The Face of Unemployment

Tara Bassett, Casey Turner and Janice Pullen vary in so many respects but they share a serious commonality: They are among the thousands of people who are facing unemployment.
Photo By CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune

Contributing Writer

Janice Pullen, 54, moved back to Louisville in 2007 to be closer to her family.

But not this close.

“I live with my sister. The expectation wasn’t that I was going to be here as long as I have. I’m treading,” said Pullen, 54, who has been out of work for nearly five years. “Having your own space is necessary for grown people. I feel like I’m moving backwards instead of forward.”

Widespread unemployment and the ego blow its dealt millions of Americans has been reality for so long that we’ve just grown to accept it as the new normal. As of December 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9 percent of Louisville’s workforce in unemployed; that’s more than 33,000 folks.

It’s likely you see the faces of unemployment every day without even noticing. They don’t have a typical profile or can’t-miss identifying characteristic.

They’re from every strata of society, age and profession. Some are just a few years out of college, others are mid-career, and still others would be approaching retirement under different circumstances.

Pullen is a 23-year Air Force veteran whose last full time job was as a clerk in Virginia. A Louisville native with family still in the River City, Pullen wanted to move nearer to her relatives. In 2007, she quit her clerk job to take a position in Louisville’s healthcare industry.

The job did not work out, and Pullen soon made her way to Louisville’s Office of Employment and Training. The sole paid work Pullen has held since 2007 was a six-week stint at Zappos warehouse.

In her spare time, Pullen tries to keep her spirits up by journaling, reading, crocheting and volunteering. Pullen hit a wall during the depressing job-hunting process and felt there was no point in looking anymore.

“I was disenchanted, disenfranchised and I had to stop,” she said. “I just can’t stay in this mode. I need to go forward.”

Steve Squall, 28, was in the process of launching his personal and professional life when his graphic designer position at Café Press was eliminated last July.

“I thought I was starting a career and then I end up right back at square one,” said Squall, who lives in the University of Louisville area with his fiancée. “I had just proposed to my girlfriend the previous year, then I’m sitting there going (yikes), we’ve got a wedding to pay for and I have no future security.”

After a couple months of fruitless job searching, he changed his strategy.

With a well-employed fiancée, unemployment insurance, and some savings of his own, he wasn’t facing imminent destitution.

“In a way, I’ve sort of been given an opportunity, so I thought, why don’t I just take this time that I have and see if I can make a dream come true?” Squall said.

He’s been focusing on fashion photography, and has even won an LGDA 100 Award from the Louisville Graphic Design Association for a surreal series of images depicting a high fashion wood nymph.

Squall is also using his talents for freelance product photography, and promoting “Tribe,” an up and coming local T-shirt company.

“Any day I get to shoot I’m like ‘man, this is great,’” Squall said. “There are times when I have five or six shoots in a week.”

Still, it’s a labor of love, and Squall has his moments of doubt.

“I feel like I’ve made some good strides toward building a career, but I haven’t had that much success making money off of it,” he said. “You have those days, where you’re like, I’m not sure if this is going anywhere.”

In Kentucky, people who qualify can collect up to $415 a week in unemployment insurance, depending on how much they made at their previous job.

If someone receiving benefits does any work for which they are compensated, 80 percent of the profit is excised from their weekly amount. For instance, if one does an odd job or contract work and gets $100, they end up with $20 on top of their weekly benefits.

But a large portion of the unemployed masses, including career contract worker Tara Bassett, don’t even qualify for unemployment insurance.

The seasoned local TV personality, whose last paying job as co-host of WBKI’s “Louisville Live” ended last August, used to work up to five freelance TV jobs simultaneously.

“It’s definitely become more of a challenge, “ she said “…so I’ve had to become innovative.”

Bassett owns her own home in Crescent Hill, and said she lives a very low-maintenance lifestyle that has allowed her to accumulate some savings. So she had some wiggle room after losing her WBKI gig.

“I determined I was going to make the most of not working for the first time in my life,” said Bassett. In the months following, she was able to dedicate her energy to caring for her dog, who was hit by a car shortly after Bassett lost her job.

She’s also keeping her face out there on MetroTV, where she’s been keeping close tabs on the progress of Metro Animal Services.

“It’s free work,” she said. ”I feel very positive about it.”

Not everyone adjusts to the unemployed life as smoothly.

Navy veteran Casey Turner, 55, has an extensive and varied career history. He’s managed distilleries and buildings, bartended and much more. But for the past seven years, he’s been chronically un- or underemployed.

“It’s been absolute desperation,” said Turner, a Navy veteran. “I ended up losing a relationship, losing a home and I started drinking a lot.”

In the thick of a long losing streak, he became so ravaged by alcohol and depression that he collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital. Months of rigorous rehabilitation followed, and he broke out of his nihilistic funk.

“I had no choice,” he said. “I would have been a dead man.”

Since then, Turner has picked up seasonal work as a cameraman for Churchill Downs, and as a groundskeeper for Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, which has helped enhance his self esteem.

“I found that very honorable,” he said. “People who came to pay homage to their relatives come up to us and tell us how great the place looks.”

He’s also pursuing a business degree, teaching a class of recovering addicts. Turner has also found healing in spoken word and performance art, and is helping to organize a May show at the Alley Theatre where people who have dealt with addiction can express themselves in any way they choose, from hula hooping to stand-up comedy.

No matter what their particular predicament, those who have found themselves struggling to support themselves need to power on and remember their true worth.

Kyle Shepherd, 38, former Media Liaison for Actors Theatre of Louisville, was unemployed for a year and a half before landing a dream job as Media Relations Manager for The Louisville Zoo.

“Unemployment messes with your head a bit. It makes you question your abilities and, to some extent, your purpose,” Shepherd said. “Society defines us by what we spend our days doing and can make you feel less or more about yourself based on what you do for a living. In reality we are more defined by how we treat one another. That was my biggest lesson.”