"He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water." Isaiah 49:10

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Anyone Minding the Unemployment Nightmare?

Fidel "Butch" Montoya
H. S. Power & Light Ministries - Latino Faith Initiative

One of the most frightening scenarios I envision for our country’s future results from the number of people who are standing in unemployment lines across our country without any prospect of finding a job, either full-time or part-time. Unemployment statistics keep rising with no end in sight. As politicians search for answers, the unemployment rate continues to escalate, this past month, creeping closer to 10%, the highest percentage in 26 years.

Many laid-off people are nearing the end of their government options for receiving unemployment benefits. Unemployed workers receive 26 weeks of unemployment benefits after losing their jobs. As an emergency measure, the government has added another 13 weeks in hopes that workers will find jobs during that period.

Unfortunately, the unemployment rate continues to inch up, with the last report from the government showing 9.7% of Americans are without jobs. In August, another 466,000 joined the 14.9 million Americans out of work. When you look at the number of companies still laying off employees, the future for many workers is bleak, even dire.

In Michigan, the unemployment rate is closer to 15% with the production of cars and trucks continuing to fall. Factories are shutting shut down due to poor car sales; others are running at less than their production capacity.

The government gimmick of “Cash for Clunkers” was a success; with most car dealers pleasantly surprised at the number of vehicles they ended up selling during the $3 billion dollar corporate welfare program. Consumers who traded in their “clunker” received a $4,500 rebate, and some dealers added another several thousand-dollar incentive to the government rebate, making it very attractive to junk their clunker.

“Cash for Clunkers” worked in adding 31,000 people to the job rolls. Unfortunately, now that the incentives are no longer in place, car buying is down as consumers are weary of buying big-ticket items again. Motor vehicle and parts companies lost 15,000 jobs in August.

With so many workers out of work and trying for the first time to reach unemployment offices to apply for unemployment benefits, they have encountered an uncaring bureaucracy that defies description.

In Colorado, where Don Mares is the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, he has faced an avalanche of criticism and heat from frustrated jobless persons, frustrated by their attempts to get unemployment benefits either online or by telephone.

One caller wrote to 9News/NBC in Denver about her experience on the telephone: “I haven't been this frustrated in a LONG TIME. I've been trying to call over 100 times a day (at least) for over 2 weeks, but have called in off and on for longer than that. I've got kiddos that need food on the table and I'm running out of time to get the money rolling in. You would THINK that it being this big of a problem they would be open for longer hours AT LEAST, have the people that are working there take turns getting some OT, I'm sure their wallets could use it and then in turn more people would get processed and so they can have the money in their wallets for bills and food. This whole process is a DISGRACE!”

Similar stories are common around the country because state labor departments were simply not ready to address the tsunami of jobless workers seeking some sort of financial assistance.

In California, before an additional 1,650 new call takers came on board this spring, callers trying to find out information about unemployment benefits needed to dial the department a whopping 42 times to reach a person at the other end. What is even more astounding is that more than 85 per cent of the 50 million calls attempted in the month of January were turned away.

Even more overwhelming for unemployed Californians is that it still takes 17 calls to reach a live operator at the unemployment office. MercuryNews.com reports that nearly two-thirds of the 18.9 million calls made in July were rejected because the phone service was too busy. Talk about added frustration as desperate jobless workers just try to find answers from local government job agencies.

Just to give you an idea of the cost to states resulting from unemployment, consider what is happening in California. MercuryNews.com reports that the Employment Development Department says it has already distributed $12.5 billion in unemployment insurance benefits this year - 50 per cent more than the record $8.1 billion paid out in all of 2008. In addition, many people, because of federal extensions of unemployment benefits, are staying on state rolls longer than usual.

With many workers close to exhausting their unemployment benefits, workers have to turn to jobs where many are barely making the minimum wage. Even though these workers may want full-time jobs, having to settle for part-time work or jobs that they really don’t want or are trained for, puts them in a class of worker the government terms “underemployment.”

Another class of workers are “discouraged workers.” These are workers who give up seeking work because they believe no jobs are available to them. The Department of Labor is faced with a growing number of “discouraged workers.”

In a recent press release, the department issued some more bad news: “About 2.3 million persons were marginally attached to the labor force in August, reflecting an increase of 630,000 from a year earlier. (The data are not seasonally adjusted.) These individuals were not in the labor force, wanted and were available for work, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months. They were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey.”

In other words, with unemployment benefits drying up, and workers not looking for work because in the prior 12 months they had been unable to find a job, many are cast aside hope of finding a job. With the economy still sputtering, the future is not looking very hopeful for many workers seeking employment.

What is equally troubling is the fact that the Department of Labor does not even count these indisputably unemployed people as “unemployed” because four weeks prior to the survey they had given up looking for work. So, instead of adding these thousands of workers to the unemployment rolls, it looks like the government has simply written them off like the banks have written off toxic assets or mortgages.

If only it were that easy to erase the number of Americans without work, but these jobless workers are still out there suffering the loss of self esteem, pride and professional networking, not to mention facing a future of hopelessness. In addition, the real issue we cannot overlook is that these workers without jobs are real people with real families and real needs.

