Up until this point, I was always quick to tell people that I was lucky, really. I held a bachelor’s degree in Communication, but I still had health insurance, which was paying for my therapy. I mean, really, I was beating the odds. I had a traditional entry-level position as the secretary of an engineering firm and I had a good relationship with my direct boss and my coworkers. I was the guy in charge of keeping the office fridge stocked, but I was also directly working to rebrand the company and make marketing materials.
I’d like to think if the company were actively involved in an ethical industry, I might have made the effort to stay, despite what I came to realize after the traffic ticket.
If you factored out the unhealthiness of my personal relationships with my undergrad friends, I was doing everything well, by-the-book. I was making progress on student loans and credit card debt. I had enough money for drinks and food, and even though I needed to learn how to cook more and eat out less, I felt like I would soon be getting a raise, and maybe then I wouldn’t have to worry about it. Southwest Virginia has a very comfortable cost-of-living compared to where I am today.
Then I was hit with $900 in unexpected expenses the summer of 2012. And suddenly, it was like I hadn’t made any progress at all.
I started thinking about what I was really making. My salary was $24,000 a year. I was expected to work a minimum of 40 hours a week. That’s 2,080 hours in a year. Before payroll taxes, I was making $11 an hour. But after taxes, I was making something like $9. And things had reached a point where I was juggling several different responsibilities at work. A more business-oriented guy committed to time-management strategies could have made it all work in 35 hours a week and still had time left over to tweet at his friends. But I would’ve had to stay more hours and my boss implied that this would be the only way to see a promotion or a raise in the near future.
There are a lot of angles to this traditional story of an employee feeling undervalued. For one thing, I had a generous benefits package — it’s just that I barely used it. I only ever used my insurance during my last four months of employment so I could start seeing a therapist. I never went to a doctor for a primary check-up, nor did I use the dental benefits. Inexplicably to me, I also had a life insurance package that would pay my family upon my death, except that I wasn’t providing for my family – I was trying to get out of debt. Given the option, I would’ve gone with a higher salary and a health insurance package that just covered me in the event of a catastrophic medical event.
And, I mean, I definitely would have felt like I was being generously paid if I didn’t feel saddled by the $35,000 in debt I’d incurred over the course of being a student. But, as it was, I was seeing a good portion of my paycheck swallowed up by loan and credit card expenses – some of which I had to take on to go to school and others of which were a result of drunk nights downtown with an open tab.
The point is, all of this led up to a point where I was haggling with an airline representative about a $20 baggage fee that I couldn’t afford, minutes before boarding a flight to Roanoke.
And I’m one of the lucky ones.
The day of my flight, I woke up before 6 and made my way back to the Strip, so I could pick up the suitcase I had left at Mandalay Bay. I took a cab to the airport, which left me with less than $5 in my bank account. My boss greeted me in the lobby and saw me wearing the same clothes I’d left with on Friday. She could also probably tell that I was running off 3 hours of sleep.
When I told her about my plan to haggle for the baggage fee, she fished in her wallet and took out a twenty-dollar bill. I stammered that it shouldn’t be necessary, but she insisted and told me she’d wait for me in the terminal. I walked up to the customer servie desk and asked to see a supervisor.
About 15 minutes later, I went up to the terminals and saw her near the Starbucks, holding a coffee. I gave her back the twenty-dollar bill. “Thank you,” I said. She asked if I was sure I didn’t want it. I said I didn’t.
That’s how I ended up going to Las Vegas with The Company and coming back broke without having gambled more than $20 on slots.
I turned in my resignation a few weeks later.
Three nights before my scheduled last day, I sent my boss a text through drunken tears. “I’m sorry,” it said. I never went back to work. Instead, I found myself driving to Tennessee, hungover and afraid.
I haven’t seen her since.