Hidden and Hurt: Out of Work for More Than 99 Weeks

Two men named Bob. Both are over fifty. Both had been working consistently for nearly three decades before losing their jobs in 2009. Both were out of work for more than 99 weeks.

Now there is one glaring difference. Bob Greeney is employed. Bob Sullivan is still fighting to get back into the workforce.

Friendly and candid, the 61-year-old Mr. Sullivan worked in the travel hospitality industry until his former company closed its Boston branch. After taking a brief pause to care for his mother, he said he went through job agencies, attended job fairs and applied to scores of jobs online.

“Still, no bites,” said Mr. Sullivan, whose ongoing search, day in and day out, continues. “It’s just a malaise you fall into. It’s like having a slow disease, especially if you get rejected or don’t hear back.”

The battle to get back to work is indisputably grueling, and Mr. Sullivan and the other roughly 4.7 million people who have been unemployed for over six months know all too well that as each month goes by the stigma of long-term unemployment can make it increasingly more challenging to find work

“If someone is out of work for a while the perception from employers is that there must be something wrong with you, and after a couple of years the people themselves begin to believe they don’t have any value, that it’s over for them,” said Joe Carbone, creator of Platform to Employment, a five-week program that focuses on retraining and placing “99ers” into eight-week internships with the possibility of that turning into a job. The term “99ers” refers to those out of work for 99 weeks or longer and whose unemployment benefits have run out.

“We don’t see bread lines. But that despair is there, it’s just behind closed doors,” said Mr. Carbone.

Hopelessness, coupled with the waiting, rejection and the isolation that’s often associated with long-term unemployment, are not the only issues this group faces. Simply applying to open job postings in the first place isn’t always a given. Employers looking to hire can legally discriminate against the long-term unemployed.

“Telling a person, ‘don’t apply if you’re out of work,’ was widespread,’’ said Mr. Carbone, who is also president of The WorkPlace, a non-profit devoted to assisting the long-term unemployed. “But the companies who still do it have become wiser and try to put a positive spin on it by saying ‘must be employed’ instead.”

Mr. Greeney spent twenty-nine years as a sports writer for a number of local newspapers before being let go as part of the consolidation effort after The Stamford Advocate was bought by Hearst Media four years ago.

“I naively thought I’d be okay,” said Mr. Greeney, 55. “I knew I was a hard worker, that I could multitask, deal with deadlines and deal with people.”

“We don’t see bread lines. But that despair is there, it’s just behind closed doors,”

- Joe Carbone, creator of The Platform to Employment and CEO of The WorkPlace

He said he was disheartened to realize that most workers over 50 are not given the chance to reinvent themselves in a new career, and that the job market, which has roughly 300 job applicants for every one job opening, was so stagnant.

“June 24th, 2009 until May 2nd, 2012. I was out of work for 1,044 days,” he said.

Finally, in May 2012, three years after being laid off and following a round of testing and interviews, Mr. Greeney got a job as a Metro North ticket collector in New York City. Mr. Greeney, who was connected to his current employer through the Platform to Employment program, said he was grateful for the opportunity.

“It was my first, best and only offer I got,” said Mr. Greeney, who went without insurance after his Cobra coverage ran out in October 2010.

Taking a job outside your chosen industry was not always encouraged, said Mr. Carbone. But now it’s not even a question.

“Once you’re in a job, you’re in an entirely different category with better job options in the future,” he said.

According to the numbers, the pervasiveness of long-term unemployment cuts through all walks of life, with gender, race and education all having a relatively similar percentage among the long-term unemployed.

The only group that stands out among the long-term unemployed is older workers, with almost half of the 3.5 million currently out of work for over a year at 45 or older, according to the Department of Labor.

“It’s not new that older workers have a more challenging time,” said Joan Cirillo, the president of Operation ABLE, a Boston-based non-profit helping the 45 and older age bracket. She explained that in the last four years they’ve seen things become increasingly dire for more people.

