When my job stopped paying

After a year of unemployment, I landed a contract gig. Then the paychecks stopped coming -- but the work didn't

Topics: F**ked, Pinched, Great Recession, Life stories,

When my job stopped payingPeople waiting in line at a job fair in Portland, Ore. (Credit: AP/Rick Bowmer)
Catherine Lane is the pseudonym of an Open Salon blogger. A longer version of this piece originally appeared on her Open Salon blog. Do you have a story about being unemployed during the Great Recession? Blog about it on Open Salon -- and we might publish it on Salon.

It comes up all the time in conversation. Most recently, I heard it from a stranger at the dentist’s office, talking back to the television news and those of us fortunate enough to be stuck in the waiting room with her. “High unemployment, my ass. Just a bunch of lazy people looking to sit on their sofa and watch TV while we pay their bills.”

Sorry, lady. You’ve mistaken me as a responsible, upright citizen. Allow me to introduce myself: I am a former sofa-lounger, and now I qualify as something even lower than that.

My last full-time job ended in January 2009. Everyone at our small pharmaceutical marketing agency received an email invitation to a mandatory staff meeting. And, much like a bad reality show, it was only moments before the scheduled time that we began to realize we weren’t all invited to the same room.

Along with more than 30 colleagues, I got voted off the island.

Those lucky enough to receive invitations to the other room were told to take a long lunch while we poor saps cleared our desks.

I spent the first several weeks in a daze. There is not a lot of room for pride when you’re a single mom, so I filed for unemployment benefits. And in the height of irony, I was told I wasn’t eligible for food assistance because my income was too high.

That’s right. My unemployment benefits pushed me over the income bracket.

I spent that first year sending out resumes and supplementing my unemployment checks by buying designer clothes at thrift stores and reselling them for cash.

After 51 jobless weeks, I finally landed a contract position. Income! No benefits, but income!

It started out great. I worked; I got paid. Not the life-fulfilling work I’d hoped to be doing in my late 30s, but it was money. No complaints.

For a while, life was good. I married the wonderful man I’d been dating for several years. We bought a house. Saved money. My kids got to take after-school classes. All we needed was the golden retriever, and we would be living the American dream.

But all good things must come to an end. By law, once you’ve used a contractor for 18 months, if the need for a position is still there, you don’t need a contractor. You need an employee. So you have to let the contractor go and create an actual job.

But creating jobs is expensive, so there are a few loopholes that corporations can exploit to avoid those costs. The company can boot the old contractor and bring in a new one to do that very same job. Or the company can change the contractor’s employment status, which means the clock can run indefinitely. I got Door No. 2. Lucky me.



For my first year and a half, I’d been paid as a W-2 employee by the staffing agency who hired me. But if I became a 1099 contractor, we could continue business as usual. The company didn’t have to train a new person; I didn’t have to find another position in a terrible economy.

My new status meant I billed the company directly, and I paid my own payroll taxes. The company managed to dodge the expenses of creating a job, and got to pocket the placement fee the agency previously added to my hourly rate.

But I still had a job. And, like many contractors, I was so glad to have work, I was willing to put up with almost anything.

Like five months without a paycheck.

Because large international companies don’t live by the same rules as the rest of us. When your annual revenue is north of $20 billion, a piddly little $30K debt to an insignificant editor is so inconsequential … well, I’ve already used more words than it warrants.

I reminded. And cajoled. And begged.

Nothing. Except a steady flow of work assignments that needed to be completed.

A few days before Thanksgiving, it dawned on me: If I’m not getting paid, it’s not a job. It’s volunteer work. And that’s not what I signed up for.

And yet, I still naively believed that, given the opportunity, people would do the right thing. So I told my employers that I was not available for work until they paid me.

To say they laughed in my face would suggest that I was more than an insignificant speck of dust.

So here I sit.

Several weeks ago, I had to create a new folder in my hard drive: JOB HUNT 2012. It sits next to JOB HUNT 2009, JOB HUNT 2010 and JOB HUNT 2011.

I can’t remember what it’s like to weigh a potential job in terms of whether I’d enjoy it. And I’m actually a pretty good catch. I have a college education. And skills. I’ve even won some awards. It’s all right here on my resume. I can forward it to you, if you’d like.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>