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Unemployment weighs on her, and she has a job

The call comes about 5:15 p.m. every day.

In the tidy cubicle in her Tampa office, Julie Hopson stops typing. She looks up at her co-workers filing past her desk on their way out.

Her cell keeps ringing. It's her husband. She knows he's been waiting all day to make this call.

"Hey, Babe," he says when she picks up. "You coming home?"

Julie doesn't want to go home.

She fantasizes about driving across the bridge, over the bay, past the small house she can no longer pay for, just sailing on and on, her worries fading in the rear view mirror.

But she wouldn't want to use that much gas.

She piles papers by her purse. More work to do tonight. More overtime to earn.

"Sure," she finally says into the phone. "I'll be home soon."

• • •

She used to rush home to their old St. Petersburg cottage to be with Alan. She loved hearing about his day, sharing hers, discussing where they would go to dinner: Outback? Olive Garden? Maybe afterward some ice cream?

For their first five years together, every night was date night. Weekends were mini- honeymoons. Alan would take her to explore small towns and comb antique stores, just to get away.

Now there is no escape.

In June 2009, Alan, 49, lost his job as a mechanic at Hav-a-Tampa cigars. The factory shut down, leaving Alan and 500 other workers unemployed.

Julie made Alan a resume. She showed him how to log onto job sites. He applied for 82 positions from Lakeland to Largo, everything from driving a truck to demolition work. After six weeks, his severance pay ran out. After a year, so did unemployment. He had been making about $40,000 a year at the factory.

Now they were down to Julie's wages, about half what their household income had been. Julie, 47, works for a Tampa company called iMapp. Mostly, she does data entry, creating logs of foreclosures and property appraisals for real estate companies. Last summer, she started bringing home extra work, putting in another 12 to 20 hours a week. Still, they struggled.

They blew through $17,000 in savings, sold her coin collection and his hunting rifles, refinanced his truck and had a yard sale. In March, they filed for bankruptcy. In May, they stopped paying their $1,100 mortgage.

More than 15 months have dragged by since Alan last worked, but Julie still isn't used to the new normal: Instead of road tripping, she spends weekends working, helping her husband search for jobs, trying to convince him he still matters.

Last month, Florida's unemployment rate was 11.7 percent. Which means more than 1 million people across the state don't have jobs. And statistics show the rate is two points higher for men than for women.

As more men lose their jobs, more women are having to shoulder the financial burden alone.

We know how unemployed people struggle. Dozens, if not hundreds, of candidates compete for every opening. People spend months sending out resumes, calling old contacts, straining to prop up their sagging self-esteem.

But what about their wives?

For a woman like Julie, being married to someone who is unemployed means working all the overtime you can get, but still worrying about losing your house. It means after a long day at the office you probably still have to do laundry and dishes, only now you have to make dinner too because you can't afford to eat out. You're working harder than ever, but you have to give up all the little things you used to do to reward yourself: drinks with a friend, a movie out, a new blouse from Target.

People try to understand, but they really don't. They don't know what it's like to get up while he's still sleeping and work all day knowing he's home sitting in the dark because he doesn't want to pay to run the lights. To pack your lunch because you can't even afford fast food. To be stuck in that cramped house night after night, listening to the collection agents screaming on your answering machine. To spend your evenings watching shows like Intervention and Hoarders, anything to make your life seem less sad.

You can't even enjoy that because you can't really talk about anything. You don't want to tell him about a good day at work when he's been home all day, vegetating. You can't complain about a bad day because at least you're still working.

So what's left? You tell him about the turtles you feed behind your office. He tells you about the fishing show he watched on TV. You talk about the kids and grandkids. You endure long silences. You try to go sleep, shut everything out. But sometimes you can't because you're thinking about all the things you can't say, trying to take care of this man who once took care of you.

That's the hardest part, Julie says, watching this person you love lose his pride, his sense of purpose.

Okay, that and not exploding at how unfair it all is.

Why should he get to stay home all day, lounging in the La-Z-Boy, while you go to the office for nine hours, then bring home more work?

