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Vestal: Unemployment’s toll conveyed in poignant video

Coeur d’Alene resident Shaun Schlager talks about the making of his documentary that details the hardships of being unemployed. (Kathy Plonka)
Coeur d’Alene resident Shaun Schlager talks about the making of his documentary that details the hardships of being unemployed. (Kathy Plonka)

Michelle Schlager had been through a few tough years with her husband, Shaun. He lost his job as a graphic designer in 2009 and has struggled to find work. The financial burden strained their marriage and left Shaun awash in self-doubt.

Still, it wasn’t until she interviewed him – as part of a project for his community college class – that she learned he’d spent some time contemplating the value of his life insurance policy. The financial value of his death.

“I never knew he felt that way,” she said.

It’s hard to count all the blows that joblessness has landed on Shaun Schlager, but they go way beyond the checkbook.

“A lot of times,” he said, “it’s hard to even look at Michelle. Because I’m the man. I’m supposed to provide for the family.”

Schlager, 35, has detailed his three-plus years of unemployment in a frank and forthright documentary he produced for his documentary video class at Spokane Falls Community College. He hasn’t been able to find a job in the fields he’s trained in: graphic design, photography or computer support. He also hasn’t been able to find a job in the fields he’s not trained in – a back injury limits his ability to do manual labor, but he’s applied for jobs all over Coeur d’Alene, where he lives, he said.

“Rejection letter after rejection letter – you just start losing your self-confidence,” he says in his video.

Schlager exhausted unemployment benefits more than a year ago. He’s part of the population that has waited a long time for the recovery to arrive: the long-term unemployed. Their ranks are growing, and their chances of finding work are worse than average, in part because of distrust on the part of some employers. Of all jobless Americans – at least those measured by the unemployment rate, which understates actual joblessness dramatically – about 44 percent have been out of work for six months or more. That’s about 6 million people.

Right now, the Schlagers face a day-to-day struggle to make ends meet and to keep up their spirits. After rent, they’ve got $100 a month. Michelle works at a local call center, and they’re both taking classes – with a combination of financial aid and student loans – in an effort to make a brighter future. Michelle sells plasma; Shaun can’t because he’s diabetic. Shaun takes lots of little temporary jobs, wherever he can. Mows lawns. Delivers flowers for a friend with a flower shop. Takes portraits.

“Whenever things get tough and I think, ‘How are we going to pay the rent?’ something would happen,” he said. “I’d get a side job.”

Shaun attended North Idaho College and studied graphic design. He and Michelle met online and got married in March 2008. Their son, Hunter, was born that July – about eight months before Shaun was laid off.

He was working at the time as a graphic designer for The Backup, which made training programs for law enforcement agencies. The company went out of business shortly after laying off Shaun; he expected an easy time finding another job. He thought he’d stay home with his young son for a while, bond and try to make the most of those precious early months.

When he began applying for jobs again, he was greeted with resounding silence. Often, he said, employers were explicit in their refusal to hire the unemployed; that’s why Schlager titled his documentary “Unemployed Need Not Apply.” In his fields, employers can hire freelancers or recent graduates – a 35-year-old man with experience and a family to support is not what they’re looking for.

And bottom-rung jobs are rare, too. There are more of them in Spokane than Coeur d’Alene, Schlager said, but an $8-an-hour part-time position in the Lilac City barely covers the cost of gas.

Schlager hopes to finish his associate’s degree and begin finding more work as a photographer – freelancing, part-time positions, whatever.

The financial strife put serious strain on the Schlagers’ marriage. As his job search dragged on, Shaun was becoming angrier and angrier; their arguments eventually prompted Michelle to move out with Hunter.

“There was just so much anger in our house,” she said. “It wasn’t a healthy environment for me or our son, Hunter, or for Shaun.”

The Schlagers started a marriage class through their church, Real Life Ministries. Michelle said that one of the most important lessons in the class was that couples need to pray together. She felt she needed to move back in so they could really work on the marriage; she now considers the brief break and their efforts to reconcile one of the best things that’s happened to their marriage.

When Shaun went to make his documentary, it was another moment of learning for the couple. Michelle interviewed Shaun, and she said a lot of his answers – like his depressed thoughts about life insurance – came as a shock.

“It was actually really difficult to do that,” she said. “While taping that, it was very hard for me to shut up and listen.”

Shaun is trying to stay hopeful and active. He takes whatever he can, here and there, to bring in some money, he said. But he also feels defeated. These days, if he gets a graphic design job, he looks at his work and thinks it’s lousy – though he’s won awards for his photography and graphic design.

“Michelle always talks about how my work is good,” he said. “People at school talk about how my work is amazing. But I don’t see that. The confidence I used to have isn’t there.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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