These figures also do not reflect the millions who are working part-time jobs hoping to make up for hours cut back from their regular jobs, or working these jobs because they simply have been unable to land full-time jobs.

Can you believe millions of American workers are facing a future with little or no hope in the land of the free and home of the brave? That can’t be happening - or can it? Why is it that the billion dollar bail out in stimulus dollars no longer affect our economy? Where do jobless workers turn to when unemployment benefits run out and jobs are still unavailable?

Yet, we continue to hear the President and other government leaders say the worst of the down economy may be over and that things should be looking up. The recession, which is officially over one year old, is finally – maybe – hopefully – ending.

Even Colorado officials are saying that the Colorado job market is getting better without any significant increase in unemployment as one sign the market could be stabilizing. Hard to picture this employment environment so rosy when in 2008 the unemployment rate was 4.9%. Today, that unemployment rate is 7.8%!

Keep in mind that most of the unemployed workers who cannot find suitable jobs are used to working for a wage and living. They bought into the American Dream like the rest of us, and now find their dream turning into a nightmare. The question that lurks in the minds of many workers is, “Are we closer to the unemployment line than we care to think?”

These workers living the nightmare cannot make mortgage payments or pay their rent. In some cases, their cars are being reposed because of non-payment. Families who were used to a middle-class standard of living are now finding out that dreams alone do not foot the bills.

As more workers find they are unable to find employment, what is going to happen to thousands of families unable to meet their monthly payment obligations? As desperation begins to grow, what will become of these families as they discover that about the only alternative to not finding work may be homelessness? During the Great Depression, there were close to two million homeless families migrating across the country.

Those of us who have read John Steinbeck’s classic, “Of Mice and Men,” are familiar with the sad and desperate stories of the Great Depression. Many of us empathized with the lives of jobless workers who, out of anxiety and anguish, looked for any means to support their families.

While the President assures us that we are not headed to the Great Depression of 2009, one has to wonder about the jobless who cannot find work. Are they already facing their personal Great Depression?

Boyd Huppert, a reporter for KARE/NBC in Minneapolis, recently profiled workers at Checkers, a local popular fast-food hamburger joint. Huppert’s report demonstrated what this anemic economy is forcing workers to do survive the unprecedented “underemployment problem” facing our country.

What Huppert found was a mother lode of laid-off professionals now flipping burgers and frying French fries. He found homebuilders, a civil engineer, a former executive chef and an area manager for Walgreens among the workers in this hamburger joint. All barely working because - in spite of their years of experience and college degrees - this is the only work they could find.

What surprised Huppert was there were hundreds of others who wanted these jobs.

Huppert reported, “All of the workers with whom we talked at the Checkers were helpful, determined and happy to be employed, yet none of them were where they expected to be. You could go the [University of Minnesota] to study the way the economy is changing us – or you could stop for a burger and listen.”

The high unemployment rate hits minority groups and teenagers the hardest. Whites had an unemployment rate of 8.9 per cent, Latinos at 13 per cent, Blacks at 15.1 per cent, the highest it has been since 1986, and Asians at 7.5%. Teenagers, who generally worked some of the part-time jobs now taken by underemployed adults, face a record high 25.5 per cent unemployment rate.

While the government has taken unprecedented steps to try to turn the economy around, the number of jobs that are being cut from the economy easily overshadows any progress made. The new economy is not creating new jobs and that is a fact we are going to have to face as more Americans look for a job.

While the country debates a national health care bill, continues to debate the war in Iraq, and begins to worry about a larger intervention in a war in Afghanistan that many military officials say we cannot win, shouldn’t we be equally concerned about the growing unemployed workers in desperate need of a job?

Economists from the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland, trying to explain the current job market and the contradiction of the unemployment numbers from the last two months, are still baffled. Although job loses in July were less than June, the unemployment numbers still rose.

In the FoxBusiness Report, two economists try to explain what may be going on. “The sharp rise in unemployment that we have seen,” economists Murat Tasci and Kyle Fee wrote, “is not due primarily to a sharp rise in separations but rather to the fact that once unemployed, the chance of finding employment has fallen dramatically. This means that unemployment durations are getting longer.”

The long-term prognosis is that we may not see any substantial creation of the quality jobs the economy has lost. As the economy tries to rebound, we may just find ourselves lowering our standard of living because many quality jobs may be a thing of the past.

I trust someone high in the Obama Administration is developing an employment policy to address a very volatile unemployment situation. With thousands of homeless and jobless Americans joining the unemployment lines, this is not what many will consider a sound economic recovery.

Meanwhile, is anyone paying attention to the number of people reaching the point of desperation? What will become of the thousands of workers who, having exhausted their unemployment benefits, still cannot find full-time employment and face the dread and fear of losing their homes, cars, livelihoods, self-esteem and, ultimately, any vestige of the American Dream?

This column first appeared at www.latinolandscape.com

Fidel "Butch" Montoya is Director of H.S. Power and Light Ministries. He was the Vice President/News Director of KUSA Channel 9 News from 1985-1990, and worked as a broadcast journalist for 24 years. Montoya also served as Deputy Mayor of City and County of Denver from 1995-1999; as the Manager of Public Safety for the City and County of Denver from 1994-2000. Montoya was Licensed as a minister in 1972.

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