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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.

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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The answer is staring us in the face and our politicians can't seem to see it.

We need manufacturing to come back here. Right now we are mostly a service industry. Unless your job consists of taking material and turning it into a wanted product you are service. We have taxed and regulated businesses out of business.
Those that think we can just tax more out of those that still make something are fools. The creators will leave or just quit.

When you think of "jobs being shipped overseas" you're not thinking of the restaurant server, the house painter, car mechanic or any of the state/municipal workers. Yet without manufacturing creating something of value that can be exported, the service jobs can not be paid for and are shipped overseas also.

Cut services and benefits to those unwilling or incapable of working. We will provide bare minimum food and shelter.
Lower taxes and regulations on manufacturing. Those companies that are here will stay, those that aren't will be. Some of these restrictions are federal EPA, OSHA etc. and must be addressed there. But we can start here. That's the answer is anyone listening?

Comment #1 by Wuggly Ump on 2012 07 13

Aaron, you are such a partisan. Mitt Romney was not involved in outsourcing. Meanwhile, Obama's 'job czar', Jeff Emmalt(?) of GE, has outsourced over 10,000 jobs to China. You are such a partisan hack.

Comment #2 by Dave Barry on 2012 07 13

Dave, I don't think in general I'm a partisan hack--I've been calling out RI Democrats on this site consistently--but in that last paragraph, you're right, there are a whole lot of Ds I could have mentioned. One that leaps conspicuously to mind is Clinton's administration, which allied with corporate cash to push through NAFTA, a huge job-killer. Thanks for keeping me honest (though the facts are pretty clear that Bain was involved heavily in outsourcing).

Comment #3 by Aaron Regunberg on 2012 07 13

Spend a few weeks talking to business people and you will learn that there are jobs out there but the qualified workforce is horrible. Many businesses can’t grow because there is nobody to hire.

Try asking your young unemployed when you interview them. “what’s ten times ten?” You will get the drift very quickly. The progressive mantra of throwing more money at education will fix this?

You have had progressive democratic rule in this state for over 70 years. Social issues like abortion, gay rights, animal rights, immigration rights don’t bring jobs to RI. The leaders have neglected education reform, pandered to special interests and could give a hoot about jobs. The results speak for themselves.

You have obama in office for 3.5 years and there is not even a hint of a LONG TERM plan to get the US economy competitive, foolish short term stimulous that didid nothing but create trillions of debt.

If you have been out of work for more than 2 years, I can tell you that you are probably looking for way too much money or you are way underqualified. There were many people that were way over employed during the boom prior to 2008. They were hired by companies just looking for bodies. Those people don’t understand they have no saleable skills. They were hired just to fill work stations.

Finally, for those that have been unemployed for more than a few years. You need to change your lives. I have no intention of supplementing their lifestyle. They need to move in with relatives, move out of state or move back to their home country. These people need to stop looking for the US government to solve their problems and start solving them on their own.

Comment #4 by jon paycheck on 2012 07 13

"If you have been out of work for more than 2 years, I can tell you that you are probably looking for way too much money or you are way underqualified."

Jon, you're entitled to your opinions, but this statement is false. The people I've been speaking with are willing to take anything, by and large. The other day I met with a former VP of sales for a NASDAQ company who said he'd take a greeting job at Wal-Mart if he could. People are not being picky, they're not insisting on the same salaries or even the same ballpark of salary. They just want to survive, and are looking at every opportunity to do so, and are in so many cases finding nothing.

"Finally, for those that have been unemployed for more than a few years. You need to change your lives. I have no intention of supplementing their lifestyle."

Dude, do you not think this is happening? People are moving into homeless shelters every day. People are not eating well, they're not getting even the most basic amenities necessary to live healthily. I think you need to have a few of these conversations with real people yourself, instead of making these assumptions that have such little basis in reality.

Comment #5 by Aaron Regunberg on 2012 07 13

As far as the outsourcing comment. We are all guilty of outsourcing.

