One day at a time for the long-term unemployed

Lesley Perkins holds her pet rabbit, Daisy.

Lesley Perkins looks through her "current projects box."

Tess Vigeland: Five million. That's how many Americans have been out of work for six months or more. We don't hear much about the long-term unemployed. Well, we hear numbers. But we don't often hear directly from them because many give up looking for work and the government stops counting them.

Marketplace's Nancy Marshall-Genzer spoke with one woman who refuses not to be counted.

Nancy Marshall-Genzer: Lesley Perkins has a sparkling smile and infectious laugh. She's single, in her early 40s. I met her at her condo in northern Virginia.

Knock on door

Genzer: Hi Lesley.

Lesley Perkins: Hi Nancy.

Genzer: I'm Nancy.

Perkins: Come on in.

The walls are painted bright yellow. A pet bunny named Daisy dozes in a cage in one corner. We settle onto the couch. Perkins lost her job about 18 months ago, two weeks after her mom died. She took a week off to bury her mother. Then...

Perkins: Went back to work and was let go. Yeah, it was very, very tough.

And things haven't gotten any easier. Perkins has a morning routine. She feeds Daisy, then calls her father to check up on him. He's also sick, diagnosed with a rare gastro-intestinal disease in 2008.

Next, Perkins settles down in front of her computer -- to see if she's had any bites.

Perkins: Check my Yahoo account to see if anybody has responded. Let's see. I have three e-mails, and they are junk e-mails. So, yeah...

Perkins estimates she's sent out hundreds of resumes in the past 18 months. In all that time, she's had just six interviews and some of them were over the phone. Her resume is impressive. She has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. Her last job was as a management consultant. Perkins says now, her job is seen as a luxury by companies obsessed with surviving in a rough economy.

Perkins: Unfortunately, I think that in the short term, it's a matter of stopping the bleeding right away rather than having necessarily a long-term view.

But Perkins has to stop the bleeding on her balance sheet. She has a monthly mortgage for her condo. Her unemployment checks will stop coming in a few months. Her COBRA health insurance ends in a few days. She's managed to find a new, bare-bones insurance plan for herself and she's got some savings. She cancelled her cable, avoids the mall and never goes out to eat. Still, she knows her money will run out eventually if she doesn't get a job.

Perkins says it's hard not to get depressed.

Perkins: I think you definitely feel low. And it would be hard not to feel low in this situation. Every time I get a rejection letter it's like, "Oh my gosh, what is wrong?" But it's kinda like, "OK, let me kind of get over this."

But some people never get over the rejections and the trauma of losing a job. Suicides increase during a recession. And the longer you're unemployed, the higher the risk you'll attempt suicide.

Richard Dunn is a health economist at Texas A&M University. Dunn has studied what happens to workers who lose their jobs in mass layoffs.

Richard Dunn: There's an additional suicide for every 4,000-7,000 jobs that are lost. Which doesn't sound like a lot until you consider that in the last year there were nearly two million job losses from mass layoffs.

Dunn says the downward spiral toward suicide starts with withdrawal. People stop meeting up with friends and avoid neighbors. They don't want to talk about the loss of their job or much of anything. Back in northern Virginia, Lesley Perkins says she does have to fight the temptation to withdraw into a shell.

Perkins: Yeah, I could sit around being mad and frustrated and bitter and in the end, the only one that hurts is myself. I'm not in the business of trying to hurt myself. I experience all those things but, OK been there, done that -- let's move on. What's the next step?

Perkins already has the answer for that. She rifles through pulls out a clear plastic box crammed with manila folders. She calls it her "current projects" box.

Perkins: It has my resumes, it has all the stuff I've worked on, I'm working on at the moment.

One thing Perkins is working on at the moment? A support group for the unemployed called the Job Seekers Accountability Group. Perkins started the group about a month ago. She gives the group members assignments every week.

Perkins: I really hesitate to call it homework but in some ways, it's homework. And then we also have a challenge of the week, things that we really need to do to get ourselves out there and visible.

But Perkins says it's hard to make yourself visible to prospective employers.

Perkins: There's the throwing your resume out there and just hoping it sticks. And there's kind of the, let me take a more strategic, targeted approach to doing this. Probably I've gotten to that point.

So, she researches companies before applying for a job with them. She puts key words in her resume that she thinks computer programs will search for. And she tries to get to the people doing the hiring. Perkins is telling me about her network of friends and former colleagues, who give her tips on job openings, when her cell phone rings...

Sound of phone ringing

Perkins: See, that actually might be a potential project.

Genzer: Oh! Pick it up!

Perkins: Hello, hi Janie, how are you doing?

Janie is colleague of Perkins' former boss. She thinks Perkins would be the perfect person to run an employee survey for a client of hers. It would be a freelance project, not a full-time job. But it's a start.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer for Marketplace.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Lesley Perkins holds her pet rabbit, Daisy.

Lesley Perkins looks through her "current projects box."

Log in to post9 Comments

This is Lesley Perkins. I would like to start off by praising Nancy Marshall-Genzer and the Marketplace Money editors. I think they did a great job of summarizing our three-hour discussion.

