What Does It Really Take to "Get a Job"?
Thursday, December 29, 2011Tweet
Last month I shared a post that ruffled some feathers, talking about how unhelpful it is to tell someone to "just get a job" when there may be so many factors conspiring against them to keep them from getting that job.
What I didn't know when I wrote that was that I was going to witness this firsthand very soon after.
I mentioned that I participated in December's Love Drop. Unlike some other families Love Drop has helped, Diomi and her son Nalee had very little and needed the basics. I don't know their whole story, but I know a few things. Diomi had lost her job after working in banking for 13 years. She has depression, and her father died this year, which doesn't help. They're very connected to their church; it was the pastor who nominated them for the Drop, because Nalee goes there every day after school -- he says he knows he'd get into trouble, like his friends, if he didn't. This kid is the brightest, sweetest, politest kid you'll ever meet. He had only one set of school clothes he wore every day, which they washed at the landromat regularly because they didn't have a washer and dryer. (I don't know this for sure, but I gather that he goes to a private school, probably due to the state of the public school system in their area and Diomi wanting him to have the best possible opportunities.)
The team rallied to figure out not just what they needed in the short-term (like food), but also what Diomi needed in order to get another job and become self-sufficient again.
Problem one: No interview clothes. They received new school clothes for Nalee and interview clothes for Diomi, and someone donated their washer and dryer. OK, now she has interview clothes and a way to wash them.
Problem two: No car. Someone donated bus tickets.
Problem three: No computer on which to create a resume. We were going to get them a computer, but they'd recently had their house broken into and didn't want any expensive things that could be stolen. So some people offered to put together Diomi's resume.
Problem four: No phone. She needed a way for employers to contact her -- obviously e-mail wouldn't work without a computer. Someone donated a tracphone with minute cards, of which she could buy more at the grocery store.
Witnessing this at the Drop, two conflicting emotions were battling each other. One was how amazing it was to see the team rally together to try to get Diomi back on her feet. The other was just how many varied obstacles we had to overcome -- and knowing how many people are out there with those same obstacles who don't have a whole team helping them out.
I volunteered my time as a job search coach, and when I talked to Diomi later, another problem presented itself: Without a computer, she had no way of even finding job openings. She could find them by word of mouth, but she doesn't appear to have much of a support system; usually the Love Drop videos have interviews with friends and family, and there was no one but their pastor on the video. I said I would look up which jobs she was qualified for.
However, there was still the issue that many job applications have to be completed online. Determined to overcome that hurdle, I went home and looked up the nearest library to Diomi's house. I confirmed that they had computers there with Internet access that patrons could use. It was a little over a mile from Diomi's house, which is a bit too far to walk in the Wisconsin winter, but there was a bus she could take part of the way.
She gave me a call to schedule the time for me to come back up there to do interview prep with her. I said that as soon as I got her resume, I was going to find a few jobs for her to apply to, but the applications may be online. Did she ever go to her local library to use the computers there?
She told me, "Oh, well... See, I have $60 in fines from when I was a kid, and I've just never been able to pay them off."
My heart just broke all over the floor at that point. This woman has nothing, she's trying to give her son the best education and opportunities possible, and when she's laid off like everyone else in this country, every possible avenue for her to get another job contains obstacles. Who would tell her she should have been working on paying off her decades-old library fines instead of putting her money toward food and her child's education?
I hadn't planned to donate money, only my time, but as soon as I heard that I immediately called up the library and told them I wanted to pay off her library fines. I was told that was private information and I wasn't allowed to be told whether she had any fines, much less pay them off.
Here's what frustrates me most: We have a culture around hiring such that it's impossible to get a well-paying job without money (for interview clothes, for resume paper, for transportation to the interview) even if you have education and years of experience like Diomi.
Sure, it's easy to point fingers and say, "She should have saved up money. She should have done this or made this a priority." I don't know her whole story, but I do know that I don't feel comfortable saying that a person's past mistakes should condemn them to a life of joblessness and poverty. Do you know how many Americans live in debt, or live paycheck to paycheck? Yet many of them, if they lost their jobs, would have friends who could hook them up with a new one, a suit in their closet already, and parents who would make sure they were taken care of in the meantime.
Isn't it in our best interest as a country to ensure that an individual who has a college degree and decades of experience should be able to get a job, even with $0 and no connections?
Certainly someone could walk into a McDonald's and fill out an application, but what a waste to have a person like that working a cash register!
I don't have answers. I just have a lot of questions that are breaking my heart and keeping me up at night. There has to be a better way.
UPDATE: I spent a few hours with Diomi in January, and we went to a different library than the one where she was told she had to pay off the fines. They waived her fines because they were so old! I was able to use the money I was going to use to pay them off to buy her more minutes for her phone. She seemed a lot more confident about her job search when I left.