state, to my mother’s basement, to a city in which I don’t have any contacts, where it will be harder for me to freelance and nearly impossible to continue teaching. Take away my benefits and you further derail my career. Take away my benefits and I can no longer pay my COBRA and become not only one of the millions of unemployed but one of the millions of uninsured. Take away my benefits, which I use to feed myself and you take away the jobs of the workers who grow and sell my food, because I’ll be forced to eat less and lower quality food. Take away my benefits and that cheap, processed food I’ll be forced to eat will make me sick and, because I won’t have insurance, will put me further into a debt that I’ll be unable to pay. Take away my benefits and you cause the system to collapse even more.

Most of you lawmakers probably make more in interest than I’ll make when I’m working again. Think about that when you think we don’t want to work. We, the unemployed, have always had to work to survive and many of us are using this time to make ourselves more sellable to the job market when the economy rebounds.

Sure, there are probably a few lazy, pot smoking, never-want-to-go-back-to-work types out there, but those are the kind of people who will take advantage of whatever system you set up. Don’t treat those of us who are working hard like criminals because we lost jobs at which we’d worked our asses off. Support us so we can go back to doing what we’ve worked so hard to make our careers doing.

Thank you.

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  1. Amy says:

    Well done. It would be nice if more folks in power were aware of this reality. Even our state legislators could use this first-hand account.

    • Patricia Sauthoff says:

      Thanks! I actually did send it to my legislators because bitching into cyberspace is fun but not terribly productive.

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