The Black Hole of Long-Term Unemployment
[Research support for this story was provided by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.]
Sometime in early June -- he's not exactly sure which day -- Rick Rembold joined history. That he doesn't remember comes as little surprise: Who wants their name etched into the record books for not having a job?
For Rembold, that day in June marked six months since he'd last pulled a steady paycheck, at which point his name joined the rapidly growing list of American workers deemed "long-term unemployed" by the Department of Labor. In the worst jobs crisis in generations, the ranks of Rembolds, stranded on the sidelines, have exploded by over 400% -- from 1.3 million in December 2007, when the recession began, to 6.8 million this June. The extraordinary growth of this jobless underclass is a harbinger of prolonged pain for the American economy.
This summer, I set out to explore just why long-term unemployment had risen to historic levels -- and stumbled across Rembold. A 56-year-old resident of Mishawaka, Indiana, he caught the unnerving mix of frustration, anger, and helplessness voiced by so many other unemployed workers I'd spoken to. "I lie awake at night with acid indigestion worrying about how I’m going to survive," he said in a brief bio kept by the National Employment Law Project, which is how I found him. I called him up, and we talked about his languishing career, as well as his childhood and family. But a few phone calls, I realized, weren't enough. In early August I hopped a plane to northern Indiana.
In job terms, my timing couldn't have been better. I arrived around lunchtime, and was driving through downtown South Bend, an unremarkable cluster of buildings awash in gray and brown and brick, when my cell phone rang. Rembold's breathless voice was on the other end. "Sorry I didn't pick up earlier, man, but a friend just called and tipped me off about a place up near the airport. I'm fillin' up my bike and headin' up there right now." I told him I'd meet him there, hung a sharp U-turn, and sped north.
Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot of a modest-sized aircraft parts manufacturer tucked into a quiet business park. Ford and Chevy trucks filled the lot, most backed in. Rembold roared up soon after on his '99 Suzuki motorcycle. Barrel-chested with a thick neck, his short black hair was flecked with gray, and he was deeply tanned from long motorcycle rides with his girlfriend Terri. "They didn't even advertise this job," he told me after a hearty handshake. Not unless you count the inconspicuous sign out front, a jobless man's oasis in the blinding heat: "NOW HIRING: Bench Inspector."
His black leather portfolio in hand, Rembold took a two-sided application from a woman who greeted us inside the tiny lobby. He filled it out in minutes, the phone numbers, names, dates, and addresses committed to memory, handed it to the secretary, and in a polite but firm tone asked to speak with someone from management. While we waited, he pointed out the old Studebaker factories in a black-and-white sketch of nineteenth century South Bend on the wall, launching into a Cliffs Notes history of industry in this once-bustling corner of the Midwest.
A manager finally emerges with Rembold's application in hand. Rembold rushes to explain away the three jobs he had listed in the “previous employers” section -- stints at a woodworking company, motorcycle shop, and local payday lender. They’re not, he assures the man, indicative of his skills; they're not who he is. You see, he rushes to add, he's been in manufacturing practically his entire life, a hard and loyal worker who made his way up from the shop floor to sales and then to management. That kind of experience won't fit in three blank spots on a one-page form. Unswayed, the manager thanks him formulaically for applying.