14.5 million people in America are officially unemployed. Thousands — perhaps millions — more have given up and are not counted. They’re not numbers; they’re individuals with a story to tell.
Rhoda Quick, 43, of St. Louis Park has led a group of Girl Scouts for eight years. She’s a block captain in her neighborhood. She volunteers helping women in crisis. She serves on two boards in her city. She even volunteered her time helping the company that laid her off. If there is such a thing as karma, karma, this would be a great time to show yourself.
Quick lost her job as a legal assistant at HSBC in Minnetonka in a cost-cutting layoff on May 15, 2009. “I thought I was safe,” she told me today. There had been a layoff in her department in December and she and two attorneys were the only ones left. She had three weeks to wrap up her work before the job ended. “I wanted to leave things better than I found them,” she said. A few weeks later, her former colleagues called her for assistance with some tasks.
She made about $44,000 at HSBC. When the job ended, she realized it was just her and her 13-year-old daughter. Thirteen-year-olds don’t understand unemployment for their sole parent. Thirteen year olds don’t understand why asking for $20 for a concert is a big deal, why mom can’t just can’t get a job at Burger King, why there’s no new clothes for school, or why it’s possible they’ll have to move to a neighborhood where the bus stop is a problem waiting to happen.
But legal assistants who lose their job understand what it means, which is why Quick worked from 10 last night until 5 this morning documenting her finances (“until the ink ran out in the printer,” she said), grabbed a few hours sleep, met me for coffee, and then headed for the St. Louis Park Emergency Program, before stopping by HUD offices to photocopy material she needs to provide the agency if she can ever get an appointment. She’s about to fall behind on her mortgage payments.
Since May, she says, she’s applied for over 300 jobs. She’s had two interviews. One job seemed perfect for her, but the company wanted her to start right away, and she was obligated, she said, to finish her work at HSBC first. “I should’ve said, ‘I’ll start tomorrow,'” she says now.
Another said she wasn’t right for the job because the CEO said she “didn’t have the personality for the job.” The CEO didn’t meet her. She is, for the record, as outgoing and personable as they come.
Things could be worse. She could still have the adjustable-rate mortgage she converted to a 30-year-fixed mortgage in March. She’d have an interest rate over 20 percent, she said. She assumed the mortgage in 1995 from her mother, who moved away with a new husband. She’d refinanced “several times” to make upgrades and now has a $1,707 mortgage payment.
With $1,542 a month in unemployment, and $335.38 in child support that only comes from April to October (her ex-husband is a landscaper), it didn’t take long to burn through the $6,500 she had put away while employed. She still has a little money in a 401K, “but if I cash it in, there’s a 30-percent tax penalty and if I lose every last cent, what would do I do if I still end up losing the house?” she asked. “It costs a lot to get off a sinking ship.”
Last Thursday, she asked for help. She got “no” for an answer. “I’ve volunteered. I’ve worked all my life. I’ve never asked for help,” she said. She went to Hennepin County after the county’s Web site told her she could get some assistance and food stamps. But when she got to the office, with all of her financial records in plastic, tabbed and organized (“Just like a little attorney girl!”), “they looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Wow, that’s impressive,’ then had me meet with a financial counselor who took one look and said, ‘Are you kidding me? We can’t help you!'”
Quick says she was told she makes too much money and has too much house. She owes $230,967. If she puts it up for sale, she’ll never get that much.
So she did what any good administrative assistant would do. She called the lender to work out a deal to avoid falling behind on payments. Her lender is Bank of America, currently running TV ads touting their willingness to work with mortgage holders.
“They said, ‘You’re not behind; there’s nothing we can do for you,'” Quick says. She calls the bank every Monday morning, to see if maybe the rules have changed and her March refinancing doesn’t disqualify her from getting a break under a program to help people with mortgages stay afloat. Another agency told her “you need to walk away from the mortgage”.
She’s been trying to get a meeting with HUD officials to get some emergency help, but it’ll take a few weeks to get an appointment. That’s what she worked on all night. A hardship letter to explain to HUD why she needs help, why she’d rather pay, say, $700 a month now to keep the house, and add payments later when she gets a new job.
On September 1, she can start paying for health insurance under COBRA. It’ll cost her $800 a month she obviously doesn’t have. She’s trying to find free health clinics.
“In the past few weeks friends have dropped off food (beef stew from Janine), and our neighbor, Sarah, dropped off homemade cookies and friends have taken us out to movies to try to keep our spirits up,” she says. “I appreciate my friends all stepping up to show they care. This is the time when I really need a friend. I try to put on a happy face for my daughter, but when she goes to bed that’s when I get busy trying to find solutions to my problems.”
On a typical day of unemployment, she gets up at 7 in the morning and works until 3 looking for work and checking online sites. There are jobs, she says, “but there are a bazillion people looking.” She wakes up at night wondering how it is she can make too much money to get help.
“I keep hitting brick walls and normally I’m the type of person who jumps right over them, but now I’m afraid of what’s on the other side,” she says.
“It’s a full-time job just to try to save your home. At what point does someone say, ‘We need to help this girl. She’s done everything she can.’?”
If you’re listening, karma, that point is now.
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