8 Unemployed for Every Job Opening: What Are They Supposed to Do Once Their Benefits Run Out?


There are now approximately 14 million Americans who want a job and can't find one. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), if they stood side by side, they'd stretch from Bangor, Maine to Los Angeles, California and back.

While plenty of ink has been dedicated to distant crises in the Middle East and Japan, and a wholly trumped up “deficit crisis” that haunts the sleep of the Beltway media, this disaster occurring right here at home has received far less attention than it should.

Those who have been out of work for an extended period of time face not only extreme economic suffering, but also unique barriers to getting back into the workforce. Yet the political establishment has all but ignored the pain being felt by this broad swath of working America. Economist Paul Krugman called them the “forgotten millions,” and warned that “we’re well on the way to creating a permanent underclass of the jobless.”

That disconnect has left a gap that some individuals and grassroots organizations have attempted to fill. Their efforts are commendable, and at times innovative, but a number of activists interviewed by AlterNet said that absent a serious effort by the federal government, they are merely tinkering around the edges of a deep and avoidable catastrophe.

36 Weeks

In February, the average length of joblessness for all unemployed workers was a record 36 weeks. Many of those people relied on their unemployment insurance to get by until it ran out and still haven't found work -- they've come to be known as "99ers," as extended unemployment benefits in many states last a maximum of 99 weeks. NELP researchers estimate there were 3.9 million 99ers out of work last year, and project a similar number for 2011. 

“It's pretty tragic out there for a lot of people,” says Mike Thornton, a writer and activist who runs a Web site dedicated to providing information and resources for the jobless called the LayoffList. “The long-term unemployed are discriminated against for being long-term unemployed,” he said. Employers are hesitant to hire those who have been out of work for a lengthy period of time because they think there must be something wrong with workers who haven't been picked up by another firm by now, but the reality is that there are now five unemployed people for each job opening. According to NELP, when you include people who are working part-time while looking for a full-time gig, that ratio jumps to eight to one.

Making matters worse, extended periods of unemployment crush people's sense of self-worth. “There are a lot of self-esteem issues there,” says John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. “There are obviously issues of maintaining the basic necessities – people are losing their homes. It's a very depressing situation for the long-term unemployed – they have to worry about their benefits running out, and many of them have.”

“It's not easy on anyone,” says Mitchell Hirsch, who was out of work for more than six months after being laid off from his retail job of over 20 years and has since become an organizer with NELP. “The first thing that hit me,” Hirsch said, “is just the loss of the place to go. Whether people have worked in an office or a factory or a store or a restaurant, most working people go to work at a place, and when that place no longer exists, it's like a part of your soul is removed,” he said, adding, “You find yourself very much alone.” Despite the number of Americans who don't have a job, “people unemployed these days feel virtually invisible.”

“Age is another factor,” Thornton told AlterNet. “You know, people over 45 years old seem to have a more difficult time finding positions the longer they've been out of work." That claim is born out by the numbers – the average length of unemployment is 44.1 weeks for those between 55 and 64 years of age, compared with 29.2 weeks for those 20 to 24.

Many people who have been out of work for a lengthy period of time – especially those whose unemployment benefits have expired – have had to max out their credit cards to keep afloat, or have missed mortgage payments or other bills. “I can speak for myself here,” said Nicole Sandler, a talk-radio host who started the Web site HelpThe99ers.com and who has herself been “underemployed” for over a year. “I've basically lost my house. I stopped paying my mortgage and moved in with my boyfriend six months ago.” Sandler says she's found a buyer and will do a "short sale" – getting less than she paid for the property – but, she adds, “my credit is shot, and we know that potential employers can check your credit, and if you have bad credit that's another reason for employers not to hire you. And once you're in this vicious cycle, it's very hard to get out of it.”

The unemployment crisis also has an impact on those who are able find work after being laid off. In an employers' market, over half of all full-time workers laid off after three years at the same job return to the workforce with lower wages. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than a third of them lose 20 percent or more of their previous income.

What many don't understand about the grim reality of the American labor market is that its impact on workers who have faced extended unemployment can reverberate for decades – long after the economy has recovered. Columbia University labor economist Till von Wachter studied the fortunes of workers who faced sudden lay-offs during the 1981-1982 recession in the period since that time. He found that even after 15 to 20 years, those workers' wages were still 20 percent lower than comparable workers who had held onto their jobs in the early 1980s downturn.

According to the Journal, the impact of this kind of joblessness can span generations:

Research shows that children of workers who lose jobs and go back to work at lower wages appear to suffer from lower wages, too. In a 2008 study, a group of economists tracked the wages of 60,000 father-child pairs from 1978 to 1999. Children whose fathers went through mass layoffs in the 1982 recession ended up with 9% lower earnings than similar children whose fathers didn't experience the job cuts.

