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Another article in the  "Best Country in the World"  Series

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Long-term unemployed are ‘trying to take any job at any wage’

BY FRANCINE KNOWLES Business Reporter/September 5, 2011


For Chicago area residents Janet Edburg, Paul Jordan and Andy Gebel, this Labor Day is no different than last year’s, or Labor Day 2009 — they’re still unemployed.

They’re among the six million long-term unemployed in the U.S. last month — those unemployed for 27 weeks or more. In Illinois, one in three unemployed in the state had already been out of a job for a year or more last year, according to the latest Labor Department data available. Nearly half of the 675,000 unemployed in the state fell into the long-term category, the fourth-highest number among all the states at 330,000. Friday’s dismal report that the economy added no new jobs in August only adds to the crisis.

It’s a group that’s losing unemployment benefits, facing discrimination based on their unemployment, and at risk of remaining permanently out of the job market, experts say.

Janet Edburg and Paul Jordan

Janet Edburg and Paul Jordan have been without a job for at least 27 weeks. | Jean Lachat, Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

“They’re starting to lose their extensions to unemployment benefits, and that means they drop into the welfare rolls if they can qualify,” said Mesirow Financial Chief Economist Diane Swonk. “Some are applying for disability, but more and more are being turned down.

“They’re trying to take any job at any wage, which means they’re becoming part of the ranks of the working poor.”

Forty-nine-year-old Paul Jordan has been unemployed for two years, since he lost his job when state funding didn’t come through for the nonprofit where he worked. He had been a resource coordinator running after-school and morning programs at South Shore High School. Jordan, who received help from the Chicago Urban League in updating his resume and polishing his interviewing skills, has also worked in banking. He has been a vice president at Chase Bank and an assistant vice president at Citibank and held a variety of sales and management positions.

He said he has applied for positions at roughly 100 companies in a variety of industries. Although, he made about $65,000 a year when working in the banking industry, he has applied for some jobs for less pay.

“I had no idea whatsoever it would take this long and this much of a struggle (to find a job),” he said. “And what I’m finding of the interviewing I’ve done, they’ve said I was overqualified for the positions. I’m like you have a person here whose willing to work from the bottom up. I don’t have a problem doing anything, given the opportunity.”

Jordan, whose unemployment ran out two months ago, said he’s falling behind on his bills. The only income he currently has is pay he receives from part-time work officiating high school sports. That pays only about $50 to $55 for baseball games and up to $55 for basketball games. He moved back in with his parents to help care for his disabled dad and that helped curtail some expenses, he said.

Fifty-four-year-old Janet Edburg, a widow with grown children, worked 32 years at a small Northbrook-based manufacturing plant, where she had expected to be until she retired. But three years ago, her job in shipping and receiving was cut when business dropped at the plant. She said she has applied for jobs at manufacturers, in retail and at fast-food establishments. Her unemployment benefits ran out in July.

“I couldn’t afford to keep my apartment,” she shared, noting she’s lived with either family or friends since October. Without their help, she’d be homeless, she stressed.

Edburg received assistance from Chicago Jobs With Justice and the South Halsted Employment Action Center in learning how to look for jobs online and in getting leads on temporary, part-time work. She received training last week at the center for a part-time job as an intake worker helping low-income people apply for assistance paying their energy bills. But there’s no guarantee the job will become available, and if it does, it’s only expected to last a couple of months. She said her situation is not unique and could happen to anyone.

“It can and it is happening; I’m not alone, she said. “I want to work. I’ve always been able to take care of myself. That’s what I want now.”

But for the long-term unemployed, the fact that they have been out of work for so long, often works against their efforts to land jobs, said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas..

“Hiring companies now wonder about whether or not their skills have become less current, about whether inertia has set in, how driven are you to get back to work,” he said. “They worry that maybe other companies have seen something that they might be missing when they didn’t hire you. Employers have some of these kinds of concerns about your candidacy that someone new into the market doesn’t have to contend with.”

The concerns are largely unfair and unfounded, worker advocates say.

That unfairness has sometimes materialized as discrimination, according to research done by the National Employment Law Project. It looked at job postings on CareerBuider.com, Indeed.com, Monster.com and Craigslist.com and identified more than 150 ads that included exclusions based on current employment status, including ads that stated “must be currently employed” or “require current or very recent tenure.”

Riverwoods resident Andy Gebel said he’s had first-hand experience with the practice, since being laid off as a computer call center technical architect more than two years ago, where he was responsible for diagnosing and resolving software and hardware problems.

“It’s very difficult,” he said. “It’s very frustrating. It’s not my fault I’m unemployed. I’m looking, but they’re saying if you haven’t gotten a job in two years, there must be something wrong with you, so we’re not going to interview you, it’s like another turn of the knife.”

Such policies mean “highly qualified experienced workers who want and need to work can’t get past the starting gate in the application process simply because they lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” said Christine Owens, executive director of NELP. “As a business practice, this makes no sense, and it hampers economic recovery.”

Federal legislation has been proposed to prohibit employers and employment agencies from screening out or excluding job applicants solely because they are unemployed.

As lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., this week, the long-term employed here say they should be a priority.

Edburg said further extensions of unemployment benefits are needed “for people who are trying to get back on their feet, not only for themselves but their families.”

Jordan said he’d like to see tax incentives for companies that hire the long-term unemployed.

“More spending to boost the economy, I lean towards that,” said Gebel, who thinks that could lead to more jobs. “I think right now there’s so much of government just concerned with Wall Street and with the big corporations that they don’t care about the individuals.”

Lawmakers have reason to worry about the long-term unemployed if history is any guide. Swonk cited troubling examples in Sweden, Norway and Finland, where she noted in the early ‘90s the countries experienced a financial crisis that pummeled their economies and drove up long-term unemployment.

“Twenty years later, their labor force participation rates have never returned to pre-crisis highs,” Swonk said. “Their unemployment rates have never returned to the pre-crisis lows, and most notably the number of people who’ve been unemployed for a long period of time like we’re seeing in the United States has remained high.”

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