By Mike Hixenbaugh
Rocky Mount Telegram
Friday, February 27, 2009
She’s calling it the “perfect storm,” but there has been nothing ideal about the way fate has crushed down on Juneann Tesarz-Galbraith the past several months.
The New York native sat smoking in her Rocky Mount living room Thursday, surrounded by photos and artifacts of the one woman she has ever loved, her three small pets – the only loves she has left – and a couple of space heaters strung up along an orange extension chord, keeping them all warm.
Tesarz-Galbraith struggled to describe her reaction less than a month earlier when she watched through tears as medics carried her domestic partner, Pam, out of their home in a body bag. The 44-year-old has had an even more difficult time mourning the unexpected loss while at the same time searching for work and pleading with unemployment officials to extend her benefits.
Tesarz-Galbraith lost her job in August at West Corp. and since has been unable to find work.
Local unemployment has grown to more than 12 percent in recent weeks amid the national economic meltdown. And for Tesarz-Galbraith, the bills are starting to pile up.
“Having to go through the process of losing someone you love so suddenly; that process itself isn’t a great one to go through,” Tesarz-Galbraith said. “And then to go through not knowing whether you’re going to be indoors or if you’ll be able to eat … it’s too much.”
A smiling photo of Pam in a wedding gown is hung above the mantle in Tesarz-Galbraith’s rental home on Villa Street. The two committed to spending their lives together in a “holy union” three years ago, Tesarz-Galbraith said – a small, private ceremony between the two women and their pastor.
The marriage was in symbol only, though. In the wake of her partner’s death, Tesarz-Galbraith has been unable to file an insurance claim for the loss or accept Pam’s final Social Security check. Her already meager income was cut by more than half, she said.
And if there is one thing Tesarz-Galbraith has learned the last few months – even as she uses small heaters to avoid larger gas bills – it’s that bill collectors don’t offer discounts or extensions for grieving.
With rent and utilities, Tesarz-Galbraith’s monthly expenditures come to around $1,000 before accounting for food, she said. With the unemployment money she’ll receive for a little while longer, her monthly income is less than $900.
Tesarz-Galbraith becomes frazzled talking about her options, her job search and the prospect of being evicted and losing her three pets.
“I know that sounds really menial, considering,” Tesarz-Galbraith said. “But this dog, this cat and this guinea pig are all I have left as far as something I love. That’s it. And it might come down to a choice of having to let them go or eating.”
Tesarz-Galbraith has lobbied supervisors to rehire her at West Corp., where she said she was fired in the summer after returning late from break a few days in a row. She was suffering from a stomach virus, she said. Tesarz-Galbraith’s story was vindicated, at least in part, when an investigation from the unemployment office determined she had been let go for “reasons not related to job performance.”
The customer service outsourcing firm is hiring at its Rocky Mount location, according to the West Corp. company Web site, but Tesarz-Galbraith said her application has been refused. West Corp. officials did not return a Telegram call requesting comment.
A hearing impairment and a chronic knee ailment make Tesarz-Galbraith think she might be eligible to receive disability payments from the government. But she doesn’t want them, she said.
“Do you think at 44 I want to sit in the house and make a few hundred dollars a month and starve to death?” Tesarz-Galbraith said. “No, I would much rather be out in the working force, doing what I can do physically. I’d rather be out working with people and away from this house where all I have is time to think. That’s the last thing I need right now.
“I want to earn my way and keep my animals. I want to work. And at this point, I would work doing anything.”