Tales of the Unemployment Crisis: Elaine’s Dilemma

Elaine is a born-and-raised Rhode Islander who has been unemployed for four years now. Her story, like the stories of so many others, is a product of the housing market crash.

For many years, Elaine worked at a title company doing real estate closings. Their biggest client was Countrywide, so when that corporation went under her company lost almost half its business. This was particularly frustrating to Elaine, whose position had allowed her to get an inside look at the makings of the housing bubble. “Working with mortgage companies,” she says, “you see the other side. You see how loan officers are in it for themselves, not for the customers. They were making too much money to care whether people could afford the mortgages or not.”

In the summer of 2008 her employer cut back her hours, and at the end of August she was called into the boss’s office. “The owner told me they couldn’t afford my salary. He said if they get new clients, they’d try to bring me back. But come November, the writing was on the wall. We weren’t going back.”

So Elaine became unemployed at the end of the summer. “Then,” she says, “the job hunt started. It was tough. You send all these resumes out and hear nothing back. Most ads say you shouldn’t follow up, and they don’t follow up, so you’re caught in this limbo land.” Elaine had to make a lot of lifestyle changes to scrape by. “Even when you’re lucky enough to have unemployment benefits, you’re moving from a salary to half of that salary, and then taxes out of that. If I hadn’t moved back to my parents’ home to help my father after his surgery, I’d have been homeless. My parents were really my saving grace—I could never have afforded my own place on the U.I. money I got. And I was making a lot of money before I was laid off; folks who were on lower incomes than I was, I have no idea how they do it.”

Then, something great happened. “The following summer I received a letter from Unemployment saying I may qualify for a tuition waiver. I thought, ‘Why not prepare myself for a new career while I look for jobs?’ So I started taking classes at URI in labor relations, and got my certificate.” For Elaine, this waiver was a godsend, and a perfect example of a positive and effective government program to help with unemployment. “Thank god for the waiver,” she says. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go back to school. It was the best thing I ever got; it allowed me to get into classes that will hopefully give me opportunities in the future.”

After finishing the certificate program, Elaine was lucky enough to get a graduate assistant position in her department, which allowed her to finish her degree and graduate. But even with her new degree, the job search continues to be brutal. “Even now I send out maybe five to ten resumes a day,” Elaine says. “Entry-level jobs, management jobs, government jobs, union jobs, whatever’s out there that my skills could add value to. It’s very depressing when you have no communication as to where you stand in the whole application process. Less than 10% of companies actually get back to me. You wonder, do they think I’m overqualified now, with my degrees? I have a double-major bachelor’s degree, a law degree from before my real estate career, and a master’s degree. Maybe they think they’ll have to pay you more, because of those qualifications, but I will take whatever salary they’ll offer.”

“It makes you reevaluate yourself,” she continues. “It attacks your self-worth. You ask, ‘What is wrong with me that I can’t get a job?’ You have to remind yourself, ‘No, it’s not me, there just aren’t jobs here.’”

Elaine has been applying to jobs outside of Rhode Island, but she does so with a very heavy heart. “I’ve been unemployed for four years. I don’t have any benefits now, zero income whatsoever coming in. So you have to be willing to leave the state. But it’s hard, particularly with my father, who is not well. And my mother was just in the hospital with a life-saving surgery. They’ve always been there for me. When I had a bad car accident, and I had to learn how to walk again, they were the ones who helped me through. So to move away from them now…it makes me wonder who they’ll have. My brother’s already out of state. And if I had a new job outside of Rhode Island, and something happened to them, would I be able to get back to help them? Would I have the money for a plane ticket? My parents don’t want me to take that into consideration in taking a job.” Elaine sighs. “And I can’t.”

“I want to get a job, any job,” she continues. “There’s a misconception that people on Unemployment are lazy and don’t want to work. But you don’t realize how hard it is to not have somewhere to go every day. I fill my time with volunteering, but it’s incredibly difficult. I hate not working. If you don’t use your skills, there’s the potential to lose them. All we want is to get a job, to be productive. But we can’t seem to manage even that.”

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Aaron Regunberg is a community organizer in Providence and a state representative in House District 4.

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