Judy Conti, NELP federal advocacy coordinator
The beginning of the month may have felt like April Fool's Day to a significant segment of America's labor population. That's when reports started pouring in about the new jobless rate and rise in job creation. According to the Bureau of Labor, last month the unemployment rate dropped to 8.8 percent and the job market added 216,000 positions.
But for who?
Many unemployed or underemployed people fall into a swelling pool of would-be workers called the 99ers. These are the jobless Americans who've exhausted their eligibility for not only the normal 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, but also for all of the emergency extensions of benefits for the unemployed – adding up to a total of 99 weeks, or nearly two years – Congress approved as the Great Recession deepened.
More than six million of the nation's 14 million jobless have been out of work longer than 26 weeks; and nearly two million of that group has unsuccessfully searched for work for at least a year. But, there are no definitive figures on how many have been jobless for two years or longer because since World War II ended the Great Depression that's always been a minuscule figure – until now.
But now, it includes jobless individuals like Kim Johnson, who ran out of her unemployment benefits a couple of months ago. A few years back, that would have sounded improbable to many people in Cleveland – because Johnson was one of the golden voices of the city's airwaves. For more than two decades she was one of the premiere radio hosts on WZAK 93.1FM in Cleveland, which for a time, was the number one radio station in the city. In 2008, the great recession declared war on cities like Cleveland. Johnson became a casualty the following year.
"[My GM] called me to his office," she explained, "and he said, 'We're not going to re-new your contract.' And I said, 'What!' He said, nothing lasts forever, so I said thank you and I'll be fine. I didn't cuss and cry and break down and act foolish. I didn't do all of that. I just got my purse and walked out the door. I left everything I had accumulated, mementos, I just left everything, I just left."
Johnson closed the door on her 24-year career and was fine for awhile. A rainy day fund she had accumulated has sustained her this far, and an investment she had made in a telecommunications company has long-term earnings potential, but virtually no short-term payoff. So, now, after nearly two years without full-time employment, her reserves are low and she gets by as a substitute teacher earning $80 a day when called. That part-time work means that, despite her increasingly tough circumstances, she doesn't meet the federal government's definition of being unemployed.
"My salary was around $120,000 a year," she says, referring to her radio days. "You go from making $120,000 a year to nothing."
Dee Ann Donner is another of the 8.4 million Americans who want a full-time job but have been forced to work limited hours. She recently exhausted her jobless benefits, too.
Donner worked for Ford Motor Company, where, she says, the recession in the auto industry started early. "I went to work for Ford Motor Company in 2001 after graduating [from college]. My second year there I was offered a [buyout] package and I didn't take it. It was my second year, and I'm like I'm not going to take it."
But, the Ford offer was a sign of things to come for Donner. After being laid off, she found work at General Electric in the labor relations department, but lasted just two years before being downsized again. S he moved from Cleveland to Pensacola, Florida a few months ago hoping for a better job market and has taken part-time jobs in radio and a retail store trying to make ends meet. The 35-year-old says it's hard to find the motivation to look for a decent job but knows her situation needs to change. "It's disgusting, let me just say that – the [little] pay, how people treat you" She said bitterly. "Your peers come in and you're fitting them for a bra, you know what I mean? It's heart-wrenching. The only thing that's keeping me going is prayer."
Hopes and prayers seem to be fading among many of the long term unemployed, however, according to a series of studies of those whom the current economic crisis has trapped in long-term joblessness by The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. Their research found that as the crisis took hold, once jobless workers passed the six-month threshold of joblessness, their prospects for finding any work at all diminished sharply and, as their rejected applications for work piled up and their resources dwindled, their spirits and sense of being connected to the larger society.
One manifestation of that low psychological state was both listlessness and sleeplessness. The study also determined that 88 percent of those unemployed long term and looking for work, as of March 2010, are stressed because of their situation and 60 percent have experienced changed sleeping patterns or loss of sleep. Both Johnson and Donner admit they don't sleep like they used to because they don't know what tomorrow will bring. Adding to the shared burden is the fact that both women are African American. That means they're more likely to be among the long-term unemployed and underemployed.
The National Employment Law Project, which advocates for the employment rights of lower-wage workers, is looking into this situation because the organization sees it as an unfortunate consequence. Judy Conti, NELP's Federal Advocacy Coordinator, explained that people who are unemployed for more than six months are disproportionately people of color and older workers. She said, "and when you start weeding out the people who are the long-term unemployed, you are disproportionately weeding out those two groups of workers and that could be considered disparate impact violation of the civil rights laws."
Conti added, "you're not being weeded out because you are Black. For example, their not saying 'this person is Black oh I won't hire them' but they have a policy in place that weeds out more Black workers than White workers, for example, so it could have a disparate impact on that population." Conti revealed NELP is already probing whether some companies utilize the discriminatory practices some companies have against those long-term unemployed workers. But, for the present, little is being done to stop companies from keeping jobs out of the reach of the long term unemployed.
New Jersey stands alone as the only state that has enacted a law that prohibits at least some form of labor discrimination against the long-term unemployed. Democratic State Senator James Beach, of Camden County, co-sponsored the bill that recently was signed into law, which makes it illegal for companies to place ads for jobs that read "unemployed need not apply." State Senator Beach, who is a member of the Senate Labor Committee, said the legislation is a small step in getting people back to work. "What I hope to accomplish is the fact that New Jersey businesses will not be able to advertise and exclude someone just because they happen to be unemployed." He added, "of course, you can't control what's inside someone's heart. And, if they wanted continue to discriminate against people that are unemployed you can't legislate morality or ethics."
The State Senator went on to say he believes the federal government is doing all it can to help the jobless, and he trusts President Barack Obama will lead the nation out of this troubled time.
Ninety-niners like Donner aren't so sure. The time spent looking for a decent job has soured her political perspective and she doesn't hold out hope that the government can do anything about the jobless situation. Donner said, "I don't know what [President Obama] is going to do different. I know these things take time, but I never believed he was going to help do anything more besides the extension of the unemployment benefits, but I don't have a job like, 'thank you I appreciate you letting me keep my lights on a couple months longer, but then what. You can't make people hire you."
A few are trying. On Capital Hill hiring practices is not the focus, but in small circles 99ers are. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D- CA) is pushing a bill that would add 14 more weeks of unemployment benefits to the 99 week limit. Lee introduced the measure in February, but it's made little headway thus far.
In the meantime, Donner hopes the focus will return to persuading companies to reconsider hiring biases and somehow, 99ers will once again be considered labor assets. "We need a chance," she says. "We need an opportunity. A foot in the door is awesome, but a company that will mentor, and nurture you in a role, is like somewhere from heaven."
Tarice L.S. Gray is a freelance writer and blogger with GrayCurrent.com