Where Logic Meets Love

What Does It Really Take to "Get a Job"?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

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What Does It Really Take to

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.


  1. These truths are something I've been realizing in my new field of work. I work for a non profit that provides employment services to adults with mental health diagnoses. We try to provide people with the skills necessary to overcome the various barriers to employment (some of which you detailed). Because of her battle with depression, I would recommend exploring what programs the state offers - in Ohio there is a Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation (BVR) that works with adults with either mental health or physical barriers to employment, and it sounds like she might be a good candidate for those services. Let me know if you want to chat more :-)

  2. @Elizabeth
    I didn't know you did that kind of work! That's awesome. Actually, as part of the Love Drop, two different people donated their counseling services to Diomi, so thankfully she has some support in that area. But it's good to know that the state may offer services like that also. Thanks for the tip! :)

  3. I'm just reading this now...

    WHAT!?!?!?!? I hope you were able to help her out, in the end, even if SHE had to call and say "Jessica is going to pay them for me, just take her information."

    It's amazing how close people are to completely falling into total despair, who don't have friends or family to help them out (like you said). We often don't realize it because people are hesitant to put themselves out there saying "I need help" or we assume that everyone has someone to rely on. A friend of mine was almost in a very bad situation because of a lack of support systems and other things that we can all take for granted. Seeing what she went through really opened my eyes.

    I've also learned SO much about how close we all could be to homelessness or prison, just through my husband's work. He's had this one client who was an engineer at a big firm, made a very good salary, well educated, married. He got laid off, and he wasn't having luck in finding work--both because of his age and field. That wasn't good enough for his wife, and she got fed up and left him. He sank into a deep depression (who wouldn't?) and started drinking more than he ever did. One night, he was leaving a bar, and these two women approached him. The nice guy he was/is, he chatted with them for a few minutes...just long enough for the cops to bust him for solicitation. Those two women were prostitutes. He was arrested, arraigned and send to C's former facility as his punishment. He's in his 50s, with a record for something he really didn't do. It was amazing how a string of bad luck and a "wrong place, wrong time" situation can ruin a person's life.

  4. @Rabbit
    I'm going up there this weekend to do interview prep with her, and the first thing we're going to do is to go to the library and get her fines paid off. It's so frustrating to me that the process is this complicated, and I hope whomever we meet with there is nicer than the woman I talked to on the phone and can get Diomi set up with a new library card and all if she needs one.

    That's so crazy about C's client. Wow. How many people in his (original) position would think they had it made? And yet, like you said, all it takes is a string of bad luck for someone to end up in a very bad place. I don't think most people realize that, or at least they don't want to think about it.

    A book I read in college, Urban Injustice, talked about this notion that we as a country have of the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. Meaning, if a town is flattened by a tornado, for example, and the residents are left with nothing, we see them as deserving of help because their situation is so clearly out of their control. But in most cases people are assumed to be in a bad situation mostly through their own doing, and the conclusion is that they don't deserve help because it's their fault. It's so messed up--nothing is that black and white.

  5. I was there! Okay, now that that's out of the way, I have to add I, too, know what this is like. The number of job applications my husband had to turn in before he even got an interview was astounding. And it's hard too, because you get sort of in this catch-22 - the more you apply and get turned down, the harder it is to have hope that you will ever find a job.

    And this is a side note to this, but Nalee probably does go to a private school. In Milwaukee (which I can tell you, because this is my home too) we have a school choice program, which allows kids who meet certain qualifications to attend private schools at no charge. I actually am pretty sure based on his uniform I know where he goes to school or at least I have an idea, but I'm not going to post it on the internet.

  6. @Melissa
    It took Mike a year after finishing his master's degree to find a full-time job, and that's one of my personal reasons for getting so angry when people say someone "just needs to get a job." You're right; it's demoralizing enough to apply to so many jobs without getting a bite, and on top of that to have people suggesting that getting a job is so easy? Incredibly frustrating.

    Thanks for the insight into Nalee's schooling--that was just speculation on my part. If he's able to go to a private school at no charge, that's awesome. I wish high-quality educational opportunities were available for free to every kid in this country. The movie Waiting for Superman was inspiring but also depressing on this topic.

    Thanks for your comment!


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