Everyone asks about him. Of course he's depressed. Thanks for asking.

No one asks about you.

• • •

Julie is driving across Tampa Bay, squinting through sideways rain, when her phone rings again. She lets it go. She knows he'll call back.

She pictures Alan in their little living room, clutching the TV clicker like a lifeline, with no one to talk to all day except their cat, Secret. And he doesn't even like that cat.

He used to have friends over for beers and baseball, used to crack everyone up. Now he's so quiet. Nothing like the guy she fell in love with a lifetime ago, in 1978, outside St. Pete High.

Julie was 16, riding her bike. Alan was 18, cruising in his dad's old pickup, blasting Led Zeppelin. He slowed beside her, called over the music, "Hey, Babe!" He leaned out to kiss her — and she let him.

"He made me laugh," Julie said. "He spoiled me." Alan was running his dad's lawn service, making more money than his teachers. "He was always buying me things, clothes and meals," Julie said. "He was always treating everyone."

They broke up after high school. She went to Eckerd College. They married other people, raised two kids each, got divorced. In 2004, they reconnected. "He looked just the same," Julie said. "Except less hair and more beer belly."

They married in a friend's back yard in 2007. With their children grown, their income steady, their shared interests in antiques and flea markets and each other, they had everything they wanted.

Until Alan lost his job.

Now he seems ashamed. He's always thanking her, telling her how lucky he is to have her. He worries she's going to leave him. "It's so ridiculous. He's always like, 'Where have you been? Who were you on the phone with?' He thinks I'm sleeping with the whole football team," Julie says.

She feels sorry for him. Angry she has to defend herself. "I mean, look at me," she says. "I'm a cow."

Her hair shows how long Alan has been out of work. The dark stripe below her ears? That's the last time she could afford highlights. It has been a year since she allowed herself a pedicure. And with ice cream the only indulgence they still enjoy, she has put on a few pounds. "Even if I wanted someone else," she says. "Who would have me?"

She loves her husband, wants to be there for him. "Sometimes he'll just come out and say something hilarious," Julie says. "Then I remember."

The next time her cell rings, she answers, "Sorry. It's a little crazy out here with all the rain. I'll be there soon."

"All right, Babe," he says. "I'll be waiting for you."

• • •

Any therapist will tell you that the loss of a job is hard on a marriage. It's especially hard when the unemployed person is a man.

"Husbands and wives have fixed ideas about their roles. When one of them loses their job, it forces them to change those roles," says Jo-Ann H. Bird, a licensed mental health counselor in Tampa.

Couples need to be clear about what's upsetting them and what they need. "And if all of their releases are gone, the things that used to make them happy, they need to find new ways of having fun together."

Julie tried to get Alan to go to counseling. He said they didn't need it. She knew they couldn't afford it. Instead, she got her doctor to put her on Prozac.

She tries to talk to Alan, but she just gets mad, or he gets upset. She knows it's not his fault he lost his job. She knows he wants to work. She doesn't want to make things worse. Or make him feel like any less of a man.

So most of the time Julie's complaints simmer unsaid. Sometimes little things set her off.

Like when she asked him to bring a case of water in from the porch and it was still sitting there the next morning. What else did he have to do?

One of the biggest fights they had was in early July, when Alan spent $35 on fireworks to shoot off with their grandson. "You're burning up $35?" Julie yelled. "What a waste!" Is it a waste, Alan asked, to make memories with your grandson?

Julie's family loves Alan, but they worry about her. "She's just so stressed," says her mom Barbara Oshesky, who lives in Pinellas Park. "She seldom even sits down. I wouldn't be able to handle all that she does. She keeps a lot of things to herself, I guess. But I do notice that their refrigerator doesn't have much food in it anymore ..."

Julie's daughter, Anastaja Forshier, lives in Jacksonville with her 7-month-old son. Until Alan lost his job, she said, her mother would drive to see her at least once a month. Now that Julie is working weekends, she has been able to visit her grandson only a couple of times. "She's working so much," says Anastaja, 21. "And she still can't do anything she wants to do."

