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JANUARY 30, 2012 2:06PM

Will work for food, year 3

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It comes up all the time in conversation. Most recently, it was a stranger at the dentist’s office, talking back to the television news and those of us fortunate enough to be stuck in the waiting room with her. “High unemployment, my ass. Just a bunch of lazy people looking to sit on their sofa and watch TV while we pay their bills.”

Sorry, Lady. You’ve mistaken me as a responsible, upright citizen. Allow me to introduce myself: I am a former sofa-lounger, and now I qualify as something even lower than that.

Much like a bad reality show, my last full-time job ended in January 2009. Everyone in the small pharmaceutical marketing agency received an email invitation to a mandatory staff meeting. It was only in the moments before the meeting’s start that we began to realize we weren’t all invited to the same room.

Nice dramatic effect, no? I, along with more than 30 of my coworkers and friends, was voted off the island.

Those lucky enough to receive invitations to the other meeting room were told to take a long lunch while we poor saps cleared our desks.

There are times when it’s better not to know the future. If anyone had told me that three years later, I’d still be sitting at the computer in my pajamas, trolling for job postings and waiting for the dryer to finish its load of towels, I’d never have believed you.  

I spent the first several weeks in a daze. There is not a lot of room for pride when you’re a single mom, so I filed for unemployment benefits. And in the height of irony, I was told I wasn’t eligible for food assistance because my income was too high.

Yep. My unemployment benefits pushed me over the income bracket.

(Just in case you bought in to Reagan’s rhetoric about welfare moms driving Cadillacs, let me disabuse you of the notion that my unemployment benefits provided us a life of luxury. While unemployment benefits are based on a percentage of your final salary, once you cross the $30K mark, whether you made $35K or $2 million a year, your check is the same.

Of course, the people making $2 million probably got a better severance package than I did.)

I spent that first year sending out resumes and supplementing my unemployment checks by finding designer clothes at thrift stores and reselling them for cash.

After 51 weeks of unemployment, I finally landed a contract job. Income! No benefits, but income!

In all fairness, it started out great. I worked, I got paid. Not the life-fulfilling work I’d hoped to have achieved by my late thirties, but it was income. No complaints.

Life was good. I married the wonderful man I’d been dating for several years. We bought a house. Had savings. For the first time ever, my kids were able to take lessons after school. All we needed was the golden retriever, and we would be living the American dream.

(Of course, contracting long term was possible only because the kids and I could get medical benefits through my husband’s employer.)

But all good things must come to an end, right? By law, once you’ve used a contractor for 18 months, if the need is still there, you don’t need a contractor. You need an employee. So you have to let the contractor go and create an actual job.

But creating jobs is expensive. So there are several ways around that. A company can send the old contractor packing and bring in a new contractor in to fill that very same job.

Or there’s another way. By changing a contractor’s status, the clock can run indefinitely. Lucky me. I got Door #2.

For the first year and a half, I had been paid as a W-2 employee by the staffing agency who hired me. But if I transitioned my employment status to a 1099 contractor, it was business as usual. The company didn’t have to train someone new, I didn’t have to find another job.

(As if the prospect of job hunting again wasn’t daunting enough, there’s no safety net. When you lose a contract job, there are no unemployment benefits.)

The only difference with my new status was that I billed the company directly, and I was now responsible for my own payroll taxes. The company managed to dodge the expenses of creating a job, not to mention pocketing the placement fee the agency previously added to my hourly rate.

But I still had a job. And as I’m discovering, like many contractors, I was so glad to have work, I was willing to put up with almost anything.

Like five months without a paycheck.

Because very large, international companies don’t have to live by the same rules as the rest of us. When your annual revenue is north of $20 billion, a piddly little $30K debt to an insignificant editor is so inconsequential … well, I’ve already used more words in this paragraph than it qualifies for.

I reminded. And cajoled. And begged.

Nothing. Except a steady flow of work assignments that needed to be completed.

Right before Thanksgiving, it occurred to me: if I’m not getting paid, it’s not a job. It’s volunteer work. And that’s not what I signed up for.

As a child of the 70s, raised on a steady diet of Schoolhouse Rock and Afterschool Specials, I still naively believe that given the opportunity, people will do the right thing. So I informed them that I was not available for work until they paid me.

To say they laughed in my face would suggest that I was more than an insignificant little speck of dust.

So here I sit.

Several weeks ago, I had to create a new folder in my hard drive: JOB HUNT 2012. It sits next to JOB HUNT 2009, JOB HUNT 2010 and JOB HUNT 2011.

Sigh.

I can’t even remember what it’s like to weigh a potential job in terms of whether I’d enjoy it. And I’m actually a pretty good catch. I have a college education. And skills. I’ve even won some awards. It’s all right here on my resume. I can forward it to you, if you’d like …

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Comments

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Wow. I just started working as a contractor, and you have really done a fine job of laying it all out here. So sorry you were working for a company that treated you like human chattel. Can you seek legal redress? That is a hell of a lot money to lose. Please keep us posted as you continue with your job searching. We can learn from each other. Rated with respect and hope.
I know your experience is far too common. The sad thing is that no one will identify with your experience until it happens to them -- and IT WILL! Until then, everyone unemployed is "lazy" or "picky." How about you go flip some of them there hamburgers you lazy slut ('cause why woulda you had kids inf'n you cain't afford 'em?).
Hope you get your lost wages back. Maybe something good will come along. Editorial jobs in journalism and publishing have been gutted by the Internet and new technology. It's a national tragedy that no one seems to notice. So many editors and reporters out of work...
I laugh at ignorant people who think the unemployed have it made. It is just because it hasn't happened to them. Depending on the state to help you get medical treatment, child support, ect... is no piece of cake and can be down right humiliating, been there waiting in those drab offices, long lines with the masses to only be told it might take 2 years or more to get any kind of help if it comes at all. Hope that your situation improves.
What a fantastic, well-written post! I can relate only too well. I've got those very same folders on my computer...except they are titled "Job Search 2010", "Job Search 2011", and introducing... "Job Search 2012"!

As a contractor, I have experienced many of the same issues you mentioned. Fortunately, I have never had to deal with a non-paying client. Thank God.

But since I feel compelled to compete with you for the Contractor Misery Index Award, I will say just be glad you have health coverage. Since my COBRA ran out and I was denied an underwritten plan, I have been paying nearly $1K in monthly premiums, with a $5K deductible. Horrendous health care costs are something that is rarely mentioned in the whole Unemployment Debate, but it is a HUGE issue. Don't even get me started.

On top of all this, we get to contend with all the people who say that being Unemployed/Underemployed is our own fault -- because we're just shiftless, unmotivated do-nothings.

Recently, I was shocked to hear a former colleague say that there's no such thing as the "Bad Economy" -- that's merely an excuse people use for not being able to find a job. Maybe some day, that person will learn the hard way that just isn't so. What goes around comes around...
Working and not getting paid -- been there, done that, sold all the t-shirts. Now I take a modified Chuck Berry approach -- demand at least half my pay up front, unless I've worked with the client before or have some other good reason to believe I'll actually get paid. It really sucks, but a lot of people (and companies) like to kick you when you're down. Here's hoping 2012 finally yields you (and everyone who is looking) a job.
I use to contract when times were good and have heard horror stories of contractors having difficulty getting paid. I guess I was one of the lucky ones because I got paid twice a month while working on a 1099. I did have in my mind that should just one paycheck be missed, I would be looking elsewhere. But to put up with that for 5 months is beyond reasonable. I hope you were finally paid.