Long-term jobless fight rejection, fear, despair

Months out of work, thousands in region drain savings, lean on relatives, keep trying.

Staff WriterFebruary 7, 2010 

  • Here is some job-hunting advice from area experts:

    Join industry associations and go to their meetings. If you can't afford the dues, volunteer to help at the events so you can get your foot in the door.

    Try to look, act and feel as if you do have a job. Maintain routines you had when you were working, including going to the gym, walking the dog or participating in community groups.

    Volunteer in the community. You'll meet new people and get new leads on jobs, expand your network and help others.

    When you meet new people who may be able to help you find a job, don't immediately hand them your résumé. Remember, you still need to build a rapport with a new acquaintance before asking for help.

    Expand your search. If you are targeting a specific kind of work, you probably already have a list of companies. Start researching who supplies those companies or works with them, and add those companies to your list.

    Look into contract work. Not only may it bring in a little money, but many companies on the brink of recovery will first hire contract workers before hiring new people full time. If you can land a contract, you could turn that into a job.

    Don't lose hope. Remember, there have been bad economies before. Sooner or later, companies do hire.

    Sources: John O'Connor of Career Pro in Raleigh, JimJohnson of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, John Worth of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

  • You may file for unemployment benefits online on the Employment Security Commission's Web site, or by phone seven days a week at 877-841-9617.

Dennis Shaver has been looking for a job for 17 months.

His wife, Patty Edwards Shaver, has been out of work for a year.

In eight weeks, the unemployment checks that have been helping to pay their mortgage will stop coming.

The Shavers, who live in North Raleigh, are among the 2.3 million people nationwide who have been out of work for more than a year. In North Carolina that figure stands at 88,000.

The long-term jobless are blue- and white-collar workers. They come from all age groups, income levels and ethnicities. And with the state's unemployment rate at a 30-year high of 11.2 percent, their numbers are growing.

That so many different people have been unable to find work for so long makes this recession unlike any other in decades.

Such widespread long-term joblessness is slowing economic recovery. Personal income is down. Bankruptcies and foreclosures are up. But it will be years before the full extent of the damage is known.

Though some experts worry about the economic damage, others focus on the psychological strain on individuals.

"It's their sense of confidence and competence," said Karen Untz, president of the Raleigh Employee Assistance Program, which contracts with companies to help laid-off employees. "It takes a bad hit. I don't care how good you were at your job."

For Stephanie Lovett, the worst part of being one of the long-term unemployed is the stigma.

"You look inside yourself and you say, 'What happened?' I've never been out of work for more than like four weeks," said Lovett, who is 53and lives in Cary.

She lost her job as an area manager for a retailer that sold maternity clothing in August 2008 after 12 years with the company.

"It took me many months to realize that I didn't work where I had worked," she said. "I still thought about the job, I still lived the job. Every day I kept thinking that it wasn't really real, that I was going to get my job back."

This recession is worse

Workers in North Carolina are eligible for an initial 26 weeks of unemployment payments. Because North Carolina's unemployment rate is among the worst in the country, it has qualified for a series of congressionally approved extensions. The latest took the total to 99 weeks, though not everyone qualifies for all that time.

That is far worse than in the last recession, when the federal government extended benefits for up to 65 weeks and unemployment peaked at 7 percent in January 2002.

In December 2008, the average length of time people were out of work was 13.9 weeks. By December 2009, that had grown to 16 weeks.

Now, more than a third of the workers drawing unemployment in the state have been doing so for 27 weeks or more.

"What I think might be different this time is no one is feeling like it's going to bounce back quickly," said John Worth, director of alumni and executive M.B.A. career management at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Outlook 'truly scary'

"The feeling now is no one is seeing anything around the corner to make this quickly better, and that's truly scary for people."

Being on a long-term job hunt is particularly hard for people who were higher wage earners, Worth said.

"I think a lot of people view [their education and income levels] as part of their identity," he said. "I'm not just a successful professional. I'm a M.B.A."

Lovett said she gets the feeling from many people she meets that she should take just any job.

"A lot of people have a lot of opinions and it makes it seem like they're saying, 'You could have a job, you just don't want a job.' But it's not that way at all."

Lovett said she doesn't have a problem taking a lesser job or a smaller salary than what she made previously, but she can't afford to make less than her unemployment benefits. She declined to say what her benefits are but the maximum now is $505 per week.

Even more important than salary for Lovett right now are health benefits.

Her husband is retired but has a small personal training business that brings in some money and helps pay the mortgage. But she hasn't had health benefits for a year.

"If you don't have insurance," she asks, "how are you ever supposed to take care of yourself?"

Financial straits

As more people find themselves among the masses of long-time unemployed, they are losing more than health benefits. Many are making difficult financial decisions.

Personal bankuptcies in North Carolina jumped from 1,806 in 2006, before the recession began, to 21,824 in 2008. For the first three quarters of 2009, the most recent data available from the American Bankruptcy Institute, filings had already reached 20,681.

Foreclosure filings in January in Durham, Johnston,Orange and Wake counties increased 119 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.

