Personal Stories of America at Work
The Hopeful Job Seeker
Former claims rep Bonnie Edwards comes to terms with a job loss and strives to start over
“As a Human Resources executive for over twenty years, I have seen my fair share of resumes. Sometimes we get so caught up in ‘key word matches’ and ‘job fit’ that we forget each and every resume represents a real person out there with hopes and desires for a happy and productive life. Bonnie’s story helped me remember this. She started in the automobile insurance industry right out of college and after twenty-two years at the same company was fired from her job. She is actively seeking new employment and, in our conversation, describes feeling grateful, at peace, and more hopeful about the future. At her request, we’ve used a pseudonym.”
– Chronicler Sherry Jordana
I’ve got the perfect job for you
I graduated from Rutgers University in 1987 with a Bachelor’s in Sociology and intended to go into social work. But I would have had to work over a year without health care benefits, and since I was just out college and really needed health benefits, I decided not to pursue social work. I ended up going to an employment agency. The agency person went through her files and told me, “I’ve got the perfect job for you!” It was with an insurance company looking to hire college graduates for automobile claims representative positions. When she told me the annual salary was $22,000—for me, pretty good money for a recent college graduate back in 1987—I decided to give it a try.
The first thing I learned as a claims representative was that the state of New Jersey has a lot of automobile insurance claims. It’s within a large metropolitan area, so New Jersey not only has traffic from the people who live there, but also a lot of through traffic from outside the state. Lots of traffic can mean lots of accidents, and that means plenty of claims. As soon as I’d hang up the phone at work it would ring again, so I would never get a chance to write up anything. Sometimes my colleagues and I would stay until ten o’clock at night or work on Saturdays to catch up. We used to laugh whenever we added up all the hours we actually worked; compared to our salaries, it always seemed as if we were only earning just pennies an hour!
That’s why they call it an “accident”
Even so, the part of my work I really loved was helping people in a crisis. People think they know what to do if they have an accident. Everyone thinks, “I can handle this,” but when accidents really happen, all your common sense goes out the door. Someone will call from an accident scene and exclaim, “I’ve just had an accident! What am I supposed to do? I don’t have a car! I’m bleeding from my head!” Or they might call very distressed and say, “I don’t know what to do! How did this happen? This is the first time it’s ever happened to me!” There are so many emotions involved. A car is so much a part of most people’s livelihood that when it gets damaged, it’s understandable the first reaction would be, “How am I going to get my son to school? How am I going to get to work? How am I going to get anywhere?” Being able to calm a person down by saying, “You have the coverage. That’s what it’s there for. That’s why they call it an ‘accident,’” and knowing I helped someone feel better was my main source of satisfaction.
Should I miss the meeting at work or my son’s school play?
One of my other joys was the friendships I made. Because employees tended to stay with our company and not leave, my colleagues at work became like a big family over the years. Most of us at work were the same age, just getting out of college, with no families. All of us were single, hanging out together, making good money, getting sports cars, and having the time of our lives. Then people started getting married and having children.
My husband and I had fun for about five years before we even thought about having a family. There we were, two college graduates with no children and no responsibilities, doing whatever—we were having a ball! We just laugh when we remember how much money we used to waste. Like picking up and going to the Bahamas on a moment’s notice, or spending $150 on a dinner and a show in New York. But you can’t trade memories like that for anything, so we’re happy to remember we had a good time.
After we started our family however, the emotional aspect of watching our baby grow up so fast was sometimes overwhelming. Before we knew it, our child was in nursery school, then kindergarten, and soon, we would feel upset because we’d have to make a choice whether to go to a meeting at work or miss our son’s school play. I spent the first two years of my son’s life crying every time I had to pack away clothes he had outgrown. I would have loved to stay home with him full time, but it was just impossible with the cost of living in New Jersey. And as far as my career, I was not interested in a management position. The salary jump was really good, but to me it wasn’t worth it.
The Clean-Up Man
Over time, our company changed its philosophy about customer service to stay competitive. Before, there had always been time for special attention to each customer. Later, importance was placed on convenience. Customers wanted to file accident claims on the computer. There was no need to even talk to anyone. People stopped caring that you were contacting them the night after the accident to find out if they had any questions or to see if they were OK. They didn’t have time for it anymore. And Management didn’t care either. The emphasis was all on the numbers. Instead of, “How did Mr. Jones feel about the way you handled it?” the corporate attitude became, “OK, let’s see how many claims you can handle. Just close them out and get rid of them.” Everything—even communication—had become almost entirely computerized and impersonal.
I was fired in August 2009. The company had been looking to get rid of higher-paid staff and workers who couldn’t produce as fast as other employees. Then a new executive came into our division. He was called “The Clean-Up Man.” He’d been with the company a long time and had a reputation for being a very mean person. The first two years he was there, he fired four to five people, which was unheard of. At our company, people never got fired.
The Clean-Up Man also did not believe in people being out sick. I had been trying to have another child and had lost twins. Then I lost another baby. It really affected me psychologically. I had accrued a lot of sick time, so even though I was out five months, I was getting full pay. I really believe The Clean-Up Man looked at who was in his department, then looked at my case and decided, “I’m going to get rid of her.” But how can you target someone who’s been able to do a job for twenty-one years and suddenly say they can’t do the job? It was absolutely horrible. I would come home crying every night, and I couldn’t sleep. Management tried their best to make me quit—they really did—but I wouldn’t do it. I know my direct supervisor felt bad, but she had no choice because I think her job was being threatened.
Looking at life differently
So here I am, without a job and thinking about a career change. I’m considering a certification program to become a paralegal or possibly a job in the medical industry reviewing medical reports. I ran into someone recently at the supermarket who told me there is a high demand for opticians. (She’s an optician herself.) She said, “Bonnie, you would not believe how many agencies come to recruit. There are so many people selling glasses, but there’s nobody there to examine your eyes.” It means I would have to go back to college for more courses. I just can’t imagine going back to school to take physics—I really can’t—but you got to do what you got to do.
One of the jobs I am applying for is a civil service job working with mentally challenged people, helping them live independently by learning things like grocery shopping, paying for things, and taking care of their clothes. I feel like I’ve been through so many things that I can help other people who really need help. The department has twenty-eight openings. I’ll just have to submit my application, cross my fingers, and hope I am one of the high scorers.
I’m looking at life differently these days. When you’ve been through what I have, you appreciate so many things that you didn’t before. My perspective is that things happen for a reason. I certainly feel more at peace not having to deal with such a stressful job. And I am really, really looking forward to getting into an occupation that is fulfilling. That is why I am leaning more toward social services again. It’s a good feeling when you walk away at the end of the day and can say, “I’ve helped somebody.” That’s how I want to make a difference.
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The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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