Help Not Wanted

The effects of long-term unemployment

Mitchell Hartman Jun 10, 2010
Help Not Wanted

The effects of long-term unemployment

Mitchell Hartman Jun 10, 2010

Today, we’re going to start an occasional series that we’re calling “Help Not Wanted,” about how being out of work for a long time affects people — both in their individual lives and in their communities. We talked about the labor market a little bit earlier today, more people are leaving their jobs to get better ones. But it’s always easier to get a job when you have a job. Once you’re out of work in this recession, you’re almost out of luck. Long-term unemployment hasn’t been this bad in this country since the 1940s. Job applicants are having to look longer and beat out more competition. Employers, meanwhile, have found a way to get things done without having to hire anyone new.

By Mitchell Hartman

A lot of people deal with long-term unemployment in isolation. Glued to their computers, frantically applying for jobs, keeping their career and financial troubles to themselves.

Not Eleyna Fugman and her friends.

“We all take turns, somebody makes a main dish and a bunch of us bring side dishes,” Fugman said.

Fugman and her husband rent this small bungalow in Portland with another couple. Today, she’s invited over members of her self-help group for the unemployed. They’re planning their monthly potluck.

“It’s been some of the best spread a lot of us have seen in a while,” she said. “We put a lot of work into it.”

Sitting around the dining room table, they tell me they’ve all been looking for paid work for a year or more.

George Slanina is 59. He had a green job before green was cool. Unfortunately, a lot of other people got the same idea. He was laid off from doing environmental site work when the housing market collapsed. Now, he can’t get his resume in the door.

“The schools have been cranking out a lot of environmental scientists,” Slanina said. “I’ve applied with the city of Portland, and was put on a list with 60 other qualified people, for one position.”

Slanina’s wife still has her job, so he says they’ll be OK — at least until summer, when his unemployment runs out.

Lise Brown is 48, and worked several corporate jobs, then took time off to stay home with her daughter. She’s been trying to get back in for two-and-a-half years. Her timing couldn’t be worse.

“I apply for on average about five jobs a week. They’re very low-paying jobs — $10 an hour, and I used to make $50,000 a year,” she said. “I do own a home, since I did have a middle-class job before, so I’ve been refinancing my home, maxing out credit cards, and borrowing money from relatives.”

Brown’s husband lost his job as a manager, then landed another a job as a cook, so their income’s down drastically. Fugman calls in from the kitchen that the potluck’s a draw for others in the same boat.

“Some of my friends did start coming, because it is… having a free meal is a big deal,” she said. “Well, just some people are just ashamed. They’re ashamed that their house is in foreclosure, they don’t want to talk about it. And then I’ve noticed that some people are actually realizing, ‘Gee, I’m still unemployed, I’m still unemployed. I think I might come to that potluck.'”

The only one here doing OK is Ted Pyle. He’s 64. He’s been a mechanic, a carpenter, a painter — often paid under the table.

“All these skills have been marginalized down to being kind of useless,” Pyle said. “But I have so many of them that somebody has a broken-down car, somebody has a clogged sink, so I’m always picking up $10 or $20 here and there. But people who don’t have my diversity are pretty screwed.”

Middle-class professionals have been hit hard in this recession compared to past downturns. People with advanced technical training or university degrees usually find new jobs relatively quickly when they’re laid off. But not this time around.

“Every measure we’re seeing now related to how long people are getting stuck in unemployment is shattering all records since the Great Depression,” said Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute.

She points out that nearly half of unemployed people have been hunting for more than six months. That’s a 60-year high. For every job that opens up, five people are trying to get it. Before the recession, the ratio was less than two-to-one. And even if employers started adding a few hundred-thousand jobs every month — and they’re nowhere near that right now — it would take several year just to catch up to the number of jobs we had when the recession started.

“Even though I intellectually know it’s not my fault, I still kind of blame myself,” Slanina said.

George Slanina is the 59-year-old environmental scientist.

“In the two years I’ve been unemployed, I still don’t sleep right,” he said. “I always wake up with anxiety and stuff: What’s going to happen?”

It’s a question a lot of people Slanina’s age are asking. They face a “mid-life job crisis.” Competing against younger, cheaper candidates with new degrees, they may never find decent, full-time work again.

In her 30s, Eleyna Fugman’s got most of her career ahead of her. She got off to a good start with her Ivy League degree and several nonprofit jobs. But now, she’s surviving on unemployment and government-subsidized health insurance. She could end up part of a huge “lost generation” that doesn’t catch up financially or professionally for decades to come.

“I never really saw myself as someone who would rely on government services,” Fugman said. “And that I am so fully, is a little humbling and humiliating. We’re actually having to borrow from our parents right now, because they’re doing better than we are.”

And economist Heidi Shierholz says life’s about get even tougher for the long-term unemployed, because the economy’s starting to rebound. Yup — economy recovers, job search gets harder.

“Those workers who dropped out of or never entered the labor force during the downturn, are starting to come back,” she said.

Two and a half million of them.

“And when they start coming back that’s really going to keep the unemployment rate, this job-seekers-per-job-openings rate, very elevated,” she said. “So the long-term unemployed aren’t going to catch a break for quite a while.”

At least in Portland, they can catch a free meal.

“I’m thinking about a big lasagna, it feeds a lot of people, not too expensive,” Fugman said.

The unemployed people’s potluck gets served up today.

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