Workers are draining savings accounts, cashing in stock options and in some cases tapping their retirement funds to pay the bills.

That worries GregMcBride, senior financial analyst for the financial advice Web site bankrate.com. "Every dollar you take out of there is taxable and subject to 10 percent early withdrawal if you're under age 59 and a half," he said. "You may only get 65 cents on the dollar for what you actually pull out there. Then there's no way to get that money back in. There's no going back and making IRA contributions for previous years for funds that you had already pulled out."

Dennis and Patty Shaver have been lucky in some respects. At ages 55 and 48, they have no debt except their mortgage, and they have been helped by unemployment payments and small inheritances they received when Dennis' mother died in January 2009 and Patty's father died in November 2008.

Patty Shaver suffers from a back injury that was the result of a car accident several years ago. She applied for a few dozen jobs but has since quit her job search and applied for disability.

263 tries, no offers

Dennis Shaver has applied for 263 jobs - he has kept track - but hasn't received any offers.

Long ago, the couple cut back on travel, visits with family and eating out . Since he lost his job as an IT project manager for Siemens and she lost hers as a graphics editor for a religious newspaper, they've run through about a quarter of their savings. But so far they've managed to leave their retirement fund intact.

But Dennis Shaver said he is prepared to tap that account if he has to.

"We have a long-term plan that if I'm still out of work for another year, we'll go into retirement and pay off the house. I just won't let this situation threaten the house. I'm at an age where I can take it out without penalty now as long as I take an equal amount each year."

Others face more drastic circumstances.

After moving to the Triangle from New York six years ago, Carol Kolman was laid off in June from her job as a day-care provider.

After her husband's death in 2005, she found that he had signed away his pension and was also denied a payment from his life insurance company.

So, when she lost her job, she was already strained financially.

Family support is vital

To make ends meet, Kolman lives with her 28-year-old son, who pays the mortgage on their townhouse and helps her stay afloat.

Her two brothers in New York and her other son in Morrisville also help out.

She gets about $200 a week in unemployment, but those payments are $600 less than she used to make. She applied for food stamps but was denied because she made too much. . She is behind on almost all of her bills and traded in her RAV4 for an older, cheaper Plymouth Sunfire.

"It's very scary," said Kolman, 56. "I worry when the phone rings. I worry when the doorbell rings. I worry when I drive my car because what if something happens to my car. I live in a panic every day."

Most of Kolman's days are spent on her laptop looking for jobs.

'I apply for jobs'

She doesn't have the qualifications for many. Others require standing all day, which she cannot do. She also worries about taking a job too far away, fearing her old car won't handle the commute.

"Unemployment wants you to [apply for] two a week," she said. "I do at least five or six a week. I apply for jobs, I go for interviews. You walk out of there and you feel so confident, and then you don't get a call back."

After awhile, Kolman said, it's hard not to feel like a charity case.

"My friends go out a lot and I can't go with them," she said. "I'm a widow and I should have a little freedom. My friends will call and say, 'Come on, we'll treat you,' and that makes you feel bad. My two brothers in New York have loaned me money and don't want it back. And I'm just like, 'Oh, my God.'"

Search seems pointless

Kolman said there are days when she doesn't feel like getting dressed, doesn't feel like continuing a seemingly pointless job search.

"I don't want to work at a McDonald's," she said. "I have a degree. But it's getting to the point where, 'Oh, my God. I have five months of unemployment left and I have to find a job."

Many people are taking jobs that pay as little as half their previous salary, said Untz of REAP.

"So they're working, but they're sort of demoralized and they feel like they've been set back," she said. "They do it thinking this would just be temporary and then it just goes on."

Grieving loss of a job

Steve Simmons said he understands the desperation that comes over someone who has been laid off for a long time.

Simmons was laid off by IBM in December 2008 after 32 years with the company.

"I was profoundly hurt when I was laid off," said Simmons, 55, who lives in Raleigh. "I went into a funk. I was just depressed.

"When somebody in your family dies there are like five stages of grieving. It's the exact same thing when you lose a job."

But the only way to go is up, Simmons said. He has worked his network, attended job fairs and estimates he puts in 1,000 hours a year volunteering -- something he's committed to do with or without a job.

With two sons in college, the family is scraping by on his IBM pension and the salary his wife draws from her job at Fidelity.

And, after 13 months, Simmons said, he has concluded that there is no longer any shame in being unemployed.

"I have a girl who cuts my hair, and one day she whispered in my ear, 'My husband lost his job.' And I said, 'Why are you whispering?' ... There is no stigma against being unemployed anymore. The more people who know you're unemployed, the more people can help."

Dennis Shaver is taking a similar approach.

"Every day is a solid day of looking for that next lead," he said. "I try to keep up with different job postings. I also have a list of companies that I've targeted. On the phone I'm talking to people each day. I still maintain that 8-to-5 work ethic. I may be sitting at my own desk instead of my company's desk, but it's the same routine.

"I've never worked so hard as I have being unemployed."

sue.stock@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4649

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