The Unemployed: Moira Webster-Larranaga


New data today shows people in Minnesota have given up looking for work, even as the unemployment rate fell again in August. Officially, 14.9 million people are unemployed. Thousands — perhaps millions — more have given up and are not counted. Last month alone, 466,000 people lost their job. They’re not numbers; they’re individuals with a story to tell. Here’s one.

Moira Webster-Larranaga, 41, of Burnsville, has seen layoffs from both sides. For 6 1/2 years, she was the human resources director at the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. HR people know how layoffs work since they’re usually the ones who have to do the dirty work. “You just have to stay calm and expect them to be angry,” she told me on Wednesday. “There’s no sense beating around the bush.”

It’s tough, she said, knowing that a layoff is coming and not being able to tell anyone. She didn’t know for sure that she was in the crosshairs, but her layoff last September didn’t surprise her. The non-profit world was getting raked by the recession.

She worked in a temporary position until last March, but she’s been looking for full-time HR work. She says she’s applied for at least 70 positions and had one interview.

“I just got a message on September 11th for a job I applied for last March, saying the opening was being removed,” she said. “When you get 600 resumes for one position, what can you do?”

Webster-Larranaga seems to have taken it in stride, possibly because of another message she got in July: “You’ve got cancer.”

The six weeks she waited between her diagnosis and her surgery on August 24th “were hard,” but she was prepared to be honest with any potential employer who called. None did.

Moira’s husband is an engineer. Health insurance isn’t a problem and, for the most part, it seems, neither is unemployment, a possibility they planned for in recent years. They didn’t live a high lifestyle when times were booming. They each drive old cars, they haven’t had to touch their long-term savings, there’s still a salary in the house, and the bills are getting paid. An annual snowboarding vacation in Aspen this winter is probably out, however.

Moira collected the maximum unemployment benefit from the state after her job ended in March, but it ended when she underwent surgery. The state doesn’t provide unemployment compensation when you’re physically unable to work. There’s always the concern that she now has a pre-existing condition in the eyes of a health insurance company, but it won’t be an issue, she says, as long as she doesn’t go without health insurance for 63 days, and her husband’s job appears safe, she says, knocking on nearby wood.

She was unemployed twice before — the last was during the 2001 recession. But this one is different. “I don’t feel stigmatized this time,” she said. Back then, she’d recently graduated from the University of St. Thomas with an MBA, and MBA’s aren’t supposed to be unemployed.

Now, the picture is different. “I’m less concerned about what my title is,” she said. “When you get your MBA, your title is important.” She says she’s conflicted about whether to stay in the non-profit sector “I want to make more money than the non-profit sector typically pays, but I also want to know I’m making a difference.” She says when she worked at the Crisis Nursery, she ended every day knowing that she’d done her part to ease the pain of child abuse and neglect.

She expects Thursday’s unemployment data in Minnesota will show more people have joined her out of work. But she thinks companies will soon be confident enough to start hiring again. “I try to stay positive,” she says. “It’s just so boring being negative.”

She admits to one panic attack since her unemployment began “when I realized I was labeled ‘unemployed’ and ‘cancer patient’ at the same time.” If her economic analysis is correct, and the radiation she’s soon to undergo does what it’s expected to do, she’ll likely lose both labels soon.

(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. You can find other stories in this series here.

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