Can't find work? Try looking for cash.

Michael sits at his computer looking for ways to earn cash.


TESS VIGELAND: Do you know someone out of work? Based on the unemployment rate, there's a good chance you do. In some parts of the country, it's well over 10 percent. Millions of those who are out of work collect unemployment benefits. Ask them if it covers all their bills, and you'll likely get an emphatic "no." That's why some are getting a bit enterprising, looking for work that pays in cold hard cash.

Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: Michael used to test software for a living. He's 35 and lives in Seattle. Last year, a longstanding contract ended. He couldn't find a new job, but he qualified for unemployment.

Michael: I'm getting $272 a week. Which is just, bare bones. It's so bad that at one time I was going to the food bank. And, you know when you're really hungry and when you're facing eviction, you've got to do something.

So he started looking for work on the side. He found it pretty quickly.

Michael: So right now I have Craigslist open. And what I've done is I've opened three different tabs: I've opened free stuff, all gigs and all jobs.

He's found all sorts of work this way: software testing, landscaping, bouncing and lots of focus groups. All have paid cash. He says some weeks he's earned three times as much as his benefits check. Like everyone on unemployment, he's meant to report any earnings to his unemployment insurance office. Then they adjust his benefits down. So how does Michael answer the question, have you earned any money this week?

Michael: I opt to say, you know, no. I opt to say no, I have not. Because this is my own hard work, this is my own ingenuity, this is my own genius, and I am still looking for work every day.

He doesn't see it as fraud. He says the money keeps him fed, housed and able to continue looking for full time work. After rent, unemployment would leave him $47 a week for food and bills.

Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University. He studies the underground economy and the attitudes of those who work within it.

Sudhir Venkatesh: Morality is a very fluid part of one's life when they're economically vulnerable. We know this by studying the poor. That if it's a choice between being moral and putting food on your table to feed your children, you'll see that poor people are desperate, and they do what they need to do to survive.

I spoke to Venkatesh at a Starbucks in Manhattan. He says a lot people with unconventional work arrangements hang out in coffee shops, which makes them a great place to do research. He says all kinds of employers are prepared to pay people under the table.

Venkatesh: I was in a cafe a little while ago where I met somebody who was working in a cafeteria for a major law firm, and she was laid off. And she was re-hired as a cook, which she was doing before. And the way she was paid was that she was given money from petty cash. The law firm also allowed her to use an apartment that they had, because she couldn't pay her rent.

He says many companies hit by the downturn need clean offices and security guards, but feel they can no longer afford the expense of an official work force. So they lay off workers and re-hire them off the books, paying less than what the workers earned before.

He says about a third of the people he talks to in cafes are drawing unemployment and working for cash on the side.

Venkatesh: What differentiates this economic climate from previous ones is that the people that are doing that may not return to a full time job, and there may not be a prospect of a full time job that's waiting them. Because we're seeing that the quote-unquote "economic recovery" is not bringing job growth.

Michael: Hey Alexander, how ya doing buddy? What's going on?

Alexander the cat: Meow.

Across the country in Seattle, Michael's got a lot of time to play with his cat Alexander.
It's been almost a year and Michael's unemployment is about to run out. He's applying for an extension.

Michael: I never thought that I would be on the edge like this. And a year is longer than I ever thought -- in this kind of like technological utopia that we live here, here in Seattle, that I'd be out of work.

Recruiters do call. Michael's had 10 interviews this year but none of them have gone anywhere. He's thinking about signing up for a malaria study. It would pay $8,000, but he's not sure it's worth the risk of getting sick even for that kind of money. He'll keep combing the Internet for whatever work he can find -- as long as it pays cash.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.

Log in to post10 Comments

Is it really immoral to withhold taxes from a government that spends it so irresponsibly? While we're out scraping for a living, our elected officials are riding private jets and sending their kids to college tuition-free. Is $14 trillion in debt not enough?

i need to find a job under the table in pittsfield 01201, any help

I know alot of small business owners that exchange services with each other for cash. I honestly belies that we are on a precipice. If our economic policies continue to push more people into unemployment we will see a great rise in the black market which once entrenched will become normalized and then good luck moralizing a need for anyone to pay taxes. A small tax revolt by middle class small business owners would have a devastating effect on our government.

I would like to know: How many of the people condemning Michael are unemployed? Well???

Eric Elmquist says "Why is he not spending his time making himself invaluable and marketable to an employer?"

That's a smart question, now one for you: would that pay the bills NOW??
Its nice to get training when you can afford to do it, but being unemployed you might not have the money, resources, or time for further studies or training. Companies are also laying off qualified individuals, not just unqualified, due to the state of the economy.

Susan Roschke wrote "I've been there. Had to borrow money from family to get through. That was very hard, too, but much better than opting for a 'fluid morality.'"

Really?? So you had someone to turn to though. What happens when you have NO friends or family to help you out? Or what happens when your friends or family are in just as bad of a financial situation?

Sudhir Venkatesh: "if it's a choice between being moral and putting food on your table to feed your children, you'll see that poor people are desperate, and they do what they need to do to survive."

I agree with the above statement, and believe that the people here who are doing all the criticizing and condemning have probably not been in that kind of situation.

The Mexicans seem to be able to find all the free government benefits - food stamps, social security, medical help.

By participating in "lots of focus groups," Michael is also defrauding the companies that are conducting those focus groups. Potential recruits are screened out if they have participated in another focus group within the past 3 to 6 months, so Michael must not be answering the research companies' questions truthfully. When unqualified or "professional" respondents participate in market research, companies get misinformation about what consumers really want in the marketplace and we all lose in the long run.

Michael may not consider his actions fraud. However, I think most reasonable people would consider him to be comitting unemployment fraud and tax evasion. The impression I got from the story was that he is looking for the exact same tyoe of job that got him laid off in the first place. Why is he not spending his time making himself invaluable and marketable to an employer? Instead of grifting the system. Now that would be genius.

Do the people who are getting paid under the table realize that they are not just getting the best of the "big, bad Government," they are also cheating their friends and neighbors who are paying their taxes and supporting the myriad public services which they are still benefitting from? Genius? Is "Michael" kidding? I've been there. Had to borrow money from family to get through. That was very hard, too, but much better than opting for a "fluid morality."

Very sad indeed.

Do you know how many people are not getting a cent from the government because there is not enough money to go around or because they do not even know how to apply? I haven't been able to get a job in a year so I've had to move in with friends and relatives. A lot of my friends have had to do the same. Anyone expecting the government to do anything for them is dreaming.

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