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Unemployment Diary: The tie comes off, UPS brown comes on

This week, The Post's Theresa Vargas presents a series of stories about what unemployed people do now that they've lost the structure that a job lends daily life. Theresa asked about a dozen people who had recently lost their jobs to keep diaries detailing how they fill the suddenly empty hours in their days.

We'd like to continue building this portrait of how unemployment changes life by asking those of you who have lost work to give us a sense of the changing flow and tempo of your days and evenings. What do you do now that you haven't done in the past? What can you no longer do? How have your contacts with friends, family, colleagues changed? What's better, what's worse?

Give us the details on the comment boards below, or make an Unemployment Diary video of your own and post it to us via YouTube.

Meanwhile, we're posting here all week the full diaries of those people who helped us out with the reporting of Theresa's stories.


For the holiday season, Brian Breuhaus took a part-time job at UPS. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Diary of Brian Breuhaus, who was the number two editor at a newspaper in Korea before returning to the US to get a master's degree in international relations. He's been looking for a job for three months..

December 7

7:45 a.m. -- I'm the first one awake in my family.

Across the room, a poster of A-Rod clings to one wall. A dunking Kobe Bryant hangs on another. Thumbtacks hold up two Little League baseball certificates, for the Everett Aquasox.

This is my 11-year-old nephew's room. For the time being, he is sleeping in his brother's room. My family of four has taken over my nephew's bunk bed. We took down the top half and set it on the floor, making an “L” shape with the bottom half. My wife and I sleep on one bed; my 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter sleep on the other. Right now, I can reach over and touch their heads.

All four of us keep clothes in the one small closet. Almost everything else we own is in storage in Illinois. We didn't even bring winter clothes, because our stay here was supposed to be a short one.

In August, we moved out of our beautiful three-bedroom apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. I'd finished my master's degree in international relations and with its completion went the rights to student housing at the University of Chicago. My wife's sister and brother-in-law agreed to let us stay with them temporarily in their home just outside the city of Fairfax while I looked for work in this area.

Before graduate school, I was the No. 2 editor of an English-language newspaper in Seoul, South Korea. Before that, I worked for seven years as an editor at a New York daily newspaper, making about $90,000 a year. In April 2009, I thought I got the perfect job: I passed the final interview to join the Foreign Service. Unfortunately, my background check dragged on for seven months. The approval came in late November, but in the meantime, so many others were added to the list that I'm probably too low on the list to get pulled to start working.

So today I'll help a UPS driver deliver packages. It's seasonal, so I'm guaranteed – they promise! -- to be fired at the end of December. The job pays $10.50 an hour – but I can only get three or four hours a day of work. I bring home about $150 a week.

In a few months, I'll be 40 years old.

I go downstairs to read the paper. Within minutes, my 5-year-old is up and we are enmeshed in a game of “Sorry.” I feed the kids breakfast, leave them with my wife, get dressed and head to the library to hunt for jobs.

The other day, at church, I mentioned to someone that I'd applied for more than 100 jobs and only heard back from a couple of places. The man, an accountant, laughed. He said he applied for about 100 jobs every day.

I made the final 12 for an editing job at one news company, but more than 400 applied. When I did the phone interview, I noticed the interviewer hesitated when I told him I wasn't employed.

I applied for another job as an editor at a Web site. I got an initial positive response, and then was told that more than 700 applied.

Recently, I contacted one of my old newspapers. My former boss gave me a really enthusiastic response about coming back. He asked me to come see him the next day. Then, he sent another e-mail saying that the next day wouldn't work after all, but he'd contact me next week. He didn't. Then, he didn't answer my e-mails. I heard later that the newspaper had to make major cutbacks on top of ones they'd already made.

That's what happens, I guess, when the field you chose in eighth grade is dying.

I went to graduate school because I wanted to get into public service, particularly in international economic development. I've applied for lots of jobs there, but have no experience in the field. After my UPS job ends, I'm probably going to volunteer for World Vision, a Christian aid agency. I've read, however, that even agencies like that one have gotten a record number of volunteers.

The next step? Something that seemed unthinkable even a few months ago: an internship.

