The Unemployed: Thomas Schunk

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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.

Software developer Thomas Schunk of Crystal had big plans for May 29, 2008. He was to release some software at his United HealthCare job, a job he’d held for 11 years. Then an e-mail arrived from his boss’ boss. He was to report to a conference room immediately. There, he was told he was no longer needed after 11 years of employment, and that someone else would clean out his desk.

That’s the last time he had a full-time job.

“You go through the five stages of grief,” he told me today. It was two to three weeks before he was able to say, “Geez, I gotta do something.” He says he knew there was a recession going on, but he didn’t think it was going to be so bad.

He tried to get unemployment assistance from the state, but United HealthCare challenged his request for $538 a week. He lost. He didn’t get along well with his boss, he acknowledged. Now in his 15th month of unemployment, and while politicians have extended unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans, Schunk hasn’t gotten a dime, and he knows time is running out.

He’s got just four months left on his COBRA, the program that gives workers the opportunity to keep health insurance by paying the full cost of it. He’s got Type II diabetes and a temporary crown on a tooth. “I figure I’ve got enough (money left) for (about) three months.”

Schunk made $70,000 a year in his job and his financial conservatism has kept him afloat this long. While working, he made extra payments on his mortgage, and bought his house with 10 percent down. He sold — at a loss — his United HealthCare stock. He had $12,000 in savings.

That was then. This is now: He just submitted a “massive application” for mortgage modification. He pays $1,181 a month and he’d like to get it trimmed by about $250 a month. But because he was so financially conservative, he’s not gotten much assistance so far. “In many ways, I’m a victim of my own common sense,” he told me, although he’s aware things would be far worse now if he hadn’t planned for tough times.

Still, he’s now going to a food shelf for help.

When he lost his job, he figured he’d get another one soon enough; he applied for jobs posted on “the usual online sites.” But he says he realized that while there were hundreds of jobs listed, they were often the same job listed by different recruiters trying to drum up business.

Summer 2008 turned into late-summer 2008, and he took a job delivering phone books. He also volunteered his time “to pick up my spirits.”

“By November, the leaves were off the trees, the landscape was looking pretty scummy and I noticed the job postings dried up. It was rare to even get a rejection letter.” Nobody was hiring.

By winter, he was delivering copies of Auto Trader for $100 a week (a job that ended shortly thereafter when the publication turned to another distribution method), and turning the thermostat lower.

After a job interview in February, he was feeling he might be in line for a job, or might survive the first round of interviews. But, he learned later, the company had decided to close applications for external candidates, and hire internal candidates for open positions to avoid further layoffs. “I was kind of crushed,” he said.

By all appearances, Schunk has the right strategy for finding work. He’s created a spreadsheet with a list of companies, their Web sites, their job postings, and a record of his contacting them. The list is up to 350 companies now. He joined a job support group in the early spring. “In a typical week, up to four people in the group would find jobs,” he said, ” and 30-80 more people would join the group.”

He uses social media (See his LinkedIn page), keeps in contact with former colleagues, and keeps asking family and friends if they’ve heard of anything. He acknowledges he could do more networking, but it’s painful for him. “I’m a programmer,” he said. “I’m not a sales person,” a disadvantage in an economy where you have to sell yourself and look comfortable doing it.

When he hears that someone else got a job, he says he’s genuinely happy for them. “I used to be generally pessimistic and critical of other people,” he said. “But in the last two or three years, I’ve worked hard to become more optimistic and positive.”

He hasn’t been to the job support group in a month because it’s telephone-book-delivering season, again, but he hears that 10-20 people a week in the group are now finding work.

Obviously, he wants to be one of them, but the fact he’s not is taking an obvious toll. “I can’t sleep for a full night, anymore, he says.

“I hope things turn around soon. Businesses are still making money, but still laying off people.” He says he disagrees with President Obama that people will go back to work after the economy turns around. A one-tenth-of-one-percent drop in the unemployment rate isn’t going to cut it.

He’s come out of this with an education. “Unless you work someplace with a union, there’s no such thing as job security,” he said. He’s also come out of this as a teacher with a lesson plan for others who find themselves in his position. “Try to put things in perspective, go through the grieving process, do something to keep busy, join job support groups, and make a plan.”

“I’m smart, hard-working, and I have skills. Something’s got to give,” he says.

One of these days, he’s going to be one of the people in his job-search support group who brings the treats to his last meeting, and tells the story of how he got his new job.

(Unemployed? Let me tell your story. Contact me.)

Check out the map below to read what people in MPR’s Public Insight Network are telling us about the job climate around them.

  • Aaron

    Just wanted to say that Tom has worked for me and he is a very motivated and positive individual. If I had more work for him, I would offer it. Nice to see him getting some exposure and I hope he gets a great job soon!