“There are a lot of pre-retirees who would have liked to retire but lost a big portion of their portfolio,” she said. “And those who don’t find anything wind up living a limited life, tapping into their 401k and many then becoming discouraged workers.”

The number of “discouraged workers,” which describes those who want to work but have given up on ever finding employment, is currently 6.8 million, according to a new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP).  And while these people are not counted in the official unemployment rate, the group continues to grow.

“This situation is exactly what you would expect given how bad the recession was and how weak the recovery has been,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

She said that while ‘technology taking over’ and ‘doing more with less manpower’ are two popular conversation pieces, neither narrative is particularly true.

“It really captures the imagination of public discourse, but if people were really doing more with less we’d see an acceleration of productivity growth,” said Ms. Shierholz. “The real reason there isn’t a pickup in hiring is employers are not seeing the demand.

The proposal to raise minimum wage, according to Ms. Shierholz, is also not a big job killer, though it might seem threatening. Citing a Center for Economic and Policy Research study by John Schmitt, she said the findings conclude, “that the minimum wage has little or no discernible effect on the employment prospects of low-wage workers.”

Ms. Shierholz said the best way to alleviate the anguish would be if the government stepped in with fiscal stimulus because with interest rates at near zero and so many austerity measures in place, including recent cuts from sequestration, she believes government intervention is the only way to spur much-needed growth in the economy.

“[Long-term unemployment] is a total human disaster,” said Ms. Shierholz. “Letting this huge group of people languish, it’s a huge, glaring symptom of needing to get jobs back more broadly.”

At both Platform to Employment and Operation ABLE, a primary focus is addressing the emotional needs of the long-term unemployed: the crippling loss of confidence that plays deeply into the psyches of so many.

Mr. Carbone, P2E’s creator, knows firsthand how it feels to be out of work. He said 16 years ago he was laid off and during his time between jobs he would travel twenty miles from his home so that he wouldn’t have to go to his local grocery where he knew people.

“My wife got concerned when I started watching soap operas instead of cleaning up the house,” said Mr. Carbone. “You just begin to lose that element of faith in yourself. You’re suffering from a deprivation of hope.”

The Platform to Employment is trying to revive that hope, and soon its training program, which is free to those who are accepted, is going to be offered in 10 different cities across the U.S. with a focus on helping people 50 and older. (AARP is one of the sponsors.)

Operation ABLE, which offers 6-13 week retraining classes that teach everything from computer and interviewing skills to getting internships to actually finding a job, is steadfast in its role.

“We work with them until they find work,” said Mr. Cirillo. “We stick with them like glue and see the training as a means to an end -- and the end is a good job.”

Bob Sullivan is currently enrolled in one of Operation ABLE’s training programs that was paid for through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. The former travel representative is eager for any type of work.

“I enjoy working with the public and I’m good with customer service,” said Mr. Sullivan. “I am very reliable and I still feel very young.”

Bob Greeney also feels young -- especially now that he no longer has the stress of finding work weighing down on him.

“Every day it was ‘Am I going to get hired? Will I ever get hired?’” said Mr. Greeney. “So after my interview with Metro North, I walked down to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and said a prayer.”

Mr. Greeney found out he got the job right before Christmas, on his mother’s seventy-ninth birthday.  (He was hired in December 2011, but did not officially start until May 2012.)

“It was fantastic. There had been a lot of despair and she felt like her prayers had been answered,” he said.

Four years after the official end of this recession, Mr. Carbone said there needs to be more done surrounding this issue -- in both preventing discrimination through legislation and incentivizing companies to hire the long-term unemployed.

“We can’t give up,” he said. “As this economy gets back on its feet, sometimes I think [the long-term unemployed] are the sacrificial lambs and by being passive and not speaking out in support, it makes us all complicit in their demise, and there is something very un-American about that.”

Christina is on Twitter @ChristinaScotti