11 a.m. -- At the library, I apply to be a public health analyst intern for the global health fellows program.

1:30 p.m. -- After lunch, I head to work. The only UPS jacket available when I started was size 3XL. My size is more like a large, so I look like a giant M&M. I spot the man from across the street, a retired executive whose lawn is so well manicured it looks like a green carpet. He was really friendly with me, until I mentioned that I was unemployed. Then: awkward silence and a quick end to the conversation. That's happened a few other times, too, most recently with a reporter who used to intern for me. As I walk out the door of my sister-in-law's house, I hope the man across the street doesn't notice my brown uniform. I feel terrible later for thinking that.

I drive 30 minutes to work, put in a long three hours of hauling boxes, then drive another 30 minutes home. For this, I'll make $30.

6 p.m. I’m home. Have dinner. Check my e-mail and get a punch to the gut.

For the last week, I'd had high hopes for a job that seemed written just for me: a writer/editor with the State Department that required journalism experience and academic credentials in the field of international relations. A recruiter contacted me last week after seeing my resume, saying the State Department needed someone right away.

I stayed up late for two nights thinking about it.

I had e-mailed the recruiter to check in, and then received this response: “I received an email this morning that the client selected a candidate but, unfortunately, it was not one of the three I submitted ... I am disappointed because I really liked your resume.”

I went to bed early. 

December 8

5:30 a.m. I wake up early and don't know why. My first thought is the job that got away. The frustrating part is I didn't even get an interview. That’s been the case for the entire three months that I've been looking hard for a position. My safety net seems to be drying up. I always thought that with all the people I know in newspapers that I'd be able to land a job fairly easily somewhere. In fact, while living in Korea, several people contacted me to ask if I were interested in various positions. I wasn't ready to leave the country, so I didn't show interest. That was then.

I borrowed a book at the library about networking and followed the suggestions. I've reached out to the 10-15 people that I knew living in the D.C. area, and through them got in touch with friends of friends. One time, someone canceled an appointment when I was blocks away. Other times, e-mails haven't been returned or people just sent me their phone number in lieu of a meeting. I know I'm not supposed to let it affect me. It does.

The weird thing is I don't feel I'm unemployed. I haven't applied for unemployment benefits or even food stamps (though I'm eligible for them, I'm sure). As silly as it sounds, to me that seems like something an unemployed guy would do. And I don't feel like one of them – though I am.

I chose this route when I left my job in Korea to go to graduate school. Then, in April, when I passed the Foreign Service exam, I essentially stopped looking for a job. I was sure I'd be starting with the State Department in the early fall. My background check took much longer than expected.

Although I finished grad school in June, I didn't start looking hard for a job until September. That was definitely a mistake. I also thought my master's degree would make it easy to get a job. Another mistake. Sometimes I wonder if I should have gone to Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which is in the District and the only other school to which I had applied. I loved my education at Chicago, but SAIS is famous for its networking. I asked several career counselors at Chicago for a way to find graduates in this area. Their suggestion? Join a U Chicago group in “Linked In,” a business networking Web site.

Money wise, we are living on well less than $1,000 a month.

We allow ourselves to go out to eat once a week, after church. The Buffalo Wild Wings Factory restaurant in Reston has a $1.99 kids special on Sundays, so the four of us can eat for a little over $20.

A friend of mine recently gave me a book as a thank you gift for helping him move. I returned it, and bought a coupon book instead.

We also avoid the doctor at all costs. We have temporary insurance, at a cost of about $270 a month, but there is a $1,000 deductible. That means we'd have to pay in full for any initial doctor visits. We can't really have friends over to our house – because it isn't ours. We've always loved having parties and hosting events.

8 a.m. I drive my sister-in-law to the airport. She is flying to Korea for nine days, joining her husband, who is there on a business trip. She's leaving her kids, ages 13, 11 and 9, for the first time in her life. Suddenly, we'll be taking care of a family of five.

7 p.m. My legs are aching from delivering packages, but we finished ahead of the rain --- which is just starting now. Each day, my driver Nate Milam and I deliver close to 500 packages. Nate is more than halfway through his day when I start, but it's still a lot of pounding up and down stairs to apartment buildings. I work up a sweat after my third straight fourth-floor apartment. It's a lot of exercise, but very little pay and no benefits. The reason I'm hired, I suspect, is to cut down on overtime for the driver, who does make good money. So, UPS actually saves money by hiring me.

