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The Trauma of Long Term Unemployment

Here in the Land of Limbaugh, what's a laid-off boomer to do?

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 1:16 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Sometime in early June—he's not exactly sure which day—Rick Rembold joined history. That he doesn't remember comes as little surprise: Who wants their name etched into the record books for not having a job?

For Rembold, that day in June marked six months since he'd last pulled a steady paycheck, at which point his name joined the rapidly growing list of American workers deemed "long-term unemployed" by the Department of Labor. In the worst job crisis in generations, the ranks of Rembolds, stranded on the sidelines, have exploded by over 400 percent—from 1.3 million in December 2007, when the recession began, to 6.8 million this June. The extraordinary growth of this jobless underclass is a harbinger of prolonged pain for the American economy.

This summer, I set out to explore just why long-term unemployment had risen to historic levels—and stumbled across Rembold. A 56-year-old resident of Mishawaka, Indiana, he caught the unnerving mix of frustration, anger, and helplessness voiced by so many other unemployed workers I'd spoken to. "I lie awake at night with acid indigestion worrying about how I'm going to survive," he said in a brief bio kept by the National Employment Law Project, which is how I found him. I called him up, and we talked about his languishing career, as well as his childhood and family. But a few phone calls, I realized, weren't enough. In early August I hopped a plane to northern Indiana.

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In job terms, my timing couldn't have been better. I arrived around lunchtime and was driving through downtown South Bend, an unremarkable cluster of buildings awash in gray and brown and brick, when my cell phone rang. Rembold's breathless voice was on the other end. "Sorry I didn't pick up earlier, man, but a friend just called and tipped me off about a place up near the airport. I'm fillin' up my bike and headin' up there right now." I told him I'd meet him there, hung a sharp U-turn, and sped north.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot of a modest-sized aircraft parts manufacturer tucked into a quiet business park. Ford and Chevy trucks filled the lot, most backed in. Rembold roared up soon after on his '99 Suzuki motorcycle. Barrel-chested with a thick neck, his short black hair was flecked with gray, and he was deeply tanned from long motorcycle rides with his girlfriend Terri. "They didn't even advertise this job," he told me after a hearty handshake. Not unless you counted an inconspicuous sign out front, a jobless man's oasis in the blinding heat: "NOW HIRING: Bench Inspector."

His black leather portfolio in hand, Rembold took a two-sided application from a woman who greeted us inside the tiny lobby. He filled it out in minutes, the phone numbers, names, dates, and addresses committed to memory, handed it to the secretary, and in a polite but firm tone asked to speak with someone from management. While we waited, he pointed out the old Studebaker factories in a black-and-white sketch of nineteenth century South Bend on the wall, launching into a Cliffs Notes history of industry in this once-bustling corner of the Midwest.

The interview itself conforms to a predictable and painful sort of ballet. A manager finally emerges with Rembold's application in hand. Rembold rushes to explain away the three jobs he had listed in the "previous employers" section—stints at a woodworking company, motorcycle shop, and local payday lender. They're not, he assures the man, indicative of his skills; they're not who he is. You see, he rushes to add, he's been in manufacturing practically his entire life, a hard and loyal worker who made his way up from the shop floor to sales and then to management. That kind of experience won't fit in three blank spots on a one-page form. Unswayed, the manager thanks him formulaically for applying.

If the company's interested, the manager says—and it feels like a kiss-off even to me—they'll be in touch, and before we know it we're back out in the smothering heat of an Indiana summer. Rembold tucks his portfolio into one of the Suzuki's leather saddlebags. "Well, that's pretty standard," he says, his tone remarkably matter-of-fact. "At least I got to talk to somebody. You're lucky to get that anymore."

A Perfect Storm Hits American Labor

The numbers tell so much of the story. The 6.76 million Americans—or 46 percent of the entire unemployed labor force—counted as long-term unemployed in June were the most since 1948, when the statistic was first recorded, and more than double the previous record of 3 million in the recession of the early 1980s. (The numbers have since dipped slightly, with a total of 6.2 million long-term unemployed in August.) These are people who, despite dozens of rejections, leave phone messages, send emails, tweak their cover letters, and toy with resume templates in Microsoft Word, all in the search for a job.

