Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hand to Mouth: My Story

I recently started reading Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, Linda Tirado’s book about her experience with poverty. While my experience may not be as bad as hers, my experience may actually be more common.
Like 20% of the US workforce1, I’m a temp/contract/project-based/freelance worker (not by choice, I would hasten to add, but because those are the only jobs available). Partly as a result of this, I’ve been unemployed for half of the past two years.
I also have no company-provided health insurance and no paid time off.
Last year, I made so little money, I qualified for Medicaid. Some people would be thrilled to have health insurance. I’m embarrassed I qualified for Medicaid. (The only problem with Medicaid, of course, is that many doctors and dentists don’t accept it.)
As we head into Thanksgiving and the holiday season, I’m grateful to be working (for the time being), but I could very easily be unemployed again by Christmas.
That’s because full-time, “permanent” jobs are disappearing. Forget about retirement, I’m struggling to stay employed until I reach retirement age!
Last year, I made numerous press appearances on behalf of the long-term unemployed. But despite my many efforts (which included writing letters to Congress and posting over 5,000 tweets), unemployment benefits were not extended and the entire issue has disappeared from the headlines.
In light of the new Republican majority in the Senate, I feel that this issue is more important than ever.
Not only are full-time, “permanent” jobs disappearing, it’s becoming harder than ever to get the few that remain. It’s no longer enough to just submit to a job interview. There’s now often a phone interview that precedes the actual job interview, and several follow-up interviews after that.
But that’s not all.
Background checks are also now a normal part of the hiring process. And for a recent job, I not only had to go through a background check, I also had to submit to a drug test and be fingerprinted!
And Republicans say the unemployed are lazy.
As Ms. Tirado points out in her book, when you’re living “hand to mouth” (or paycheck to paycheck, like 25 million Americans2), there’s no margin for error. I recently went into a panic because I thought I was going to need a dental implant. In fact, whenever I have a medical problem of any kind, I’m more worried about the cost than the health implications. (I once got out of a taxi on my way to a hospital emergency room and walked because it was stuck in traffic! Needless to say, I didn’t even consider paying $500 for an ambulance, even though I had insurance at the time.)
The root cause of all this, of course, is globalization, a force way beyond the control of any individual worker (or perhaps even any individual country). But isn’t there something our government could be doing to ease the pain of globalization on the middle-class? And rather than using their earnings to buy back their own stock or move their corporate headquarters overseas (so they don’t have to pay taxes), couldn’t companies use that money to create jobs or give people a raise?
Instead, our government has been silent (which is not surprising considering they’re bought by the very corporations that are causing this problem) and companies are sitting on record profits.
The other reason jobs are disappearing is because companies simply don’t want to pay for health insurance. In fact, I would argue that this is now the only reason the temp industry even exists: to eliminate any legal obligation companies might have toward their temporary employees. (It’s not like they’re actually finding people jobs!)
That’s why we need a single-payer system. Not just because every other civilized country in the world has one, but because it’s ridiculous to expect a for-profit enterprise (and that includes health insurance companies) to do anything that’s not in their own self-interest.
So as we head into this holiday season, you know what I’d really like for Christmas?
A full-time, “permanent” job with benefits.
Happy Thanksgiving.