• • •

Rain streams from Julie's long hair as she steps through the door just before 6 p.m. She drops her purse on the table, plops the paperwork beside it. "Hi, Honey," she says.

"Hey, Babe." Alan doesn't get up. Julie bends to peck his cheek.They used to kiss — real kisses, like they meant it — all the time, for no reason. Now their kisses are cursory. Seldom on the lips.

"What did you take out for dinner?" she asks, crossing to the kitchen. The evening news is blaring on the TV.

"Oh, just some hamburger," Alan answers. "I didn't know what you wanted to make."

She doesn't want to make anything. It would be nice, sometimes, if he would make dinner. But that's not worth fighting over, Julie tells herself. Anger takes so much energy.

After a while, she says, you lower your expectations. You revel in small joys, like playing with your grandson in his apartment pool. At least you still have a job. A good job that you love, where your boss gives you extra hours, so you can hold onto what's left of your life.

At 6:05, without sitting down, without even pouring herself a drink or taking off her sandals, Julie unwraps the hamburger. "Hey Al," she calls. "Did you go apply for that job?"

"Yeah." An air-conditioning company needs a truck driver.

"Did you get an interview?"

"No, I just dropped the application. They said they'll start looking at them tomorrow."

Julie roots through the fridge. She pulls out a tomato, a half-head of lettuce. A block of American cheese. "Were there 8 million people applying?"

"At least," Alan answers. "Hey, what are you making for dinner?"

He doesn't get up while she browns the meat. Doesn't help chop the lettuce or set the table. And when she calls, "Supper's ready!" he still doesn't budge. She sets the tray on the counter. "I made tacos."

He changes the TV channel. "Okay. But I'm not really hungry."

• • •

Alan doesn't know what to do. At first, he worked hard searching for work. Then he cleaned out the shed, sold everything he could part with. Next, he edged the thick grass, trimmed the bushes. When Julie comes home, their house looks perfect. From the outside.

Inside, the front door needs painting. The floor could use some work. Sometimes Julie asks him to do small repairs, but he doesn't know if she really cares about the chores or is just trying to keep him busy. Sometimes, he just takes a nap.

He feels awful about how hard his wife is working. She's always exhausted. So much quieter than she used to be. She doesn't even yell at him anymore.

She goes to bed early, 9 p.m. Sometimes, from his easy chair, he hears her sobbing over the TV.

He feels like it's his fault. He can't help her. He can't even tell her things will be okay. He doesn't believe it himself.

"It hurts to see how hard this is on her," he says. "I feel like less of a man. I wonder why she stays sometimes. What do I have to offer her?"

Julie has never asked for much, he says. The smallest things make her happy: Watching a Rays game from the cheap seats, eating Sonny's Bar-B-Q. Now, he can't even do those things for her.

He can't afford roses, so he leaves sticky notes on her computer: "I'm thinking of you, Babe."

But sometimes the notes just seem to make her sad.

• • •

On Monday, the call comes early: 11:15 a.m.

What can he want now?

Last week, he called to ask if the dishwasher was clean. Another day, he wanted to know if he had any more shaving cream. She knows he gets bored and lonely, but geez!

Her office is her only escape.

"Yes?"

"Hey, Babe. Whatcha doing?"

"What do you think?" Julie asks. Her desk is buried in foreclosure files. Spreadsheets scroll across her computer screen.

"What are you doing for lunch?" asks Alan.

"I'm not hungry."

"How about you have lunch with me?" He sounds like his old self.

He just got the mail, he tells her. His unemployment benefits have been extended. He has a check in his hand and he's heading to pick her up. "Sonny's Bar-B-Q, Babe. My treat."

That afternoon, hope tastes like sliced beef on garlic toast. And it tastes even better on her husband's lips.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825. Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story.

Unemployment weighs on her, and she has a job 09/25/10 [Last modified: Sunday, September 26, 2010 7:31pm]

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