Not counted in this figure are so-called "discouraged workers," including plenty of former searchers who have remained on the unemployment sidelines for six months or more. In August of this year, 1.1 million Americans had simply stopped looking and so officially dropped out of the workforce. They are essentially not considered worth counting when the subject of unemployment comes up. Nonetheless, that 1.1 million figure represents an increase of 352,000 since 2009. In effect, the real long-term unemployment figure now may be closer to 7.5 million Americans.

So who are these unfortunate or unlucky people? Long-term unemployment, research shows, doesn't discriminate: No age, race, ethnicity, or educational level is immune. According to federal data, however, the hardest hit when it comes to long-term unemployment are older workers—middle aged and beyond, folks like Rick Rembold who can see retirement on the horizon but planned on another decade or more of work. Given the increasing claims of age discrimination in this recession, older Americans suffering longer bouts of joblessness may not in itself be so surprising. That education seemingly works against anyone in this older cohort is. Nearly half of the long-term unemployed who are 45 or older have "some college," a bachelor's degree, or more. By contrast, those with no education at all make up just 15 percent of this older category. In other words, if you're older and well educated, the outlook is truly grim.

Rembold calls himself a Democrat—"not the peace sign, hit-the-bong type," he hastens to add, but "a tear-off-your-head-and-shit-down-your-neck Democrat."

As for the causes of long-term unemployment, there's the obvious answer: There simply aren't enough jobs. Before the Great Recession, there were 1.5 workers in the US for every job slot; today, that ratio is 4.8 to one. Put another way, with normal growth instead of a recession, we'd have 10 million more jobs than we currently do. Closing that gap would require adding 300,000 jobs every month for the next five years. In August 2010, the economy shed 54,000 jobs. You do the math.

Worse yet, if you imagine five workers queued up for that single position, the longer you're unemployed, the farther back you stand. Economists have found that long-term unemployment dims a worker's prospects with each passing day. "This pattern suggests that the very-long-term unemployed will be the last group to benefit from an economic recovery," Michael Reich, an economist at the University of California-Berkeley, told Congress in June.

But when you consider the plight of the long-term unemployed, don't just think jobs. The 2008 recession was a housing-driven crisis, thanks to the rise of subprime mortgage lending, government policy, and greed. As a result, 11 million borrowers—or nearly 23 percent of all homeowners with a mortgage—now find themselves "underwater," owing more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. Negative equity at those levels creates what Harvard economist Lawrence Katz calls a "geographic lock-in effect," stifling jobs recovery. Typically, American workers are a mobile bunch, willing to bounce from one city to the next for new jobs, but not when homeowners are staying put to avoid selling their underwater houses for a loss.

Another factor in the explosion of long-term unemployment lies in a shift away from temporary layoffs. In the recessions of 1975, 1980, and 1982, 20 percent of unemployed workers had been only temporarily laid off; as of August of this year, just 10 percent had. In their heyday, automakers and steel companies laid off workers as demand dipped, but backstopped by powerful labor unions, those workers were regularly recalled as demand and production revved up again. No more. Now, if you're long-term unemployed, you're undoubtedly trying to find a new job with a new employer, a more daunting process. Add it all up and you have Rick Rembold.

"Feast or Famine" in RV Land

Rembold calls himself a Democrat—"not the peace sign, hit-the-bong type," he hastens to add, but "a tear-off-your-head-and-shit-down-your-neck Democrat." He can't stomach Glenn Beck or talk radio here in the Land of Limbaugh, and with equal zeal he watches MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and FX's Sons of Anarchy, a gritty drama series about outlaw motorcycle gangs.

It was a Friday morning, and we were in Rembold's kitchen, drinking coffee and talking politics. He wore jeans and a black polo shirt, and paced as he spoke. Ideas and frustrations poured out of him like water from an open spigot; the man had a lot on his mind. The night before, I had asked him to show me around the area, especially the economic engine that sustains it: the recreational vehicle, or RV, industry. Once the coffee ran dry, we piled into my car and set off.

