Aaron Regunberg: Rhode Island’s Unemployment Crisis Hurts all Workers

Friday, July 13, 2012


For the last few weeks, I’ve been meeting with jobless Rhode Islanders every day as part of a project called “Where’s the Work?” that’s focused on increasing public understanding of the unemployment crisis we have in our state. And if there’s anything that talking to jobless Rhode Islanders and listening to their stories has shown me, it’s just how ridiculous the American myth of the “lazy” unemployed person really is. From legislative proposals to force those on Unemployment Insurance to submit to drug tests, to the ubiquitous Republican put downs of “Get a job,” there is a general stigma against the jobless that permeates through all our public dialogue about the unemployment crisis.

And it is complete and utter BS.

Anyone who has had any experience with the diverse population that makes up Rhode Island’s second-highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate knows just how false this perception is. In this piece, I want to try to relay a few snapshots that, I hope, show why.

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Let’s take a look at Jolander, who is about to turn 57. She’s been in the accounting field since the 1980s—she has tons of experience, and an impressive resume that includes working as a budget analyst for CBS. And since losing her job, there is nothing in this world she wants more than to return to the workforce. As she told me, “I want to be able to work as long as my body and my mind allow me to work. There are people who told me to apply for disability—I got an injury a few years back. But I don’t want to be collecting a check that I’m not earning. I want to be able to work, to earn my way through. But it’s not happening.” Despite Jolander’s best efforts, she remains unemployed. In her own words, “I’ve looked in accounting, customer service, the other fields I’ve worked in. I’ve applied to Stop & Shop, Dunkin’ Donuts, everything that I could possible imagine. Six days a week I’m at Network RI [a state unemployment resource center] or the library, sending out resumes and searching the web. Monster, CareerBuilder, Craigslist, LinkedIn, anywhere that’s out there that you can look for a job, I’m looking. Every morning I’m here—I don’t wait till the afternoon. Five to six hours each day, every day.I’m physically fit, mentally fit, willing to work as hard as I possibly can. I’m just trying to figure out what’s the problem.”

Or take Billy Buchanan. Billy is a veteran who grew up in poverty, and is about as credentialed as one could ever hope to be. Through extreme perseverance and hard work, Billy worked his way through college, and then—during and after his deployment to Iraq—went on to earn a Masters in Teaching and Instruction, a Masters in Urban Education Policy, and a PhD in K-12 Education Leadership. Throughout every stage of his education, Billy was extremely committed to the process of finding a job. “From January to April of 2010, while I was getting my Masters in ed. policy, I applied to roughly 125-150 positions. I was not contacted to interview for any of those positions…From September 2010 until about July 2011, I probably sent out another 200 to 300 job applications.” Nothing came through for him, and all his education—which was supposed to give him a leg up on finding employment—has, in his words, “done nothing but bury me in debt.”

And then there’s Debbie, who lost her serving job in 2008 when the restaurant she worked at was sold. “I started out serving when I was 18,” she told me. “I’ve worked for 35 years. I love to work. Serving is hard work, but it was a good job, it raised my four kids, paid all the bills.” Debbie wants to get back to work, but despite her best efforts, her job search remains futile. “I can’t tell you how many applications I sent out. I applied to almost anything. There were jobs I didn’t even really want to take, but I’d have taken them. I’ve sent in applications every week since 2008. Your unemployment benefits require you to do three applications a week, but that’s not too much—I always did way more. But no callbacks.” Debbie has always done everything right. “To do all that, work your way up, and then to get knocked down at this stage of the game. To have been a good employee all those years and to not be able to find anything now. It feels like a slap in the face to all of us who have been playing by the rules, picking up every shift you can pick up, working doubles, working overtime.”

The stories could go on and on. I’ve spoken with folks who’ve lost their homes, who’ve lost their marriages, who’ve lost nearly everything to unemployment. So let’s be very clear—nobody wants to be unemployed. Nobody wants to face the impossible task every month of paying for a mortgage and gas and electricity bills and food with the $300 a week they can get from their unemployment benefits. And nobody who’s run out of those benefits wants to try to survive on zero income. Rhode Islanders want to work, and they are doing everything in their power to do so.

But they can’t. They’re not being allowed to. The system is broken. And when we see businesses continue to ship jobs overseas (and receive tax credits from the government to do so), when we learn that the man who might be the next president of the United States made his fortune by outsourcing, when we see already-profitable companies laying off workers to increase their bottom line, it becomes clear that this unemployment crisis is not an accident, and it is not the fault of its victims. It’s time we stop ignorantly telling the unemployed to “Get a job,” and instead work together to make the structural changes we need to address this crisis. The jobless don’t need our stigma—their pain and hardship are great enough as is.


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