I’m a single woman living in share accommodation and I’ve been unemployed for three years now, haven’t done any paid work since 2010, but shush! don’t tell anybody.
I Had a Dream
Years ago, many years ago, I decided to go to university in order to become a professional, work in a meaningful job, and earn good money so that I could take care of myself when I got older. Wasn’t that an irresponsible thing for me to do? Apparently, I’m unemployed cause I’ve made *bad* choices in my life, or I’m *too lazy*, or that lovely talk back radio word a *Job-snob*. I took to academia like flies to sh*t. I loved it and made friends with the academics.
I graduated with a Master degree no less. Oh yes clever girl! And I was a key scholar to boot! I know, what a horrible consci swat. I studied full time for as long as I could and then went part time. I mean, if you wanna do something meaningful with your life, oh I don’t know like become a registered mental health worker, then you have to do the hard yakka; six years full time or twelve years part time.
Unless you live at home with mum and dad, the six year route is pretty much out of the ball park. You even work for no money, imagine that. They call it an internship, to make it sound all professional and stuff, and then they have the gall, to ask you pay for it at uni. You often sit around at ‘internships’ doing stuff all, at other times you’re at risk of death by journal article. All the while dreaming that your new found professional career is just around the corner as soon as you get the pesky thesis out of the way, and not one of them, but two; quelle horreur!
Tip Towing Through the Tulips
I managed to get some casual work here and there doing cleaning jobs, until I thought I needed experience in my new found career area. I manage to acquire just enough casual contract work (thank you Howard government) rolling over to keep my hopes alive, and my interest peaked! Governments came and went - but I plugged on, motivated in a large part by the memories of being stuck in a toil box for years, being underpaid and doing mind numbingly boring work with very bad conditions.
In between lectures and tutorials and all that reading and writing I kept a nice exercise routine going - walking and swimming, and then eventually cycling. I was a very happy individual, and the envy of my friends. I seemed to have created the perfect life, or had I peaked too early perhaps?
Early menopause is an ugly word. How early you say? Well late thirties actually. And yes, you do the math about how long I was in academia for. After that, came bone-crushing aches and pains in my lower back, which eventually raced up my spine to my neck. Not good if you plan on sitting in front of a computer; or sitting at all really.
Everything was stiff and my head felt too big for my body, like a bowling ball. And my neck seemed incapable of holding it up. This made me feel very unsteady on my feet.
I plugged on though. I had all the necessary tests, but my GP could not account for the dizziness. It was a complaint, I was told, that a lot of middle aged women had. It’s not vertigo I protested, it’s related to my neck, because it always seems to happen after extended period of sitting, either in front of my computer screen, or reading, even with breaks and stretching in between.
Earlier I had also developed a strange eye disorder where my body thinks my eye is a foreign object and tries to kill it! This causes immense pain and repeated visits to the eye hospital with dilating drops and steroid drops every hour, and more trips to the hospital. The pain is unbearable but when you’re a post graduate student, well you’ve got no time for that sort of dilly dallying around, you’ve got a thesis to finish damn it!
Iritis, feels as if someone has squirted shampoo directly into your eye for hours on end, and that my friends doesn’t correlate well with statistics, data base management, or computer screens. Oh! I do sound like I’ve acquired some fancy academic skills. Finish that damned thesis I did! And now I am a newly minted mental health worker. Who wouldn’t want to hire me?
Somebody Throw Me Some Crumbs
Online application after online application, went out week after week. I kept in contact with all my networks, but to no avail. I managed to pick up some tutoring work at uni, only by hurling myself at an academic in the cafeteria whilst on a *high* from handing in my thesis. She was someone whom I hadn’t seen since undergraduate days, but you gotta be confident and pushy to get ahead dontcha!
I worked for one semester, for a burnt out academic and narcissistic co-tutor - who stole all my lesson plans, and then palmed them off as her own. I went the extra mile, was a creative tutor, fun even, the kids seemed to like me, the co-ordinator liked me. But no more extra work. Bugger that!
Of course sitting around reading journal articles, marking essays and reading assignments isn’t good for ones back, especially when you have arthritis!
As if I hadn’t been thrown enough medical curve balls with early menopause and Iritis; I now have an old! persons problem. Perhaps that’s it, I’m too old!
Aren’t women in their fifties throwing off their shackles and enjoying their new found chutzpah! My GP tells me that I have a lot of it!...arthritis that is, for someone so young. Degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis, plus!
I also have something else that’s unpronounceable, but means a vertebra has slipped over another vertebra. My GP then left the practice never to return and left me with the daunting task of finding a new GP who understands chronic pain. Someone who doesn’t see me as a neurotic middle aged woman carrying extra weight, nor is medically illiterate, and just needs to go for a good jog around the park to loosen things up. She told me I needed physio. No surprises there! And to contact Arthritis NSW - and I did toot sweet!
