“Surviving Unemployment,” Ensign, Feb. 1991, 42
“Rolayne, I’m at the breaking point!” I clutched the phone, my knuckles white, as tears streamed down my face. “Jeff keeps looking for work, but nothing is happening. We’ve been fasting and praying, and the kids are wondering why the Lord doesn’t answer us. I don’t know what else to do.”
“You’ve got to nourish yourself,” my friend counseled after I had poured out my fears. “If you build your own resources, you will have strength to meet this challenge.”
It was the downturn in the price of oil and gas that caught my husband, Jeff, in the unemployment snare. Like thousands of energy company employees, we found the wells capped and the salary stopped.
Just two months before Jeff was laid off, I had been talking to someone about the seemingly remote possibility of his being out of work. I felt sure that Jeff’s law degree meant that he would always have a good job. But such thinking was naive. People at every educational and economic level can lose their source of income.
How did we survive? As my friend suggested, we built our resources. We prepared our lives temporally, emotionally, and spiritually, before and during our trial. We followed the admonition “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear.” (D&C 38:30.)
Obtain a year’s supply. Throughout the years of our marriage, we had tried to follow the prophets’ counsel to be prepared for the unexpected. We had built a basic food supply: wheat, rice, beans, dried milk, flour, and sugar, as well as numerous cases of canned goods and a freezer full of vegetables and meat. It was a relief to know I could continue feeding my family even if no money was coming in.
I was also grateful that I had developed my homemaking skills. Darning socks became a necessity to make what we had last longer. With my sewing machine, I created T-shirts, dresses, and summer shorts for the kids. My dad had taught me to ask, “What do I have more of—time or money?” Obviously, the answer now was time, and it was up to me to find ways to make do wherever I could.
Save and spend wisely. After Jeff lost his job, we had to take a hard look at our finances. Suddenly, having a year’s supply of money seemed incredibly important. Severance pay—three months’ worth—would help us get by, but we had to use it wisely. We had money in pension plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs) that we had put away in better times. They would have to support us when the severance pay ran out.
But using our long-term savings had its drawbacks. In the United States, there is a 10-percent penalty on all monies withdrawn from IRAs. Unemployment compensation is taxed, and under some circumstances, there are penalties if you don’t estimate your taxes and pay ahead. Our lack of foresight actually increased our financial trials. Yet, despite these concerns, our savings allowed us to be self-reliant.
Fortunately, we were spared the slavery of debt. We have always had the policy to “pay as you go.” We paid off our charge cards monthly so that we never had to pay finance charges. Our cars were paid for, and we had saved for furniture or home improvements rather than pay in installments. Eight months before Jeff was laid off, his company was sold to a new oil company, and our share of funds from a thrift plan into which we had regularly put a portion of each paycheck was turned over to us. When we discussed the uncertain future and how best to use the money, Jeff said, “I think we need to buy down the note on our house. Then, if I do get laid off, we won’t be so strapped.” I still feel blessed because of his cautious foresight.
In the middle of our unemployment, I spoke with my friend Ann, whose family had gone through the same situation two years before. When I asked her what I could do to cope, she said, “The best advice we received was not to let things get too low, even if we had to go to the Church for help. Don’t tape up the kids’ tennis shoes for school. Buy new ones, or used ones at a thrift store, but help your children so the setback doesn’t hurt them too much. There’s a big difference between the scars of being poor and those from being temporarily unemployed.”
We recruited our children’s help throughout the experience. Our teenage daughters’ baby-sitting money had to go further—for clothes and shoes instead of incidentals—and they understood. We could no longer pay the children for doing chores around the house. There were moments when it seemed unbearably hard for us to see them going without, but we feel they are stronger because of it. Because of our experience, they understand better the importance of using money wisely.
Give extra emotional support. Jeff and I supported each other emotionally during those difficult months. We didn’t blame each other for being unemployed, for our lack of money, or for discouragement. We didn’t let this temporary setback undo the relationship we had spent sixteen years building. We comforted each other, took a deep breath, and kept going.
The first question many people asked me when they found out Jeff was out of work was, “Are you going to work?” This question and the circumstances surrounding the decision must be carefully weighed by each family, for each answer depends on the situation. But for us, the Spirit whispered, “Stay home. Your family needs you there.” Our five children ranged in age from five to fifteen; four of them were in school all day. We would have had to use day care for only one of the five, but still the answer was no.
While I was considering my chances in the workplace, Jonathan’s preschool and Primary teachers both came to talk to me. His easygoing ways had been replaced by uncooperativeness. I knew as I tried to explain the hardship we were experiencing that his behavior hinged on the possibility that I would leave home to work full-time.
When I decided to make home my priority and support Jeff’s job-search efforts, everything changed. I found the time to rock Jonathan in my arms each night before he went to bed, and soon his fear evaporated in the security of having Mom there.
Work hard to find a job. The first eight months of Jeff’s unemployment were filled with the excitement of trying to start a new business. But, unfortunately, we didn’t make any money. After a realistic evaluation, Jeff began the full-time search for work. He was diligent. He got up early each morning, dressed, shaved, and retired to his basement “office” to make telephone contacts and send out resumés. He worked as hard at finding a job as he ever had when he was being paid for his time. He attended state-sponsored seminars that taught him how to update his resumé. He was open to many sources of help: government programs, Church resources, and literature from the library. He watched the Church-produced JobSearch videos. He broadened his perspective on other industries in which he could find work, even though he had twelve years of experience in the oil and gas industry.
A year after Jeff was laid off, he received a job offer that he had worked hard to obtain. After weeks of negotiating, the company offered him a salary that would require my going to work full-time, too, in order for us to make ends meet. When we visited with our stake president about what we should do, he counseled us to listen to the Spirit. We did—and turned down the job.
