When Fellow Workers Can No Longer Find Work: A Talk with the Long-Term Unemployed

Devon Bowers | Labor Issues | Interview | June 7th, 2018

The following is an email interview with three individuals - Cayla, Carlos, and DR - who have been long-term unemployed. They talk about how their unemployment has affected them mentally and emotionally, and also question the idea of work being so deeply linked to a person's identity.

If you are okay with saying, what led to your long-term unemployment?

Cayla: Well, my unemployment wasn't intentional. I am a student. I have been since I left the Army in 2011. I was in the middle of working on a bachelor's degree when I got sick. I am schizoaffective. So, I had to take some time off school. I'm going back in the fall. Because I am a veteran, I get free education and a monthly stipend while I attend school, so I have no need to work.

Carlos: I work in an industry that has a very short span guarantee of employee, I work in the non-profit industry (for a lack of a better term). In the region that I live, South Texas, there are a good number of nonprofits which provide invaluable services to the community. Especially for an area with high poverty rates as those on the Appalachian region and Native American reservations. Funding for non-profits is usually tied to the funding source, which can be from local to national government grants, foundations, or university grants. The life span of grants usually range from one to five years and it is never guaranteed to be refunded. So as much as I love working in community organizing or community-building work, it is very tenuous employment. The times I was unemployed was because my service to a nonprofit ended due to no more funding or end of funding of program. The longest I have been unemployed was about 10 or 11 months.

DR: In 2014, I was working as a salesperson for a regional chain furniture store. They prided themselves on being "family friendly" and their ability to work with staff in arranging or adjusting schedules as needed or in case(s) of a family emergency. This was one of the main reasons I had been so happy to be hired there, as I was the main provider of my two young daughters at the time and in the midst of a somewhat messy custody dispute.

According to their records I was laid off because my sales were below target, but at the time my sales seemed to be on par with just about everyone else's, and the only real difference I could see was that I was the most recent hire. Also, it should be pointed out that at the time I was laid off, I was just shy of the end of my 6-month trial period, after which I could begin receiving benefits. You can draw your own conclusions from this.

Not long after I was hired my ex-wife moved approximately 2,000 miles away to Tennessee, leaving both children in my care, which meant I immediately went from being the main provider to the sole provider of my daughters - something I obviously had no say in. As a newly single father I desperately needed that job, especially as I couldn't even afford childcare as things were. Once let go, I was forced to be even pickier for which jobs I applied. I could no longer accept any other job like say, fast food work, or another minimum-wage or part-time job… that is, unless they knew my story beforehand and were willing to work with me and possibly whomever else also took a chance and hired me, which was already not likely.

Plus, given the large amount of teenagers and retirees in my town who obviously made much better part-time or minimum-wage workers than me, this was basically impossible. Let me tell you, though, I tried and I tried with gusto - my children's livelihood was/is on the line. I could not and can not afford to feed my kids on California's minimum wage. California, as I'm sure you're aware, is one of the highest cost-of-living states.

So, after everything I just detailed, I enrolled in CalWorks - California's form of general assistance. I was already receiving SNAP (food stamps) while working at the furniture store, because again, even with minimum-wage plus commission, I could still not afford food for my family

I was recently listening to a podcast where it was mentioned that the idea of personhood has been linked to work, that in working, we in a way prove that we are people. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that on a societal level that's true? Do you still accept that notion or have you moved on and if so what made you start to reject the idea that work equals personhood?

Cayla: I think our society stresses the notion of work = personhood because we are capitalist. We worship the dollar bill, therefore we associate exploitation with identity. None of us are what we do, we just spend a large part of our day being exploited. I don't need to be exploited to feel like a whole person.

Carlos: This is an idea that you can trace to most ancient societies once they settled into economic classes. The idea of what you do (work, skills) is who you are. In the United States, this is drilled into our psyche. Not only does work reflect us, but the idea that you must be working in or be employed in order to have worth as a person. Fortunately, for me, I am a red diaper baby. So my parents inculcated in me with a different view of the world than the one schools, peers, institutions promote.

