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Getting back to work after long-term unemployment

Mitchell Hartman Sep 5, 2013

Getting back to work after long-term unemployment

Mitchell Hartman Sep 5, 2013

The job market this summer has been steady, if not stellar. For the May-July period, the economy added 175,000 jobs per month, on average. Unemployment has edged down to 7.4 percent. We’ll see what August has to offer when the Department of Labor releases its monthly employment report this morning. Economists predict more of the same–about 180,000 new jobs, and unemployment remaining steady at 7.4 percent.

Meanwhile, long-term unemployment remains unpredecdentedly high–37 percent of the unemployed have been looking for at least 27 weeks. That’s down from a high of 45 percent in mid-2011, but it’s still double the rate before the Great Recession, and near a post-World-War-II high. There are more than 4 million long-term unemployed, and even with the unemployment rate edging down, it’s still hard for them to find work in this tight labor market.

Still, each month, thousands of Americans who have been job-hunting for six months or more, finally land a job and start drawing a paycheck again.

Chip Kosboth is one of them. He’s 46, and was recently visiting a Kaiser Permanente medical center in Portland, Oregon, for a check-up–a check-up covered, thankfully, by his new employer’s health insurance.

“Which is really good,” he says.

Kosboth is working toward getting licensed as a mental-health counselor.* Until last year, he worked with criminals at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, the capital. He says working within the state’s corrections and mental health bureaucracy to provide care to these patients, took a toll on him.

“They are in the midst of psychosis, in the midst of behavioral problems,” he says. “And it’s a prison, so you have to have everyone remain safe. It was incredibly stressful.”

Kosboth left that job last fall–for a different kind of stress. Sitting at home, anxious and depressed, while his wife and two stepsons headed out to work and school every day; sending out resumes, making phone calls, networking; getting an occasional interview.

“I would call back to find out why I didn’t qualify,” says Kosboth, “and it was generally that there were so many qualified candidates, and they picked somebody.”

They picked somebody–who wasn’t him. Finally, after eight months of hunting, he landed a job at a local agency serving low-income patients. He took a $10,000 cut in pay and benefits, and started full-time in July.

“I love the job,” says Kosboth. “I love the work—that’s why I’m in this field. And being able to just come in and feel competent, and feel capable—it’s a wonderful thing.”

Economist Gary Burtless at the Brookings Institution says the long-term unemployed are least likely to get a shot at any job opening.

“The longer the spell of unemployment, the lower is the likelihood that an employer with a job vacancy will call the person back,” Burtless says. “Because employers are more willing to take a chance on people who’ve just recently been laid off, or just recently have entered the workforce after graduating college or school.”

There’s something else that happens to the long-term unemployed, says psychology professor and clinician Don Lynch at Unity College in Maine.

“A lot of our own personal identity is tied up in our work, and when that’s lost, it takes part of us away,” says Lynch. “And then coming back can be pretty intimidating.”

Professor Lynch calls this a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by some people who can’t find work for a substantial period.

Chip Kosboth says he still has plenty of that after his eight-month bout with unemployment.

“I still have a lot of lingering anxiety around having a job, and doing it well,” he says, adding that he frequently tells his boss he’s grateful to have a job again.  “I think she’s kind of tired of it. But that’s OK, she can keep hearing it. I feel like I have something to offer people.”

*CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly described Chip Kosboth’s professional status. He is currently working toward getting licensed as a mental-health counselor in Oregon.

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