Build faith daily. In the midst of our trial, when my faith was running low, I felt helpless. Nothing I could do would change our financial circumstances or get Jeff the job he needed so desperately. I was emotionally exhausted with trying to cope. I cried more easily, slept more than usual, and found my resilience seeping out of my system. Unfortunately, everyone in the family mirrored my attitudes: if I felt hope and enthusiasm, then the family did, too; if I felt trapped and defeated, so did they.
During this time, I found that it is impossible to stockpile spiritual strength. Even though I had a strong foundation in the gospel, I had to pray and read the scriptures daily to maintain my faith. They became a nurturing necessity.
Pray for specific blessings. Our prayers intensified as our faith lagged. At one poignant family home evening, eleven-year-old Jay declared that he had decided to stop praying. “What good is it?” he asked. “Our prayers aren’t being answered. It seems like nobody is listening when we ask for a job for Dad.”
We did our best to reassure him that answers would come, but we would have to be patient. Yet we knew his feelings were real, for we, too, felt that the heavens were as brass.
One specific interview seemed very promising. Jeff had worked hard to prepare and had prayed fervently. The interview went well, and he came home elated. This is it! we thought.
But the weeks went by, and the company didn’t call back. Our confidence ebbed away until we finally learned that someone else had been given the job. Why had we felt so positive? How could we know what God wanted when we had misjudged so totally?
Rather than turn away and discount personal revelation, we began to ask for discernible answers. We learned to pray specifically—for a specific interview to go well, for a good job that would allow me to stay home with our children, for enough money to buy school clothes. The answers did not come within the time frame we wished. Sometimes they were delayed by a wise Father’s knowledge of not only our temporal but our spiritual needs. But each request was granted when the time was right.
The fears that haunted me about not having enough money were worse than reality: asking “How much longer?” hindered rather than helped me. I had to focus only on the day that I was living and cope with each challenge as best I could. As the Savior said, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (Matt. 6:34.)
Find perspective in Church callings. Service in the Church became an unexpected blessing to us. Seven months into his unemployment, Jeff was called as the bishop of our ward. The stake presidency had waited as long as they could for us to get on our feet financially, and they decided to call him despite unemployment. I was excited when the call came, sure that it must mean a good job for Jeff would come rolling in imminently.
That was not the case. Instead, Jeff counseled with many ward members who had also lost their jobs. Most of them had no food storage, no savings, no resources whatsoever. Jeff filled out food orders and employment forms. He referred people to the Church videotapes on searching for work, writing resumés, and developing telephone-contacting skills. He saw ward members at the employment center while searching through the books for available jobs. When I had a hard time keeping my faith strong and my spirits up, he would say, “We have so much. We are prepared for this, but 90 percent of our ward isn’t. We can keep going.”
Draw strength from temple worship. We are fortunate to live near a temple, and I went there regularly to be strengthened by the Spirit. One especially discouraging day, the hopelessness of our situation seemed to be too much to bear. Both of our daughters were baby-sitting, and Jeff had taken the boys camping. As I sat alone that evening, I couldn’t stop crying. In the midst of my despair, the Spirit whispered, “Come to the temple, Joy.” And I obeyed.
After the session, I sat on the bride’s bench behind the temple and prayed, telling the Lord that I could no longer carry these burdens. Somehow, the heaviness lifted, and so did my spirits. I left my burdens there in His care. Later, when they would become heavy again, I reminded myself that He would take care of them far better than I could, and I could let them go more easily.
Learn to receive. I learned the importance of allowing others to help us. A friend of the family regularly sent us a letter with a $50 or $100 bill tucked inside. His newsy messages never even mentioned the money. At first Jeff said, “We can’t accept that!”
“Yes we can,” I answered. “This may be the only time that he can help us in this way. We cannot deny him the blessings of being there in our time of need.”
Packages arrived on our doorstep, filled with good things to eat. At first our teenagers were mortified. “Mom, they think we’re destitute! This is so embarrassing!” These experiences gave us a good opportunity to discuss giving and receiving. In the past, we had given anonymously to others who needed our help. Now it was our turn to be grateful for others’ love and willingness to share.
Recognizing the “little” miracles really made a difference. A couple at church came up to us, unaware that Jeff was out of work, and said, “We have been praying very hard for your family. We’re not sure why, but we’ve had strong feelings that we should.” Numerous family members placed our names on temple prayer rolls, in addition to remembering us in their own prayers.
Things really looked black for us after we turned down the job that wouldn’t support our family. How I wished I could lift the curtains of eternity just enough to see how much longer we would be without an income!
Three weeks later, a phone call came from the Church Employment Center. When a request came from a company that needed someone to handle their contracts and negotiations, a ward member who was volunteering there suggested that this job might be just right for Bishop Young. It sounded promising, so Jeff called to schedule an interview.
His appointment was for 10:00 on a Monday morning. I waited nervously at home for him to return. Hour after hour passed, until at 3:00 P.M. he called, saying he had almost negotiated his salary! Soon after he started work, we realized that Jeff was in a good position, with both better pay and a brighter future than the other position could have rendered. What blessings would we have missed had we not listened to the Spirit?
Gratitude still fills our hearts as we remember the days when we had no income. I tell myself that I must pray with the same fervency in thanking as I did in asking. We are grateful for good friends, Church leaders who counseled us, family who listened and helped as they could, children who stood by us, and prophets who taught us how to prepare. We are especially grateful for our Heavenly Father and for the Savior; their love gave us strength to nourish ourselves, build our resources, and bear the cloudy days until the sun broke through.