Long-term unemployed suffer shaky re-employment

Lori Barkley Struckman's path to steady work after long-term unemployment was bumpy. But after 26 months she's working full-time again and can help pay for her daughter's nuptials. Struckman is in charge of keeping the dress until the big day.

Even though the economy is improving, there are still about 3 million Americans who have been out of work for six months or more. Plus, research indicates that the longer they are out, the tougher it will be for them to get back into the workforce. Making matters worse: when they do find work, it often doesn't last.

Lori Barkley Struckman knows what that's like. At the end of 2011, she lost her job as an office administrator. For the next two years, she bounced around jobs that were temporary or part-time.

"I had five different jobs. But nothing full-time," she says.

Struckman finally landed a full-time position as an office administrator at a Twin Cities law firm earlier this year. Her rocky road to recovery would not surprise researchers like Alan Krueger, a professor of economics at Princeton University and former White House chief economist.

"The long-term unemployed, when they do find work, it's often inconsistent, it's often part-time, they often find a job that doesn't last very long," says Krueger.

Krueger and fellow researchers looked at government surveys of Americans who said they'd been out of work for six months or longer at some point between 2008 and 2012. When those individuals were surveyed again more than a year later, only 36 percent had landed work. Of that group, only 11 percent had steady, full-time jobs.

Krueger says a lot of these folks end up suffering the same setbacks, and unsteady employment, as new workers.

"If you look at workers just starting out, a lot of the jobs they find don't work out, they're transitory, it's a mismatch," he says. "They don't get along with the employer or their skills aren't right for the job."

And sometimes the stress of  having been out of the workforce for a long time persists, making it hard to hold onto a new job. 

"There's a lot of spiralling of all sorts of things, trouble with the children, trouble with finances, which affects every piece of your life. Do you still have health insurance? Were you able to keep your house? All those things are so stressful; you're just treading water," says Mary White, a job counselor with a nonprofit called HIRED in St. Paul.

Lori Barkley Struckman is familiar with some of those stresses. A layoff she suffered a decade ago, well before her more recent jobless spell, coincided with her divorce. When she returned to work back then, she was easily distracted.

"You're still thinking about all the other turmoil that's going on in your life. It's hard for you to concentrate. So that is a real task to just make yourself go, 'Okay you're here to work. Give it up,'" she says.

Faced with poor job prospects or additional layoffs, many long-term unemployed give up looking for work. Krueger's collaborator, Judd Cramer, a doctoral student in economics at Princeton University, says the expiration of extended unemployment benefits has contributed to that trend.

"We've seen the rate at which the long-term unemployed have exited the labor market has risen," Cramer says. 

About the author

Annie Baxter is a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.

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