Know thy Enemy
I read all I could about my condition. I even participated in some voluntary online research, and discovered that chronic pain is not well understood by GP’s, even though every third patient the GP sees complains of it. I think I knew more than they did and don’t they love that.
Arthritis is also not well understood and yet it is the second most common disability in Australia. People associate it with old age, but according to Arthritis Australia, 60% of Australians with arthritis are aged between 15 and 64. One in three will have to leave work early or reduce their hours to cope with it.
By this time I had already applied for Newstart (what a joke!) benefits and was promptly given a case manager from my Job Service Provider (JSP). She was a young thing who was very efficient, but just between you and I, didn’t want to stay in the job for too long, and we spent most of my fortnightly interviews with me giving her career advice, how to enrol at my university, and how to become a teacher.
JSP’s don’t actually help you to find a job, but do continually ask about what barriers you have to finding employment, and you have to go through the bowel emptying motions - every two weeks - of providing evidence to your case manager of looking for work.
I once spent two excruciating hours sitting in a ‘job club’ ( I don’t recall signing the club's membership forms), looking through local newspapers, waiting for a vacant computer to work on, and listening to someone talk about their upcoming overseas holiday. A young man from Africa arrived, and was protesting to his case manager about having to sit there, and peruse the newspapers for work, he flatly refused and was soon set upon by his job coach - who was yelling and screaming at him - much to my horror but to everyone else’s indifference, what a hoot!
Learning to Eat Irony
It wasn’t long before my JSP job coach and case manager was doing what she had always wanted to, go to uni, on her way to becoming a teacher. And she left her job, bidding me a farewell, thanking me for the help and hoping that she might see me as her tutor, at uni sometime. Not bloody! Likely! Funny that. It’s ironic isn’t it, just like Alanise Morrisett said it was.
So I had a new case manager. This particularly vacuous individual suggested I join the army reserve! cause it’s tax free money and Centrelink leave you alone. I declined, saying I was over fifty, and carrying arthritis, and I would have failed the medical alone.
Yet another case manager was assigned to me. She was little older than the other one, and she had a funky name, but she was no less vacuous. After she discovered I was a mental health worker, our fortnightly interviews turned into therapy sessions for her, and no amount of protesting on my behalf about boundaries helped. When I failed to show for our appointment once, I was promptly punished by being placed into a group for mature women looking to move into the workforce after a period of significant absence, or, who hadn’t worked at all. Oh! I haven’t been absent!, I’ve been here all along, studying and working hard towards a new career, and one that I was told by the universities careers counsellor - was an excellent career choice for moving into mature age.
In that group we learned wacky and incredibly helpful techniques, on how to go out on your own and have coffee - module called -“you go girl!” I must have been seriously deficient in that area. We also learned grooming techniques and how to apply make- up (Were they trying to tell me something). Just what a girl needs! It was a completely soul destroying experience for an independent female, who is a left wing feminist, who never wears make up and has taught gender studies at university.
Things seem to be getting worse
After protesting about my chronic back and neck pain I was sent to Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services (CRS), who deal with people who have a disability. Funny that! Because according to the government, and the new disability tables introduced by Labor, it seems to indicate that I don’t have a disability.
Commonwealth is an interesting word isn’t it, because it seems to imply there is a ‘common’ ‘wealth’. I wonder where it is? Because it’s certainly not in my pocket or bank account. I digress though. Good, I thought, I’ll get the support I need; like physio and hydrotherapy.
I was first functionally assessed over the phone, by a Centrelink staff member who deemed me capable of working 15 hrs a week. I wanted to work, but needed support so that I could. Off to CRS I went, met a perky! woman who let me in on a secret. Apparently I shouldn’t have been referred to them, why I don’t know, she never explained and then we had a discussion about the current government's nasty policy of shifting people with disability on to Newstart. Thank you Jenny Macklin!
I had a lengthy interview and filled out another employment plan and was introduced to another case manager. I was offered a gym membership. I declined. I don’t need that, nor was it useful, but I do need funds for a physio and hydrotherapy - money I don’t have. So the months rolled on.
Fortnightly interviews, discussing my barriers to employment continued, and so did yet another case manager. She looked pale and disinterested, pregnant apparently. I wasn’t, but I did look it. I was forced to learn how to write a resume, I protested but it was of no use. In the end, she made three pages of my resume into two for me, but failed to send it to me in an email as an attachment, as promised.
Not at all deterred by my situation, I quickly set about researching about teaching in a community college. Surely! I could do that. I designed my lesson plans and sent off my proposal. I was met with enthusiasm by the college course co-ordinator and she was keen to get me started ASAP. I didn’t tell her I was on Newstart, nor did I tell her about my arthritis.
