White collar unemployment blues, take four
A scene from the 1999 satirical comedy "Office Space," which portrayed the life of late-1990s white collar workers in the software industry. | IMDB

For the fourth time in my adult life with children, I have been laid off. In contrast to unfortunately too many co-workers who blandly mention that any layoff “sucks” but should be seen as an “opportunity,” I know the objective reality: this deteriorates my family’s standard of living and is eating away at my mental and physical health, whether I admit it or not.

The four layoffs have their own peculiarities and reasons, but I can’t be fooled – I know each is completely intertwined with the capitalist economic system I was born into and cannot escape, no matter how much wishful thinking I can muster. By this I don’t mean that I am helpless; I’m only acknowledging what has caused my unemployment woes and placed restrictions on any solution I may find.

My first layoff was during the boom of the late ‘90s while I was a temp worker, formally employed by an agency and thoroughly used by one of the biggest investment banks in the world. (Please don’t use the term “consultant” around me – it dignifies the status and helps fool temp workers into believing their status is higher than it really is.)

Occasionally, other proofreaders or I would drop off documents inside the office of the floor’s big shot. A huge chalkboard recorded the department’s number of total workers and the number and percentage of temporary and permanent workers. How many were temps? The number always hovered around 90 percent, especially needed so the firm’s CEO and his closest associates could make millions of dollars in “compensation.”

My prior job to that one was unionized, so I was more brazen than the people surrounding me. Though the rules were against it, during the first week the other proofreader and I discussed our wages. I was making the second-shift wage while he made the third-shift one, which was 11 percent higher. Over the course of the year, I convinced the owner of the temp agency that the two of us should make the same amount, though it wasn’t an easy task, and her reaction journeyed from “thank you so much for bringing this to my attention,” to “people like you who demand raises don’t last long in this agency,” to finally her resignation for my equal wage.

But three months later, the agency informed me I had to go back to the original lower wage. I reluctantly agreed, but soon reversed course and told them it was not acceptable. Whoever I was talking to solemnly told me I would have to speak to the owner, who in turn warned me, “If you are going to act like a lawyer, arguing every point, this is over.”

I asked her point blank, “What should a proofreader from your agency make if he or she is working at such-and-such investment bank on the third shift?” Her answer was that it should be the higher wage of my co-worker, what I had made for the three months before the demand that I lose my differential. So I was laid off for refusing to work at a wage lower than what the temp agency said I was supposed to receive!

Friends and relatives told me I should take the agency to court; I replied to them that we had all seen far too many lawyer movies and television shows. My girlfriend paid my rent the next month while my son’s needs were met by his mother, and a few relatives sent me care packages. By chance, the boom was still on so I quickly found other temp work.

The takeaway was that we were nearly all temps working as permanent employees, and none of us should have been working without any benefits – the employer was and still is better endowed than the overwhelming majority of the world’s nation-states, so it is not the case that they had to permanently employ temp labor to “stay competitive.” During the entire employment, I didn’t have health coverage of any kind, earned nothing for retirement (remember that old concept?), had no paid days off, etc., and should have never earned less than the guy sitting three feet to my left.

The second layoff was at a different behemoth-sized investment bank. I started as a temp, as did the other 90 percent of my co-workers (notice a trend here?). In a case of my profound luck, I was made a permanent worker, so I now had benefits, paid days off, a 401(k) retirement plan, etc. (A 401(k) is obviously far worse than a pension plan, but how many non-unionized workers have pension plans anymore?) Happy days had returned…until that multinational corporation decided to outsource all of its creative service work to our underpaid brothers and sisters in India.

The irony was that I and others proofread the Powerpoint job contemplating which country would receive the outsourcing. We helped create our own plank to walk off the deck of the ship. Had any of us refused, other proofreaders would have easily been found. I can’t blame the workers in India. They make a pittance of what we earn, and I have heard how bad it is for them, from the mouths of U.S. office supervisors who have gone there to train them.

I now had two younger children, but they were too young to fathom what had happened, and my oldest was playfully amused in his teenage years. The family health care plan became Medicaid, a program that I grew very fond of. Incredibly, my unemployment compensation, admittedly the highest offered by New York State (at a whopping $400 or so per week!), disqualified us from receiving food stamps. After teetering for some months of no work, and draining our meager savings and consuming a few more care packages sent by relatives, I became a temp worker again, so at least there was income relief.