We want to blame companies for moving overseas but the fact is they can make their product and ship it back here for less than making it here. The companies did what we all do everyday, we look for the bargain.

Until our elected officials understand companies will move to where it's cheapest to do business, nothing will change including jobs.

If you get a job don't give the boss a reason to let you go. Prove your worth. Come in clean and well groomed, dressed for the task assigned. Be great to our customers, you have more to fear from them than you think, remember they are the boss' boss. Customers are shopping around for the best cost/benefit ratio just like you. You want them to come back.

The company doesn't owe you a job only compensation for work performed. The more of a benefit you are to the company the more the company will try to keep you, in other words more pay, benefits and a steady job for you.

Comment #6 by Wuggly Ump on 2012 07 13


I have a stellar record at my office. I show up early, well groomed, do my job and set standards for others to follow. I help my fellow staff and my supervisors and am an exemplary team player. I am being laid off with letters of reccomendation that are so glowing they make me blush with pride.

I am being laid off from the DLT. I work for Unemployment.

People want to work. I talk to them every day. Aaron is absolutely right.

Comment #7 by Jonathan Jacobs on 2012 07 13


have you asked if these folks have gone to temp agencies? I find that temp agencies can pretty much find you a job even in this piss poor economy.

One of the questions we also should ask is why is RI the 2nd most unemployed state and not the most employed state? What are the 48 other states doing right that we're doing wrong?

I'd love to see answers to that.

One thing I know Boston does better than RI is invest in their commuter transit. You now have a Massachusetts train starting from Wickford RI. Mass is trying to gobble up any technically skilled labor person in RI and there are a number of people on my train every morning. RI needs to get better at attracting talent and attracting businesses. Deals like 38 studios were kinda silly and I agree we need some policy shifts to turn things around.

I also don't think most people see unemployed people today and just say 'get a job'. Many have been in their position during this economic downturn. But RI is just not making the right moves to spur business and that's the fault of our political leaders of the last decade.

Comment #8 by Donn Roach on 2012 07 13

its your column. do yourself a favor and talk to some business owners.

and btw, i was laid off once. it was painful, had 2 kids, but i did everything i could to do what i had to do . i started own business. im still here..

and i had no government assistance.

one more thing.. i just walked out of a conveniece store ten minites ago during alunch break.... a woman from a group home nearby was there. she bought a pack of cigarettes.......

do yourself a favor.. look at the flip side of the issues.....

Comment #9 by jon paycheck on 2012 07 13

Jon, were you laid off since the recession started?

Donn, from what I can gather temp agencies are pretty much the first place many folks go to find work. A couple folks I've spoken to have managed to get couple-week-long gigs every once in a while, but that's about the extent of it. In the words of one woman I met who used to work through them and checks them very regularly, "Even the temp agencies don't have jobs nowadays." I think you're very right about RI needing to invest in transit.

Comment #10 by Aaron Regunberg on 2012 07 13

Aaron, take their benefits away......all of them, and you see how fast they get a job.
I can't speak for ALL of the unemployed, but I do know alot of them, and many people I know don't WANT to work. They get by on unemployment, extended benefits, yada yada yada. When that's all done, the apply for welfare and they're good to go. Who needs to work????
I've never collected a dime from any government agency, I've always worked, and would be ASHAMED of myself as a human being, if I didn't have a job.
Most of these people are dispicable!!!!!!!

Get rid of the benefits and giveaways, and they WILL go back to work.

Comment #11 by pearl fanch on 2012 07 14

@Jonathan Jacobs I am sorry you lost your job. Please note my first response to this article, the jobs going overseas.
We must be looking at the mindset of a politician before voting for them in November. If their ideas are raising taxes instead of cutting waste and spending we must vote them out. You worked for the state, any waste that you noticed?

Some will state that manufacturing will never come back. It will either when we make an environment attractive in our state, or when we are reduced to a third world economy. Please note whats happening in Europe.

Comment #12 by Wuggly Ump on 2012 07 15

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