For female veterans in NC, it's tough finding work

CorrespondentAugust 31, 2013 

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Valangenella Drummon is a veteran who was homeless for a while. She found a job with Sierra Structures, a fence company in Durham, N.C., where she works as a receptionist. Here she helps salesman David Meek with a computer problem on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Female veterans By the numbers

    14.8% Average jobless rate among female veterans in North Carolina in 2011 and 2012 – nearly 6 percentage points higher than female veterans nationally.

    6.2% State jobless rate among male veterans in North Carolina over that same period.

    18.9% Share of female veterans with a service-connected disability, compared with 16 percent of male veterans.

    22% Share of female veterans diagnosed with mental health problems.

    1 in 5: Share of female veterans who use the VA for health care who suffer from military sexual trauma. This is true of only 1.2 percent of male veterans.

    Sources: U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, Women Veterans Task Force

— Rhonda Roberts, a single mother and veteran who served in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, lost her full-time job in October 2010.

Over the past 2-1/2 years, Roberts has struggled to support her family while trying to find a full-time position that would make use of her administrative skills.

Roberts was honorably discharged from the Army Reserve after 26 years of service. She does not have a college degree, having joined the Army right after high school. She frequently includes her military service on résumés she submits, and most job applications ask whether she’s a veteran, but that hasn’t helped her break through in a tough job market.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to get back out there,” said Roberts, 44. “I do get discouraged.”

Roberts’ situation is alarmingly common in North Carolina, where the unemployment rate among female veterans is more than double that of their male counterparts, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The jobless rate among female veterans in the state averaged 14.8 percent in 2011 and 2012, compared with 6.2 percent for male veterans.

Female veterans now make up 10 percent of the overall veteran population, and a significant number of them live in North Carolina. The state was home to 87,840 female veterans as of September 2012, giving North Carolina the sixth-highest such population in the country.

Experts point to a host of reasons why female veterans are having a harder time in the labor market than male veterans. Although many of these barriers to employment affect both sexes – child care, underemployment and transportation – these issues seem to be more pronounced among women, said Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris, director of the U.S. Department for Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans.

One of the biggest problems: Many female veterans don’t identify themselves as veterans, she said. A national survey done by the VA in 2010 found that 31 percent of female veterans did not think they were eligible for VA benefits.

Trowell-Harris said the perception is that if they did not serve in combat, they are not a veteran, which leads women to not apply for benefits available to them through the VA.

The VA offers a comprehensive medical benefits package to all eligible veterans, including expanded services for women. It also offers education, home loan and disability benefits, among others, and services such as vocational and financial counseling. Currently, the VA does not cover child care, although Congress required the VA to implement a small-scale, two-year child-care program. It will end soon.

High rates of trauma

Access to health care is crucial because a higher percentage of female veterans suffer from physical and mental health problems, recent studies have found.

Dr. Natara Garovoy, a clinical psychologist at the VA in Palo Alto, Calif., said sexual trauma can “make a workplace particularly difficult” and can lead to depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. These issues, in turn, can cause memory and concentration issues, interpersonal difficulties, sleep issues, anger and other consequences detrimental to success in the workforce.

Physical conditions such as headaches, chronic pain or chronic fatigue can also lead to underemployment or unemployment, she said.

Raleigh native Patricia Harris is familiar with military-related health challenges. She retired from the Army after serving during the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm era. After a brief period of unemployment, she followed in her family members’ footsteps and became a hair stylist.

But Harris, 52, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, bad knees and chronic fatigue after her service. She left the business after 10 years.

Harris said her post-traumatic stress disorder made working hard, particularly in the fields that would use the skills she developed while working on mobile communication towers in the military.

Agencies try to help

National attention on veterans’ unemployment in recent years has resulted in a host of programs to help employ veterans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor both run programs to help veterans find jobs, and first lady Michelle Obama has championed efforts to reduce veteran unemployment.

By law, veterans are entitled to preference over others for federal government jobs. And the federal VA has a goal for 40 percent of its workforce to be veterans. Private companies have also launched their own campaigns and initiatives. UPS, Wal-Mart Stores and Sprint all run military recruitment programs to hire veterans.

All programs and companies asked said they offered the same services and opportunities to both men and women.

Although UPS hired more than 10,400 veterans in 2012, the company does not put special emphasis on gender while considering applicants, UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg said.

“Veteran status is gender-neutral,” she said. “Anybody who is a veteran currently seeking employment has the opportunity to avail themselves of the resources.”

Lane Dyer, a director of employment services within the N.C. Department of Commerce, said he did not know why female veterans in North Carolina had a higher unemployment rate than female veterans nationally. Dyer works in the Division of Work Force Solutions, which has a unit dedicated to women. “We’re working on it without even knowing the severity of the problem,” he said.

Edith Edmond, who works with many veterans at the JobLink career center in Fayetteville, said the efforts being made by both the government and the private sector are working.

“Those efforts, those initiatives – I think they’ve made a significant difference,” Edmond said.

The fight to rebuild a life

Still, there are signs that a significant number of female veterans may not be getting the help they need. Female veterans are now the fastest-growing segment of the country’s homeless population, according to the Women Veterans Task Force report, and are at higher risk of homelessness than their male counterparts and female nonveterans.

Valangenella Drummond, an Army veteran living in Durham, is among those who have spent time on the streets in recent years. Drummond quit her job in early 2010 when she became depressed after her husband was killed, and she was unable to find work when she tried to re-enter the labor market.

After her unemployment benefits ran out in November 2011, Drummond and her two daughters started sleeping on pallets and sneaking into hotel rooms to shower while the maids cleaned. She made $50 a month selling her blood plasma.

Drummond, who has an associate degree in construction from a technical college, said she went to two job interviews a week, but her homeless status made it difficult to impress employers.

“When I went out the door, so did my application, I guess,” she said.

Drummond, 43, attributes her breakthrough not to her status as a veteran but to the assistance she received from Dress for Success, a program that provides clothes and career development help to disadvantaged women trying to enter the workforce.

Drummond now works as an office administrator for Sierra Structures in Durham, where she was hired on the spot after her interview.

Vet reaches out to others

Harris, the former hair stylist, had earlier been denied benefits for what she believed was a combat-related injury because, she said, women weren’t eligible for combat at the time. She now receives disability benefits through the VA and has developed a new passion: helping other veterans.

Harris was elected the first female and first African-American commander of the state American Legion in June, a volunteer position. She now works with other female veterans, many of whom undergo the same struggles she did.

“They didn’t sign up … to be abandoned. They didn’t sign up to be homeless. They didn’t sign up to be forgotten and ignored,” she said. “They deserve that attention.”

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