Remember the 99ers? Long-term unemployed workers’ invisible struggle

By Kay Steiger
Monday, September 3, 2012 14:32 EDT
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Unemployed man via Shutterstock
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Pam Sexton, 46, works at one of the world’s most prestigious hospitals — the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. But she’s an intern, and her internship doesn’t come with health insurance. When she got laryngitis more than six weeks ago, she had to go to the Salvation Army clinic for treatment.

“Kinda ironic, huh? I work at the Mayo but can’t see a doctor here,” she wrote in an email to Raw Story.

Sexton identifies as one of the 99ers, the group of long-term unemployed who struggle in today’s economy that are so named because they have exhausted the limit of unemployment benefits, which were extended to 99 weeks under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.

Through activism around raising awareness for the long-term unemployed, Sexton wrote she’s grown close with a group of about ten other “99ers,” many of whom are stringing together temporary and part-time employment while struggling to find a full-time job with benefits.

“One of my friends on FB just got offered a FT/Perm job in California and she posted that yesterday,” she wrote in a Skype chat interview with Raw Story, which was easier than talking on the phone. “You’d think we would be jealous but we are ecstatic. There’s some hope. It happens every 3 or so months.”

Sexton wrote she feels like she interviewed at nearly every company in the Kansas City area, where she’s from, before renting out her house and moving to Minnesota in search of work.

“We do not want handouts. We want to feel valued and that we are contributing. We are too young to quit the working world,” she wrote.

The new jobs and unemployment rate numbers, released on the first Friday of every month, seem far removed from Pam’s life or the plight of other 99ers.

Dean Baker, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, notes that there are flaws in the way unemployment numbers are calculated. For instance, they often don’t include those who have given up looking for work or those who have temporary or other partial employment.

According to a chart published by the Atlantic Wire, the official statistics still say that long-term unemployment is still hovering around 7.3 percent, which is actually lower than when it peaked at 8 percent in late 2010. Still, long-term unemployment is still far above the below-4 percent rate it was before the economic recession.

“It’s a huge huge drag on the economy and a huge, huge waste,” Baker said in an interview with Raw Story. For some, the longer they are unemployed, the less likely they are to ever see full employment again, especially if they are workers nearing retirement age.

Indeed, employer discrimination against the unemployed — and especially the long-term unemployed — has been well documented. A 60 Minutes story aired last month highlighted the “silent no” of job listings that stipulate applicants must be currently employed.

President Barack Obama’s American Jobs Act, which Congress never voted on, included a $4,000 tax credit for employers who hired long-term unemployed workers and ban employer discrimination against the jobless. Instead, Congress is debating how to reduce the deficit.

Baker called this strategy “otherworldly.” “If you have a really high unemployment rate, it’s very difficult to get the deficit down,” he said. “On the other hand, if you can get the unemployment rate down, you can fix the deficit.”

In the meantime, the long-term unemployed are dealing with the economy in the only ways they know how, often cobbling together part-time and temporary work, volunteer opportunities and internships.

That’s certainly the case of Wisconsin native Steve Martin, 57, who has been stringing together work at temp agencies since he was laid off more than a year ago.

“A lot of these jobs that they’re offering now, you can’t subsist on them,” Martin told Raw Story. “They’re so low paid that you just can’t. [Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker is right. He’s got a lot of jobs, but none of them that you can live on.”

Martin, who struggled with cancer just before he was laid off, notes that he faces a double whammy with low-paid jobs that don’t offer health insurance. “Generally the amount they’re giving is peanuts compared to medical bills,” he said.

Still, Martin is a bit optimistic that the temp job he’s working will eventually turn into a permanent, full-time position, even though the work is “a little different than what I’m used to.”

And some other 99ers have already gotten there. Victor, who set up the website Help the 99ers when he was laid off from his information technology job in August 2010, has since found full-time employment. Though it pays less than the job he had before he was laid of did, he told Raw Story, “It’s better than where I was before.”

Victor said he thinks this is probably why the attention on the long-term unemployment has faded. “While we were in between the resumes and the interviews, we were trying to tell people please don’t forget about us,” he said. “It’s tough to be in the position to be an advocate.”

He also saw how the message of the 99 percent, pushed by the Occupy Wall Street movement, quickly overpowered the small voices of the 99ers. “That was a good conversation to have, but we became yesterday’s news,” he said.

Now that he’s secured full-time unemployment, Victor hopes he never has to go back to the despair he felt when he was unemployed. “I hope that no one ever, ever has to deal with that again. In a perfect world, we would have a system like that.”

Note: This story is part of a series on unemployment tied to Labor Day. Read previous stories on unemployment among recent college graduatesveteran unemployment, unemployment among older workers and and nationwide teacher layoffs.

[Unemployed man via Shutterstock]

Kay Steiger
Kay Steiger
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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