I surprisingly found a permanent full-time appointment in about a year, proofreading at a mutual fund company. My layoff from there was completely anchored to the Great Recession of 2007–2009. Co-workers privately blamed the firm’s leadership for retaining toxic holdings in various funds, especially the largest one. (Holdings are the contents of the investments that comprise mutual funds, pensions, etc.) That viewpoint was probably correct, though certainly impossible to prove. And to prove to what entity? A completely impotent Securities and Exchange Commission that punished virtually no capitalists for the policies that led to the crash?

Clearly, that third layoff was linked to the cyclical crises of capitalism: growth, then recession (or maybe depression). Repeat process over and over. Conveniently, my wife was now working again. That plus unemployment compensation, more help from relatives, and a further depletion of savings prevented us from falling over the edge.

The problem was, there was an incredibly slow recovery for me personally: I fell into a dark hole for far too many days, tripping out over worries about food, shelter, clothing, and the thought of working until I died because I would never be able to retire. I became nearly unable to concentrate. I found temp work, again, but at a massive pay cut with an impossible supervisor. I asked her once, “Why isn’t there a proofreading manual at this place?” so newly hired people such as I could look up how to treat certain issues of the various documents? Her reply: “If there was a manual, I would be expendable, wouldn’t I?” How smug of her! And how responsible for her manager to allow!

I found a new, permanent spot at a financial printer dealing with SEC-mandated documents. Once again, a wage, paid days off, benefits, a crappy but nonetheless extant 401(k), etc. The place was horribly disorganized. (Proofreading manual? What’s a proofreading manual?) But it was a permanent position.

That business was originally “private,” which in business school lingo means it doesn’t sell stock to the public. It was then bought by a huge multinational. Which sold it to another huge multinational. Which in turn sold it to another huge multinational.

Each instance, I remember hearing co-workers analyze how harmless it would be. I realize this is a “natural” reaction: no matter how bad things become, everyone has to grit it out to survive. But this reaction also represents a grotesque accommodation to the capitalist system. I’m simply asking for more people to envision an overthrow of this system and the construction instead of one that doesn’t see throwing workers onto the streets every five or ten years as a matter of acceptable practice.

Each acquisition episode, my co-workers and I were all caught in the squeeze. A new health plan that was not accepted by the family doctors and specialists of some of us, and thus a search for new doctors. A new 401(k) plan that required maneuvering out of the old plan. An end to our Flexible Spending Accounts that we grew dependent on to pay for our astronomically high co-payments and co-insurance bills. And losing one’s FSA account because of lay-off legally allows one to lose whatever money set aside but not yet used!

This acquisition, however, was by a different financial printer. The new company would have lots of new work, but not enough to require all of the new workers. Again, the analysis and primrose lane predictions by co-workers, though this time many more colleagues were able to forecast layoffs.

What would be the criteria for the layoffs? I tried to ask that at my exit meeting. Had I been more articulate with the question, I still doubt I would have received a coherent, truthful answer.

I do know this: among the proofreaders laid off, neither performance, nor seniority, nor personal needs were considered.

OK, “to each according to his or her needs” won’t happen until we reach another historical epoch. But the other two issues – performance and seniority – are usually supposed to have some meaning under capitalism. Hell, one co-worker retained by the new firm fell asleep about three-and-a-half nights every week. I know because I sat next to him. The manager who might have noticed fell asleep nearly every night!

I wrote that performance and seniority were supposed to happen under capitalism. Delete the word “seniority,” along with the term “shift differential” in a growing number of offices, unless you are in a union. And in the non-union world, “performance” is on shaky grounds, too, because the beholding managers define it and can easily twist their evaluations to their whims.

Mike Groll/AP

The severance pay we are receiving is being distributed biweekly, instead of in one lump sum, so we are being denied unemployment compensation until the severance ends. Lovely.

I asked a political associate if she knew of proofreading gigs in the book publishing industry. She told me that ended fifty years ago, out of “necessity,” otherwise the book publishers would have proofreaders sitting around getting paid during slow months. How awful that people would be entitled to a livable, yearly wage! And she calls herself a progressive.

Look out – we have so much work yet to be done to turn things around, both in convincing people of what is happening and in changing the material conditions of life. I’m starting to sympathize with the permanently unemployed.

Note: The names of the businesses and actual wages have been withheld to avoid violating agreements I was compelled to sign in order to receive severance pay.


Michael Arney
Michael Arney

Born and raised in Peoria, Illinois, Michael Arney moved to New York when he was a young adult. First a public school teacher and now a proofreader, he volunteers at his children’s schools, donates platelets, and is a member of the Bronx Progressives, his local affiliate to Our Revolution.