Our route is circuitous; the same buildings every day. Nate has driven the route for 19 years and is a friendly guy. Everyone likes him. As for me, I notice that I get treated a little differently in my brown uniform than when I wear a tie. For one thing, people tend to be friendlier overall – especially the other guys wearing uniforms, like the water delivery person. I think I'm friendlier, too. Sometimes, women are even a little bit flirtatious, which surprises me. I notice the flip side, too. Sometimes, people look right through me as if I weren't there. Barely a nod when I hold the door open for them, for example. If I was wearing a tie, rather than a brown outfit, I'm sure the reaction would be different.

Delivering for UPS makes you much more conscious of the weather. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, we had a huge load of packages to deliver during a chilling rainstorm. One customer asked us to track down some delivery slips for him because he didn't want to go through the hassle of setting up an account on the computer with UPS.

Although Nate is not allowed to carry those slips on his truck, and it's not his job to provide them, we went to eight different places to track down the slips the customer requested. When we finally made another special trip to drop off the slips, the customer asked us to wait five minutes while he filled them out. We sat in the driving rain for more than 20 minutes. I told the customer what efforts we made. The man just nodded, uninterested. I fumed; Nate just laughed.

But today, the customer asked us to do it all again. This time, Nate said no, in a nice way. The customer set up an account.

December 9

7 a.m. I'm glad the rain has stopped. It's not fun when you're delivering packages.

My son wakes up at the same time as me. He immediately wants to play board games. Right now, he's in a stage where he adulates me and wants to do things with me all the time. Being unemployed is great for that! I'm thankful for the time I've had with my kids and my wife, especially after studying around the clock at the University of Chicago. However, as a role model for my kids, I hope my unemployment doesn't drag on too long.

10 a.m. Time to scroll through the Web sites that list jobs. I found my UPS job on After applying for more than 100 positions– including some that seemed perfect -- I've only gotten one phone interview and two or three requests for writing samples. Other than that, nothing. I can spend 45 minutes working on an application, and it feels like it just vanishes into the ethernet. That part is discouraging, and I can see how job seekers sometimes just give up, though I know the thing to do is just keep applying. I've even applied at more than a dozen temporary agencies, in Chicago, Washington and New York. Not one response.

10:30 a.m. Trip to Costco. We don't buy steak as often, but we still buy most of the same food as before. Costco is almost always the cheapest place, though.

8:15 p.m. I haven't been this tired in a long time. When I started with Nate at 2 p.m. today, he started saying “keep moving, keep moving, keep moving” almost as soon as I got in the truck. Nate was behind on his deliveries because he had to wait more than 30 minutes to get started in the morning because the airmail delivery was late. Plus, he had an urgent next-day delivery that had to be made by 3 p.m. So, we raced. At one point, we hauled 10 boxes of paper, each weighing 50 pounds, into a church office. We threw the boxes around like Frisbees and made the delivery in minutes. When we finally got to the spot of the urgent delivery, at 2:52 p.m., the woman who got the envelope then just shrugged and said it was nothing important. A half hour later, I carried a heavy computer desk up the stairs to the fourth floor of an apartment building. I was panting like a dog on a hot summer day. As I told Nate, I'm not used to this kind of labor. Soon after, I hit a wall and just had no energy for the last hour of the shift. I did my work, but it was really tough.

Still, I feel lucky. So many others are in worse shape than me and I'm at peace with how things are going right now. I know that I'll find something, and believe it will happen soon. I'm thankful that we have a roof over our head, plus a family that has welcomed us in and even seems to enjoy having us in their home. My wife is wonderful and she and the kids are healthy. This time of unemployment has given me more time with my kids and my faith in God has even grown. The experience has been humbling, but I think that's a good thing. Plus, I have lots of hope for the future – whatever it holds.

By Theresa Vargas  | December 22, 2009; 6:04 AM ET
Categories:  Diaries, More on the story  
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