Into the Chasm

Joe Carbone heads Workplace Inc., a non-profit that does research on the labor market and provides services to struggling workers in Connecticut. He told AlterNet the organization judges success “not just by people getting a job, but really getting empowered through credentials and knowledge so that they can traverse the system and make their way into the middle class.”

Carbone says that since the recession began he's seen a surge in demand for his organization's services. “What it's done is completely stressed out the capacity of our system,” he said. The stimulus package helped, but, says Carbone, “we had that funding for two years, but now that's gone. So, we've got the same numbers in terms of the people who have a need for our system, but we've gone back to the 2009 funding levels that we had before the worst of the recession.”

Carbone's organization is launching a project, in tandem with the private sector, to ease 99ers back into the grind of the workplace and overcome the discrimination they face among employers. “We're developing an instrument whereby for $6,000 per person, these 99ers would be given an opportunity to work for a business for eight weeks while they were officially employed by Workplace, Inc.,” he said. “There would be no liability, no risk on the part of business – it would be an eight-week trial period to see if we could establish a good comfort level between that person and whatever company we assign them to.”

Carbone says he “doesn't expect a federal response to this,” and is going to foundations and various family trusts in order to launch a pilot program for the first 100 workers this summer.

Radio host Sandler says she was inspired to start Helpthe99ers.com after getting an email from a listener whose benefits had just expired begging her to report on their plight. “It was right around the time that Obama negotiated with the GOP to extend the Bush tax cuts, and yet so little was being done for the 99ers,” she says. “And here was this group, growing in numbers and being ignored.”

Sandler describes Helpthe99ers.com as a “message board to put people who have needs – who are out of work, have exhausted their benefits and have nowhere else to turn – to put out their stories, and a place where people who have the means and compassion to help can get in touch with them directly. There's no middle-man involved, no foundation that people have to go through.” She says the project has been slow to take off, but some connections have been made, including a man who sent a space heater to a woman in upstate New York who was unable to pay her heating bill. “I know that some people have gotten help with rent – a couple of people got their rent paid for a month or more – at least a handful of people have gotten help.”

Like Workplace, Inc., the Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP) has been around for a while – since 1975 – but has seen a surge in its clientele. “We do have a lot more people around,” says John Dodd. “We have a computer lab for job searches that is always packed. We have about a dozen computers that are always taken by people looking for work.”

Dodd says his organization offers “housing counselors, a job developer, a jobs club, a health-care navigator – helps people access health care – and we help people with unemployment appeals.” PUP has also organized to help people threatened with foreclosure stay in their homes.

“The fact that people are organized and working together is something that makes people feel better,” Dodd told AlterNet. “We have regular committees that meet on the unemployment issue, on the foreclosure issue, so in a way we provide some support so people don't feel all alone.”

According to Mitchell Hirsch of NELP, 40 percent of eligible workers don't file for benefits. NELP, in addition to its political advocacy on behalf of working America, runs UnemployedWorkers.org, which Hirsch describes as a place “to get information about benefits availability, a resource that allows you to speak out and tell your story and a resource of news and information” for the jobless, “all of which is ultimately a way for us to organize unemployed workers and their supporters on behalf of things that matter for working people.” The site gathered over 100,000 signatures for a petition urging Congress to re-authorize the extended unemployment benefits program.

These efforts, and others that have popped up across the country, provide valuable assistance to the relatively small number of jobless workers who take advantage of them, but all of those interviewed by AlterNet agreed that the depth of the jobs crisis plaguing the U.S. merits a massive response from policy-makers. They lamented the fact that a second stimulus package, direct, WPA-style job programs like those established during the Great Depression and much more help transitioning the long-term unemployed back into the workforce had never been on the table in any serious way.

Some members of Congress have taken a few small steps. Reps. Barbara Lee, D-California, and Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, introduced legislation that would extend benefits for 14 more weeks, and Rep Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, has a (difficult to enforce) bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against workers for being unemployed.

But both bills face a steep hill in the GOP-controlled legislature. A previous effort to get an additional extension of benefits was killed when it faced opposition from Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats last year. Meanwhile, Missouri lawmakers are filibustering an extension in federal benefits that wouldn't cost the state a dime – they're willing to sacrifice the well-being of 23,000 Missourians in order to “send a message to Washington” about the deficit. And in Michigan, conservatives are opposing a technical fix to the extended benefits program that, if defeated, would leave 150,000 state residents without eligibility for federal benefits.

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