DR: Let me say this, the idea that personhood equals value, with value equating work, is absurd. You are a human being, and therefore have intrinsic value because you exist. Not the kind of value that says whatever you can contribute to others equates to what kind of person you are; how you should be treated or where you fall on the scale of who matters and how much.

As Human Beings, we are entitled to life, liberty, and property. Property falls under the label of labor; labor is property. Life includes healthcare -- ALL healthcare: mental and emotional care is the upkeep of our minds and brain; teeth and eyes are parts of our physical body that need upkeep, therefore mental, emotional, dental, and eye care are included in healthcare as well. Life also includes education, childcare, food, clothes, and shelter - these all contribute to the upkeep of our lives.

Last but certainly not least, liberty is (but should be so much more than just) the choice between working to receive what is little more than a slave wage or starving. Which, in all actuality, is not liberty because the idea that it's a choice is a joke in the worst form. It is not a choice, and it is not liberty. The idea that value equals work which equates to personhood is ridiculously able-ist in construct. There are many, many people who cannot physically work… does that take away their personhood? What an archaic, classist, able-ist construct of thinking. This isn't 10,000 years ago, I believe we can and SHOULD evolve from that ancient, unreasonable, dusty form of "Social Darwinism" or "Natural Selection." We are modern humans living in the modern age. I wholeheartedly believe that "from each according to their ability to each according to their need" is fundamentally the best idea and construct for our society and ourselves.

The entire time I have been unemployed, I have not remained idle. I have labored. Intensely. I have: raised my children, grown gardens in my backyard in a step towards self-sufficiency, I have worked my family member's land and houses. I have done handiwork in my own home. I have constructed things. I have educated people, adults and children on a multitude of different issues. While on CalWorks, I have gone to college, increasing my own knowledge, and working towards my goal of becoming an educator; a history teacher to be specific. I have volunteered with countless organizations, including Western Service Workers Association (WSWA), which is a mutual aid organization and a "para-union", or a union for non-unionized workers, like IHSS workers or farmworkers. I am currently a coordinator for their food procurement program, which entails me going to different grocery markets and taking donations for our food bank, so that it may be fully stocked and ready to help other families and individuals in need. I have become an organizer for the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA).

I have organized protests against the DAPL and other such pipelines. I have organized demonstrations in support of universal healthcare. I have organized demonstrations of solidarity with the LGBT community when our local mega-church Bethel openly declared themselves a hate group in support of conversion therapy and told their congregation to vote against a CA Assembly bill which would grant members of the LGBT community greater access to healthcare and would ban the practice of billing people for conversion therapy.

I have organized food drives and supply drops for the homeless, and poor working class families like ours. Most importantly, I have been the in-home caretaker of my partner, and mother to our new son, who suffers from PTSD, agoraphobia, and panic disorder, due to rape-trauma, multiple sexual assaults, including while she was a child. I have witnessed the ableism she has encountered- from her own family no less. We are currently in the process of having me added as an official IHSS worker on payroll, which would end my long spell of unemployment. I have been working this entire time. I am proud of the work I have done.

What are some of the psychological and emotional effects that have been caused by your long-term unemployment? Have any of these problems spilled over and started affecting you physically?

Cayla: My psychological problems are likely caused by my disorder, but I experience a lot of boredom. I have a severe lack of motivation, so even the simplest chores are hard work for me. This has led to a feeling of emptiness that may be associated with a lack of direction or an existential crisis. Anyhow, not working can become boring, if you don't engage in some kind of hobby. I gained weight, though, again, this could be the schizoaffective disorder and the meds I have been put on. My health has suffered, my Dr. gave me some bad news: pre-diabetes and high cholesterol.