I am touched that my story struck a chord with a number of people. It’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking you’re the only one out there. While I’ve always dreamed of being interviewed on the radio, I envisioned it would be because of my work and not my lack of work. I agreed to do this interview because it’s important to put a face to the unemployment numbers. Unfortunately, I feel it often seems abstract when it’s discussed in the media, especially in an election year.

My advice to my fellow job seekers and underemployed would be to remember that life goes on during this time period. Keep yourself busy. A number of you have made some great suggestions here (e.g., volunteering) on how to do these things. I wish everyone the best of luck in their personal journeys.

I am on LinkedIn and happy to connect if you introduce yourself to me.

Thank you for sharing Lesley Perkin's story. And please continue to put a face on the "older" unemployed. While I feel for the newly college graduated, I feel those who are older have more to lose, so to speak. Lesley has faced her unemployment with dignity, and listening to her positive, yet real, attitude made me want to sit down and have a conversation with her myself. I have been unemployed, or to some, underemployed, since November 2010, working low-paying temp jobs that don't pay the bills. I found myself suddenly unemployed after having to be medically separated from my Peace Corps service. I returned to the U.S. to live with my parents (both retired), and make arrangements for major surgery. However, I immediately (2 days after landing back in the States) started volunteering, signed up with a couple temp companies, and made sure I let as many people as possible know that I was home now and looking for work. Because of my being a Peace Corps volunteer and prior to that an AmeriCorps volunteer, I was not eligible for unemployment. So, I had no choice but to take whatever temp jobs I could get, usually only paying $10 or $11 an hour. Facing medical bills and having student loans to pay off from the masters degree I received in 2009 added to the pressure. I am 6 months away from turning 40, in my last month of COBRA health insurance, still fighting the Department of Labor to cover the medical expenses I was told they would cover for my surgery, and haven't saved for retirement since my last "real" job before going to graduate school in 2007. Despite having a masters degree and extensive experience in the non-profit sector, most of my temp jobs are clerical in nature and pay $10 an hour. Lesley captured my feelings exactly when she talks about receiving rejection letters and the feeling of "what is wrong?". It is difficult to not feel low and to not wonder what is wrong with you. The best thing I have found is to find the small ways you feel some "normalcy". I have picked up running again, am training for my 6th marathon, and am enrolled in a yoga teacher training program. While it adds to my expenses and my busy schedule, it keeps my mind occupied, active, and offers a new social network. The rejections are hard, month-end bill paying is hard (living in Chicago is not cheap!), and I do wonder when it will get better. Since entering grad school in 2007 I have been living like a new, poor, college graduate, but at this age, people tend to look at you in a judgmental way. There are lots of us out there, and we aren't lazy, or without ambition; we've done all the recommended things. It just hasn't worked out. And that happens sometimes. You just keep getting up the next morning and try again.

Hi, I feel for you all who lost your jobs. I just moved in Colorado from the Caribbean last year to join my husband and I tell you, the economy is tougher here. However, I joined a company recently and got a lot of training to start a business. If you are willing to learn with me, I will teach you without any charge. I will offer my time to teach you how to start doing your own business online. I promise you, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. All you need to do is believe that you can do it and claim it! Let me know if you are interested.

Yes, these are the stories that break my heart, not the "poor" college grads we hear so much about. Those who are in their 40s and 50s and can't get another job are who I worry about. But it's a double-edged sword as we need those in their 50s and 60s to retire so that those behind them can finally earn those positions and increase their earning power at the height of their careers. We've found ourselves in a real mess, and this will have generational effects I'm sorry to say. I do tend to hire workers who are older at my company, but they often want more money and benefits than I'm able to pay (there's only so much to go around and I make barebones as it is). I see the problems so clearly, but I don't have solutions...

I am 59 years old. I lost my job as administrative assistant in March of 2010. Now the only thing I can see is early retirement at age 62, which is three years from now, and I will have to take the 25% cut in order to get it, which will let me live somewhat comfortably as a homeless person living in the woods with no expenses such as rent and utilities or car, I am not sure this is something to look foreward to. You say that you hire people of my age, but that they want more money and benefits than you can pay, and that you have no solutions. Perhaps if you can contact me we can work something out.

Positive action generates positive energy. One positive thing the unemployed can do is VOLUNTEER in their community. It is an effective way to network. Your fellow volunteers may be people who make hiring decisions. They may know of openings in their companies or institutions. Working together tells them more about you than reading a resume and equips them to give you a positive reference. I haven't heard anyone mention doing volunteer work in any of your excellent coverage of the unemployed.

Thank you for this important discussion. The mature individual who is long term unemployed experiences two cultural biases. This makes it much more difficult to become re-employed. I wish the discussion had included more on the value of networking with occupational or industry groups as much as possible. The discussion was too heavily slanted to the out dated method of resume submittals. The Accountability Group is great, now they need to get out into the community and meet those who appreciate their level of abilities before they are filled without being posted.

Thanks for writing about this.

"...companies have learned that they can boost profits by squeezing the same amount of work out of fewer employees. That philosphy has helped to stifle job recovery, even as GDP growth has slowly come back to life post-recession." This is worth repeating as corporate profits have soared, while tens of millions of American workers continue to search for work even as they exhaust their unemployment insurance benefits, some of them as along as two years ago.

Denver Unemployment Examiner

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