Being buoyed by my new prospective employer, I told CRS about my new employment adventure. No! said my case manager, you have to find work that is at least 15 hrs a week. But this might build up to 15 hrs a week, said I. It was a no go. “What exactly are you doing to support me,” I said. “I've done everything myself, you won’t give me access to a physio”; apparently CRS, at least the one I went to did, think it’s passive therapy and not appropriate for arthritis, even though it’s recommended by every GP and arthritis foundation alive! But you’re keen to give me a gym membership! Are you f**king serious!
I now have a very angry community course co-ordinator who was expecting me to start work in their coming summer sessions. CRS have effectively given me a bad reputation and any future work with this college seems unlikely. Job Service Provider, Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service provider NOT!
I dragged my tired sore and aching body home and thought of yet another plan. My local Neighbourhood Centre might need some volunteers. Let’s get me out of house and back into society. I did some research on the internet, found a great community art project that would sit nicely with the trendy inner city neighbourhoods in my local Municipal Council. I found most of the essential materials online free, and the Neighbourhood Centre art project officer told me that funds were available to purchase the other cheap items. I was feeling good about myself indeed!
Surely! This would be my renaissance or even turn into an encore career, something that I had been reading about in the media, all those perky middle class, middle aged, baby-boomer silver foxes happily transitioning into new chapters of their lives. But my career hasn’t even got off the ground in the first place, so technically it can’t be an encore.
“I don’t think they’ll like it”… said my case manager….“who won’t like it”!... I said… “my supervisor”…. she spat out…. “I’ll check, but I don’t think your eligible for voluntary work” (WTF!!). By the time I had returned home I received an email advising me that I was not eligible to do the voluntary work, but there was nothing to stop me from doing it on weekends, or of a night. Service was not open at those hours.
Mary Mother of God Make it Stop!
Depression had now sunk in. I had gained around 13 kilos, at some point I stopped showering for a couple of days each week, why bother, you’re not going anywhere and being outside amongst people was beginning to irritate me, on top of chronic pain and dizziness. So I only went when I absolutely had too.
I now have baby fat without the baby and my professional clothes no longer fit. In a panic I bought a bunch of second hand clothes that were way too big for me, unflattering, but they felt good, cause they were baggy. They made me look fatter and daggier than I actually was, but they were incredibly comfortable and when you’re carrying around a lot of pain and stiffness every day, trust me, comfort over style becomes the priority.
I frightened myself one day when I noticed I was beginning to smell from not bathing. I promptly got myself a psychologist to help me. Fancy that! - a mental health worker needs another mental health worker - to deal with Centrelink and JSP’s. But I’m grateful I could get this bulk billed and not have to pay for it.
Twelve months on from being with CRS and I had been given absolutely nothing in the way of support. They kept telling me they were putting together a case for Centrelink. How long does it take for gods sake! I had a hissy fit and was given a mesh back support.
My young, ineffective, and naive case manager made belligerent comments when handing over, what was essentially something that probably costs between; $40-$60. Fed up!, I took out the last of my savings and paid for my own physiotherapist.
A stretching and strengthening routine was something that I had always done every day, from seeing a physiotherapist years before. I was keen and motivated and quickly implemented his prescription exercises hoping for some miracle. Each time you fail to attend your fortnightly useless meetings with your case manager, you need a medical certificate. Trying to get a medical certificate - from your long term doctor, who doesn’t work every day - and is so popular you have to book in weeks in advance, isn’t possible.
I can’t predict when I’m going to be sick, and some days my pain is better than others. Other doctors in the practice who haven’t seen you in the last three months, won’t issue you with a medical certificate, and so you have to book in with them and wait.
All of the GPs I spoke to, including my physio did not understand the rules and laws of Centrelink and Job Service Providers. The more assertive you are with them, the more they appear to think you’re trying to rip off the government.
Who in their right mind, would spend over a decade at university overcoming numerous obstacles, and then decide that disability is a preferred option, to reasonable and meaningful work.
I found a free pain management clinic - but the reality is that it only served to make me suck eggs. I tried Tai Chi, but couldn’t hold my arms above my body long enough to do ‘Wax on Wax off’, or, was it ‘Clouds in the Air’? I don’t know something like that.
Look out! I’m Breaching!
Isn’t that something related to birthing and an activity that whales do? Apparently not! I don’t know why the JSP’s talk about activity tests and employment pathways plans. The system that comprises Centrelink and its associated Job Network Providers runs essentially like the probation and parole service. Criminals are heavily supervised, must meet weekly or fortnightly with their officers, and can easily breach their probation and parole orders if they do not comply with their conditions.