Carlos: It is a very stressful time when you are unemployed. Even more so when you have a family. Not only do you depend on your livelihood, but also your spouse and child. When I was unemployed, it created a lot of stress. Each & every day. Not knowing how you are going to pay for rent, utilities, etc. Knowing that you need to keep your core of living expenses to make sure you can make it through. For example, making sure you have enough to pay the phone bill so you can still be connected for interviews, etc. From when you wake up to when you go to bed and hoping you were able to survive that day. And physically it's even worse since you lose your health insurance and you're a diabetic like me. Meds become a luxury, but knowing you need them in order to get to old age.

DR: The psychological and emotional effects of my long-term unemployment have mostly been encountering the ableist and classist constructs of people in society who do believe that as long as I am not officially "working" that my life and myself are meaningless. There is anger. There is resolve and determination to keep working towards the abolition of such a cruel, self-serving, greedy, hateful society.

What are your thoughts on universal basic income? Do you think it could provide something of a cushion for you?

Cayla: I think it's a wonderful idea, though I'm unsure how effective it would be in practice. I've read that it may be ineffective because if it were ever put into place, the resulting price increases would basically render it useless. I have a pension from the VA, so I know how wonderful it can be to have a bit of security. I wish this for everyone, though I'm not sure that a universal income is the way to get there. While I have my doubts, if I were forced to choose now, I would give everyone a universal income. I want everyone to have the opportunity to pursue their passions and chase their dreams.

Carlos: Honestly, I do not know much about the movement or proposal. I have read different variations of it. As a quick reform, it sounds promising. I do think in the immediate, what we would need is to make sure we a) fund unemployment insurance better, b) make sure that the level of unemployment insurance is of a level good enough to live on while also making sure that it is there as long as the person is looking for a job, and c) making sure the unemployed have access to health insurance. I would add that as a democratic socialist, a UBI still doesn't do away with the exploitation of the capitalist on the working class. The end goal is not to reform capitalism, but to birth a new society not based on class exploitation.

DR: Universal Basic Income can only be a good idea if it does not come in place of free healthcare, or education, or food stamp benefits. As it is now, proponents of UBI are suggesting $1000. If you live in CA, you'd be lucky if that even covered rent, let alone food and other necessities. The fact that big CEO's like Mark Zuckerburg, Elon Musk, and more are starting to come around to UBI should be alarming to the working class. They say it will be necessary because automation will replace countless jobs. Now if those jobs are gone forever, you can't call UBI supplemental, it will be the only source of income for working class families to live off of. I've even seen some republicans come around to it, but saying they'd want it to replace food stamps and medical coverage. So UBI by itself, or replacing other benefits would ultimately be destructive to the working class. I would, however, support a UBI that a working class family could actually live on. Along with Universal Healthcare for all, free education from Preschool through College for all, a Job Guarantee for those who are able to work, cost of living controls, and a minimum wage that could sustain a family, and a maximum wage of no more than 10x the minimum. Then, and only then, would UBI be a good idea. Technology has the opportunity to free us from work for necessity, and could free us to working for passion and fulfillment, only if it is hands of the People, and not the elites.

What do you think of a federal job guarantee?

Cayla: Again, I'm not very well versed on the subject, but with my limited knowledge, I would choose to have one. I don't know how effective they have been in the past, but the idea sounds great. I am disabled from the Army. That's how I receive my pension. I am limited as to how many hours or how physically demanding a job can be. It would be nice if the government could guarantee me a good part-time job with benefits. As I understand it, some countries are moving to shorter work days, due to overproduction. We don't need to be constantly working and producing so much. We are destroying the planet doing it. Perhaps if the gov't guaranteed everyone work, we could limit our own work days. If everyone worked together, rather than competing, we could all work less.

Carlos: I think a federal job guarantee should be tied in closely with the aforementioned response. I do think this reform is more viable and easier for mainstream folks to understand and back. This is one proposal from Sen. Sanders, but has been around since the '70s.

DR: As I stated above a Federal Job Guarantee would be useful, if coupled with the following services; UBI, Universal healthcare for all, free education from Preschool through College for all, cost of living controls, a minimum wage that families could live on, and a maximum wage of no more than 10x the minimum. These reforms must exist together if they are to truly benefit the working class.