Unemployment Hits Home for Many in Riverwest

by Jeremy Berg / photograph by Vince Bushell

Unemployment is often discussed this way, in numbers. Any discussion seems bound to incorporate percentages, projections, and directions. Up, down, less, more. Rows and rows of statistics sit in front of anyone who decides to research the matter. Take a step away from the black and white of facts and figures and you’ll find that such abstract concepts melt into another day with nowhere to go in the morning, and another week without a paycheck. Weil Street resident Becky Hollman has been unemployed since May 24. While the financial industry, where she worked as a loan officer, has been experiencing an upswing of sorts — a bad economy means low interest rates, which spells opportunity for the mortgage industry — she doesn’t want to apply for a position in any of the “quirky” mortgage start-ups which, like the Silicon Valley start-ups of a decade ago, may not outlast the bubble. She is seeking a more stable future. A stable future is, of course, dependent on various forces, some known, some unknown at this moment. A stable present is another matter. After being unemployed for five months, mine finally arrived at the beginning of June. Barring something on the level of the Great Depression, the downtown branch of Kinko’s is going to need a courier for some time to come. But for those still unemployed, finding paid work can be an elusive task. So concentrating on other kinds of work can be a good outlet. A few of the volunteers at the Riverwest Co-op are unemployed, as are my fellow regulars (some of whom I’m sure I’d still recognize) at the computers of the East branch of the Milwaukee Public Library. Hollman says her garden has never been better. But there is always the knowledge that you are unemployed, and that the situation cannot last. I was not trained as a Kinko’s courier, and like many people I’m not doing what I want to, or even close to it, for a living. But an income is a good thing to have, and an in-between job is all right, as long as you keep it in-between. Hollman is currently drawing unemployment insurance, and her husband has a job. Thus, though “if worst came to worst, I’d take whatever came along,” she is wary of taking a position outside of the financial industry. “If you look outside what you’re doing, then later on…you have to explain that lapse.” This is true, but perhaps companies might be a little more understanding these days. A look at the number of initial claims for unemployment insurance in Wisconsin from the week ending May 24 to the week ending June 28 shows a number that goes up and down a little, but never drops below 10,000, and, with two exceptions, always represents an increase over that number for the previous year. Other Midwestern states have a similar pattern. Jeremiah Meyer’s experience reflects the statistics. Meyer, who has ten years’ experience in food service, mostly as a waiter, says that the last two years have been “really bad” for trying to find jobs. He has been searching for work since being let go at the end of May – officially for being “too fast” – not long after being told he was doing a good job, and actually, he says, for personality conflicts. Though he hears about service jobs from friends, they have proved elusive — even if he responds within hours, someone usually has the job first. He is ineligible for unemployment, and lives on odd jobs while staying with friends. Meyer is not overly upset about his situation, waxing philosophical. “The universe pushes you where you really want to go,” he says of plans to travel, probably to Maine for some work in blueberry picking season. He would like to someday own a house and open a recording studio in Riverwest, but is willing to let these things come in time. “I think there’s an obsession with having to get a great job. . .but that’s someone else’s dream. . .I like to work a lot, but for my own dreams.” Hollman shares his thinking. “That’s one of the quandaries you get into. You’re finally free from this thing you don’t really want.” Unfortunately, she does not have Meyer’s freedom of movement. She is married with a child, and the halving of income can cause stress and tension. Therefore, while she has used her free time for volunteering and other pursuits, she also devotes a great deal of time to job searches. “It’s been like a full time job, looking for a job.” Indeed it is. It is also an extremely frustrating job these days. Mixed in with the time I had to work on hobbies and have a leisurely second cup of coffee are a ballooning credit card statement, a half-inch thick folder of applications, and memories of thinking “well I was wrong about this month, but surely I’ll have work by April…” We are in a rough period for finding work, regardless of experience and the type or lack of college degree. The Jobs and Growth Act of 2003 was recently signed into law, and while it is too soon to see any effect, the fact that it mostly provides for tax relief on capital gains, dividends, and small businesses makes it unlikely to help people like Hollman and Meyer. There is no easy way out of a period of unemployment. For most people, it means applying and checking out any lead that comes along. Until then, there’s downtime. As a friend once told me, it’s impossible to spend every minute of the day looking for work, or even every day of the week. What’s left is to fill in the time doing things you’ve been meaning to do, or just wanting to do, and working toward the next place in life. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 8 – August 2003