Thursday, March 27, 2008


Unemployment? Gee, I wonder what that means (kind of in the vein that my eldest brother, currently in mortal combat with his ex over custody and visitation with his 5-year-old son, wonders just what "child support" really means). I'll explain:

I just found out tonight that my father-in-law (the 60-year-old former engineer/business manager, earning well over $100k/year, recently retired via "voluntary layoff" -- with a full year's severance pay, and a pension, as well as comfortable retirement savings) is eligible for, and currently receiving 6 months "unemployment benefits". Um... what?

Now, let's say I were in his shoes. I'm eligible for money, why not take it? Granted. But then... just what is unemployment? I mean, I'm unemployed, right? But I get no benefits. I'm not eligible. It would seem that unemployed PhDs, seeking gainful employment are not considered the worthy unemployed. From what I gather, most contingent faculty who are not renewed in their underemployed status are not considered unemployed, and therefore are ineligible for any support.

The self-employed who lose their livelihood are likewise not considered eligible. I know this because I've been there. The argument is that unemployment is insurance paid for by employers (well, some employers, but clearly not most colleges and universities that hire adjunct faculty). But then, when I hear these statistics about 4.6% or 5% unemployment, I wonder. I mean, they're not really counting how many people are unemployed, but rather that percentage of them (I'd venture, a small percentage) who are actually receiving unemployment benefits.

Some personal background:

I had my first paper route when I was nine. At eleven, I worked after school at a BBQ restaurant hauling in firewood, chopping vegetables, and any other miscellaneous jobs they'd give me. At thirteen, I worked in the mess hall at the military academy I attended to support my partial scholarship. At 15, I was in college in New York, working part-time with odd jobs. At 17, I dropped out of college, and worked full-time (double-time really) as a political activist, pollster, and fundraiser, 6 or 7 days a week for four years. At 21, I worked full-time (sometimes double shifts) as a waiter, awaiting the fall when I'd return to college. Throughout college, I continued to work at least part-time, often two or more different jobs to make ends meet and pay the bills that weren't covered by student loans (or the generosity of my parents).

At 28, I received my Master's degree, and followed my fiancee to where she had a job, to pick up odd jobs, and work on the stage (for paltry wages), then taught privately, and eventually landed a gig teaching at a community college. At 32, I returned to college for my PhD, and for the first time in my life was supported by fellowships. I was in heaven to receive payment (albeit modest!) to do what I believed I was best suited for, pursuing the life of a scholar, preparing for a career as an academic.

At 37, I received a PhD. In my forty years of life, I have never been eligible for nor received unemployment, though I have at times been unemployed. I have been poor. I know what it means to have nothing in the bank (NOTHING), to have thousands in revolving debt, plus student loans, rent due, (or late fees accruing because it's already past due), and mere crumbs in the pantry.

What is unemployment?

Despite all this, I'll tell you something I've realized, which in part motivated my discarding of the insulting and abusive employment I once recently had at Lemon University. It is (at least in part) our own fault. The reason why academics can be offered so little in wages, so little in job security, so little in respect and dignity, why so few of us are employed for full-time wages and benefits is simply this: we take it. As long as some of us line up to accept what is offered, the longer the offers will remain what they are. So, I left. I won't be part of that system.

I'm not afraid of poverty, only losing my dignity and self-respect. And so I am unemployed. But damn, I'm going to pursue something I believe in, which promises even the potential to have a positive impact on the world. I will not lie down. I will not simply take it. I will do what I can. I will live in accord with my principles. I will bury my pride and indignation (because disgust, even justified, is not a useful motive for accomplishing anything good).

I am a homeowner now (at least 20%). I am a father and husband. I am a son, and brother, a son-in-law, and brother-in-law. I am an American (with the joy and sorrow that affords).

Today, a new chapter begins!


Lilian said...

My friend, I admire you and also I am really glad that you're speaking out.

Now I wonder -- what are you going to re-name the blog? :-)

Soomin said...

Dear Family-
Welcome home. Glad to hear everyone is safe and healthy. I hope to walk to the ice-cream parlor with the boys someday soon.

Breena Ronan said...

In my former life I knew people who worked for the government seasonally, May-Oct and collected unemployment every winter. I don't understand how working year after year for the federal government half the year and collecting unemployment for the other half is right. Wouldn't it make more sense to just find work for those folks over the winter? Similarly, how can those workers be permitted to collect unemployment and adjunct professors can't?

Dapper Fellow said...

This is a tough lick, but the adjunctification of the academy is a tough lick. However, if you are an adjunct (contingent faculty) you have every right in the world to collect unemployment benefits until you are re-employed. I live in the Deep South. My state operates on the plantation system. Still, I collected unemployment benefits as a “laid off” college adjunct for an entire summer during 2004. I now earn a full time income teaching online for three schools, and I promise you I will have no trouble collecting unemployment benefits during the end of the year holiday season.

You might want to check out this blog:

Also, you might want to pass this information along to other adjuncts you run into before they start eating their shoestrings.

Dapper Fellow: The Traveling Online Teacher