That is exactly how the unemployed are treated. Except the unemployed haven’t committed any crime, but nonetheless we are given a harsh sentence. Perhaps being long term unemployed, or, a recidivist like me, is against the law. I must have missed that part of the Social Security or Criminal Law in my - over a decades’ worth of tertiary education. How facetious of me!
I complained to my case manager about how much pain I was in. “Couldn’t we do these interviews over the phone when I am in so much pain,” I protested. “No you can’t!” - was the retort back. It was churlish! of me to even think that is was a possibility. I, apparently, and my ilk, cost Centrelink a lot of money. But the reality is that I have been trained to work within a government department and if they did give me a job they would be paying me a (sh*t!) load more money than they pay me now. But I should be grateful for small mercies.
I rang the Department of Employment, Education and Work Place Relations (DEEWR) - why do they have such long names? - to complain and spoke to an understanding woman, but she had no advice for me to go forward. Another friend suggested I retire early, on what?!! Well on $35.00 a day of course.
Tough T*ties! and Misplaced Gumption!
Fed up, frustrated and beaten, I refused to show up for my interview and the next one after that. So that means I’m breaching my mutual obligations, which is funny, cause I don’t remember agreeing to the mutual bit. You get endless text messages and bits of paper in the mail informing you of your oooooutraaaaageous! behaviour and what you immediately need to do. If you don’t contact them within the required amount of time everything stops. No more health care card, no more transport card, no more money. Everything comes to a screaming halt.
Before that though, I rang CRS to explain that I wanted out and was moving to a new JSP, someone closer to home. This was back in June 2013. I had a final interview with my case worker who brought along her manager, for moral support I think, or maybe she just wanted to hide behind her.
I was at all times cordial with the service, but assertive women are always seen in a bad light. She took the words right out of my mouth when she said, “this is nothing personal." I agreed. I simply felt the service wasn’t meeting my needs. The manager was wincing and holding her chest. I thought she must have had indigestion but she gesticulated towards her breasts and said Off! I quickly scoured my memory to see if I had remembered to shower that day and she wasn’t talking about some offensive odour about my person. Not to make light of women who have had double mastectomies though. She was a plucky and feisty woman sans breasts.
Extracting oneself from one JSP to another is no quick business. They don’t let you go lightly and regale you with horror stories about future punishments and inevitable disappointments. I persevered though.
But before I could sign my release forms and experience that sweet!, sweet! taste of freedom, we had to go over those pesky barriers to my unemployment. I mentioned my arthritis, my age, government policies that have reduced funding to my professional area of expertise and other important barriers. Manager sans breasts, barked at me, “I’ve got arthritis, everyone over a certain age has arthritis.” “No, but see,” I protested, “Mine started quite early and well I have a lot of it according to my GP, and I require physio and hydrotherapy to help me. It’s progressive, it won’t get any better, it’s only going to get worse." She kept interrupting, I could swear I saw her roll her eyes, but then that might have been the pain she was in. “How much exercise do you do,” she barked.
By this stage I was reduced to a simpering, mumbling female. I said, "Not much at the moment, but of course I’d forgotten about my prescription exercises from my physiotherapist, and my brisk five minute walks I do in stages. I do them pretty much without fail."
“Well there you go”, she interrupted. “Look let’s face it, your gumption is misplaced." (I didn’t know I’d lost it) "And, you're fat."
“You need to get out and do a bit of exercise and loose a bit of weight. It’ll work wonders for you” … and on and on she went. Maybe, I thought, I should have my t*ts lobbed off like she did, after all, they had become rather engorged with those fatty deposits, being as I was so fat and all from sitting around twiddling my thumbs all day long. All that nasty back fat's unsightly too! and I could save on bra’s to boot!
Limbo is Not a Game
I am not considered disabled enough by the government for the disability pension, thanks to the previous Labor government’s policy, and Jenny Macklin’s new ‘you beaut’ improved disability tables. I don’t want disability for the rest of my life.
What I do need and want is enough money to be able to support myself and my disability until I get gainfully employed. And I want this for any Australian who has to rely totally on Newstart and Job Network Providers to survive. And yet, without the necessary financial supports, working again seems to becoming a distant memory for me. That left me with living on what meagre savings I had, spending my days with my early morning exercise routine, taking care of my gorgeous rescue cat, tidying this tip of a flat, and the occasional outing with a friend.
When life throws you lemons - make Lemonade! Or, so they say. I however, don’t seem to have the right recipe or the right lemons, cause I just wind up with sour juice.
Special thanks, to Monica for writing this piece, and allowing it to be published on 50 Shades of Unemployment.
Also by Monica
The Seven Signs of Ageing, and Exemptions from Mutual Obligations