By Wendell Hutson, Special to the NNPA from The Chicago Crusader –
Not since the Great Depression has the U.S. economy been so bad that millions of people have been out of work for two years or more. And even though the economy is showing some improvement, economists have forecasted a long recovery and noted that the Black middle-class remains one of the core groups still unable to find employment. Moleska Smith is among the long-term unemployed. Before she lost her $90,000 a year marketing job at a Chicago bank in 2009 she said life was good for her.
She was able to pay her mortgage on time for her south suburban home, monthly tuition payments to her daughter’s private high school were paid on time and she was able to travel and build up her emergency fund for the unexpected. That has all changed now that she has exhausted her 99-weeks of unemployment benefits. “Never in a million years did I think I would be unemployed this long. I am determined to find new employment regardless of how long it takes,” Smith told the Crusader. “God has been good to me. He makes sure all my needs are met.” An alumnus of Columbia College, Smith said one reason why it has taken her so long to find new employment within her industry is because of outsourcing and downsizing that continues to take place at companies big and small.
“Marketing is a tough industry to stay in because a lot of employers are farming out their marketing needs to save money,” explained Smith. “It is cheaper to pay an outside agency than to pay an employee a salary, health benefits and taxes.” For now, Smith said she plans to continue working as a self-employed marketing consultant. “I have had to re-invent myself and sit down to evaluate if marketing is still a feasible career. While I love working in the marketing industry, I love it more when I can pay my bills on time.”
Age is what Charles Porter cited as his reason for being unemployed for over two years. “While employers are not saying it, age also works against the unemployed and contributes to why so many people have exhausted their unemployment benefits and still remain jobless,” Porter, 56, a former electrical engineer, said.
Porter now works for temporary agencies to support his family. “One temp agency told me I should consider dying my hair to improve my chances of getting hired,” he said. “I guess no one wants to hire a grandfather.” Illinois’ unemployment rate for June matched the national rate of 9.2 percent and has been equal to or below the national rate for nine consecutive months, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. And Illinois has also reported declines in 15 of the past 17 months but has added thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs. “Illinois has added more than 10,000 manufacturing jobs and nearly 9,000 jobs in the construction sector over this time last year, including strong growth over the past month,” said Jay Rowell, director of the IDES. “While uneven movements are an expected part of an economic recovery, Illinois is building on the steady progress that has been made.” Education is often seen as a plus for anyone looking for a job but Deshawna Olgesby, 36, said it could also serve as a deterrent when applying for entry-level jobs.
“I have a bachelor’s in communications and a master’s in counseling and when I go to apply for entry-level jobs at department stores and fast-food restaurants I am always turned down,” she said. “Managers have told me when applying that I was over qualified and they feared I would leave within a year.” For the past seven years, Olgesby had worked as a family counselor for a West Side non-profit organization but due to a dip in state funding she was laid off and has not found a new job. Greg Rivara, a spokesman for IDES, said candidates should improve their interviewing skills so they can better explain to employers why they should take a chance on hiring them.
“This has to also be conveyed in cover letters too. I don’t want to tell a person to take off their education on their resume but that’s also a possibility if they think it is hindering their search,” he said. And unlike Smith and Porter, who collected unemployment benefits for nearly two years, thanks to Congress extending benefits, Rivara said that cushion is no longer available. “If someone had applied for benefits in June they would not be eligible to receive an extension after their standard 26 weeks of state benefits expire. They would have had to apply for benefits in May or before to be eligible,” Rivara said. “All federal extensions expire January 2012.” Unemployment compensation is funded by unemployment insurance, which is paid for by employers and not taxpayers, according to Rivara. And the maximum payment someone could receive is $531 a week, depending on such things as their marital status, earnings while employed and dependents, such as a child or unemployed spouse.
Another aspect to the long-term unemployed especially for Blacks, who have traditionally worked white-collar jobs, such as secretaries or office managers, is the ability to transition into new industries. Manufacturing and construction, which are considered blue-collar jobs, have dominated the job growth in Illinois the past two years, according to IDES records. And transitioning into one of these jobs is not an easy thing to do, said Antonio Wheeler, 46, who knows first-hand. For 12 years he worked as an office manager for a real estate company. He was laid off in 2007 and has yet to find new employment. “I was paid to manage 10 employees and perform clerical duties in the office,” he said. “Now I find most of the job leads I discover are for blue collar jobs.” Wheeler, who is single with no children, still maintains a one bedroom apartment in the North Lawndale community on the West Side and still drives his 2008 Ford Explorer despite not making any monthly payments since last year.
“You don’t want to know how I am making it,’ he added. “Let’s just say that I am doing what is required to survive.”