More than a dozen long-term unemployed individuals from New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this week to meet with Secretary Thomas Perez and share their stories about struggling to make ends meet while being out of work for extended periods of time.
The group of workers, some of whom have been out of work for two years or more − at no fault of their own − included experienced and highly educated professionals from fields such as financial services, healthcare and information technology. The workers expressed dismay over stereotypes that the long-term unemployed are lazy or are living comfortably on long-term Unemployment Insurance benefits. We spent a good deal of the conversation dispelling myths such as:
Myth: They don’t really need these benefits to live on.
“I need this [unemployment benefits] to survive. It was either the phone bill or the car − my family has to make these decisions every day.”
Reality: Other workers shared that unemployment benefits have been a critical lifeline but the benefits only replace one-third of their prior income or less, forcing them to dip into retirement savings, risk foreclosure and make other difficult decisions. As a former manager with a defense contractor and Iraq veteran put it, “I’ve gone through all my savings. I’m at the bottom of the barrel.” Nearly half the workers have tapped into 401Ks, paying the tax penalties associated even with such hardship withdraws just so they can pay their bills.
Myth: These people are too lazy and aren’t capable of finding a job.
“We are still in good shape. Our minds are alert. We have skills. We have experience. We have the heart.”
“That was very painful for me, I don’t consider myself a slacker.”
Reality: These highly qualified and accomplished professionals shared how they have not received job offers for a variety of reasons. Some expressed frustration with “falling between the cracks”: not meeting specific qualifications for some jobs but being overqualified for others − even being turned away from minimum-wage jobs. Some believed that their age or salary levels have worked against them as they compete against younger workers, even though they’d be willing to take a pay cut. Others expressed frustration with automated application systems and an inability to make their case for employment directly to company decision makers rather than hiring managers.
Myth: They aren’t trying hard enough.
“Our American Dream is being taken away from us. … We’re not sitting on a couch collecting benefits.”
Reality: Despite these challenges, each worker expressed intent to continue doing whatever they could to get back into the workforce. “I’ve never been busier,” said a corporate travel specialist and mother from Annapolis, Md., who is going back to school to gain new skills while looking for work. Some found short-lived successes by tapping into their extensive networks to secure brief consulting jobs, contract assignments, and temporary or part-time positions. Some of the workers upgraded their skills and acquired new certifications by accessing services and resources through their local American Job Centers. Some mentioned attempts to break into new careers and even relocate to new regions in the country. As one of them put it, “I’ve had to reinvent myself over and over. I’m not going down without fighting.”
This kind of listening session is so important to the work that we do in my agency, the department’s Employment and Training Administration. We organized the meeting through community partnerships that we’ve developed under the Labor Department’s Job Clubs Initiative, spearheaded by Ben Seigel. Staff from a number of ETA offices sat in to listen and learn, so that we can all better serve the long-term unemployed, including through our Unemployment Insurance and American Job Center programs.
It took tremendous courage for these people to share their struggles, and Secretary Perez promised to relay what he heard to President Obama. For me and my colleagues, the session further strengthened our commitment to expand opportunities for long-term unemployed workers.
Eric Seleznow is the acting assistant secretary of labor for employment and training.