In 2006, I was working at a job I thought I would keep until I retired. I loved what I did. I was the assistant director of a psychotherapy center that helped crime victims, and I was responsible for supervising a staff of gifted and dedicated therapists and for introducing traumatized clients to the process of therapy.
It was stressful but highly rewarding work, until the social service agency that oversaw our center decided that there was more money to be made out of us, and brought in a consultant to do an efficiency analysis. The result was that the center's executive director, the clinical director and I were all let go, and the therapists, who had been on salary, were changed to fee-for-service, which meant that they got paid only if the client showed up.
The other two managers were dismissed right away. However, this left no one in charge, and with therapists quitting right and left the place threatened to devolve into chaos, so I was asked to stay on to "oversee the transition," meaning show up and reassure the terrified clients until the agency could find cheaper and less qualified people to replace us (I am not bitter). I didn't want to do this, but I didn't have anything else lined up, so I agreed.
Simultaneously, and, I believe, not coincidentally, I developed a serious illness. The symptoms were fairly mild at first, but over the course of several months I became increasingly ill. I kept going to work, however, and seeing my private patients.
Eventually, I found another job, in a nursing home. By that time the new director had arrived, and I was able to give her an orientation while I served out my notice. Right before I was to start, though, my doctor been to suspect that my illness was an atypical form of tuberculosis (it wasn't) and I felt honor bound to inform my new employers, who promptly rescinded their offer.
I told my previous employers that I planned to file for unemployment, and they agreed that this was fair — they had, indeed, laid me off, and I had given them good service. I filled out the online form, continued to look for a job, started collecting checks, and got sicker. Every two weeks I would get a call from someone at unemployment with a list of psychology jobs I might be interested in. They were always full-time jobs, and each time I would explain that the job I had lost had been only 3 days a week, because I had my practice the other days! and that I needed to replace it with another part time job.
Then, one day about 2 months into the search, I got what I thought was another routine call from unemployment. Then the woman told me, in an accusatory voice, that my former employer had rejected my claim because I hadn't been laid off, I had quit. I offered to call them to straighten it out, but she insisted on keeping me on the phone. She said, "Give me a straight answer: were you laid off, or did you quit?" I tried to explain that I had been laid off but kept on temporarily, and she kept interrupting me to repeat, in increasingly aggressive tones, "Just give me a straight answer! Did you quit or not?" She wouldn't give me her name and refused my request to talk to a supervisor.
Eventually I burst into tears. Ben was home with me, and I saw him getting upset, so I excused myself and said to him, "It's all okay, I'm just not feeling well right now." When I had collected myself and got back on the phone, the woman said, "Did I hear you say you're sick? You're not looking for a job at all, are you?"
I explained that I was unwell that day, but that I had not missed a day of my practice, which was the truth. She then said, "You have a practice?" Yes, I said; when I filled out my weekly online updates I always reported the income from my two days of work.
She didn't let me finish."You checked 'no' on the item that asks if you own your own business!"
I had thought that item referred to an actual, incorporated business with employees, not my little solo operation. I had reported all my income and had explained my situation to the representatives with full-time job suggestions. She wasn't having it. "You committed fraud," she said. "You'll hear from us," and hung up. A few weeks later I received an official demand to return all of the money paid out to me or face charges. I had a certain number of days to respond, but they had already elapsed by the time I received the notice. I sent a check we could ill afford and went on with my life.
I tell this story not because I feel I am particularly put-upon—I don't. My illness was eventually diagnosed and treated. I found a new job. We are fine. This was a brief, dark period in a basically privileged life.
But I can't tell my clients' stories, the ones about being put through the wringer like this on a weekly or biweekly basis.
Fisher White and Maria Shine responded to my previous post with the important reminders that oppressed people will sometimes turn on the less powerful, and that we all need to be mindful of how we treat each other.
When the oppression is built into the system, though, I think it is also necessary to look at the effects on the people who must deal with this demoralization as part of their everyday lives. When they are accused of being lazy, unmotivated or manipulative, it might be wise to examine the systems that reinforce and possibly even create these qualities.
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