Cities such as Elkhart and Middlebury and Mishawaka and Wakarusa are the cradle of the RV industry. Headquartered here are major manufacturers like Jayco and Forest River. At its peak, northern Indiana churned out three-quarters of all RVs on the road—motor homes and fifth-wheels, pop-up campers, travel trailers, and toy haulers. Producing them was grueling work, but you could fashion a middle-class lifestyle out of what it paid. "Workin' in the RV industry, they'll work you to death," Rembold said. "People would literally be sprintin' from one place to the next with power tools in their hands."

Then came "the Panic of '08," as one RV salesman put it to me. Teetering banks choked off consumer lending as credit markets froze. The downturn pummeled the industry. In 2009, sales of fifth-wheels, a smaller trailer you hitch to a truck or SUV, plummeted by 30 percent, travel trailers by 23.5 percent, campers by 28 percent. Manufacturers like Jayco, Monaco Coach, and others collectively laid off thousands, and the region's unemployment rate spiked by more than 10 percent in a year. When a newly elected Barack Obama arrived in Elkhart in February 2009 to tout his stimulus plan, the jobless rate was 15.3 percent; a month later, it reached 18.9 percent, more than twice the national rate. At one point, Elkhart County, with a population of 200,000, was shedding 95 jobs a day.

In the 1990s and first years of the new century, RV manufacturers couldn't hire enough workers. They ran ads in regional and national newspapers looking for more bodies. "We couldn't even get people to drive over from South Bend to work in Elkhart," a sales rep for Jayco told me.

By the time I arrived, though, the industry had left its feast years, hit the famine ones fast, and was showing the first signs of crawling back. Driving through Middlebury, a town of 3,200 east of Elkhart, I saw a few carrier trucks hustling in or out of plants, some full employee parking lots, and rows of gleaming new RVs dotting the green landscape like herds of boxy cattle.

Whether the industry will ever fully recover, however, is unclear. The manufacturers I spoke to were optimistic about future sales. "Despite the logic of what's going on in the economy, the buyers are still there," said Jerimiah Borkowski, a spokesman for Thor Motor Coach. But a 2009 analysis by Indiana University's Business Research Center projected that by 2013 annual RV shipments still won't have returned to their 2006 peak. "I personally don't think it'll ever rebound to pre-2008 levels," says Bill Dawson, vice president and general manager of Clean Seal Inc., a South Bend-based supplier of parts to the RV industry. Dawson points to industry contractions—Thor's $209 million acquisition of Heartland RV, the Damon Motor Coach-Four Winds merger, as well as numerous factory closings—and says, "Fewer players mean fewer units and fewer people making them."

Rembold knows the RV industry's ebb and flow all too well. He's lived in its shadow for the majority of his working career, including 18 years with Architectural Wood Company (AWC), an Elkhart-based manufacturer of wood products used to outfit RVs and conversion vans. He's made handcrafted tables, faceplates, valences, and overhead consoles, usually from oak or maple, finishing them with the gloss that gives Kimball grand pianos and Fender guitars their shine.

But by the 1990s and 2000s, his line of work looked to be headed the way of the 8-track tape. The conversion van industry was sinking. RV manufacturers had begun replacing wood with cheaper plastics and vinyl-wrapped plywood. (At an RV show we visited, Rembold could step inside a vehicle and determine by smell alone if the manufacturer used the real thing or not.) Orders plummeted at AWC. By early 2006, the company's financial health was so dire that the owner, a good friend of Rembold's, let him go. A few years later, the company itself folded.

Rembold then caromed from one job to the next: selling used cars and motorcycles, driving a semi truck, working behind six inches of bulletproof glass as a teller at Check$mart. He briefly ended up back in RVs, supervising employees sewing tents for campers, and then, last winter, temped at a struggling wood shop. That was his last job. After the holidays, he was never called back.

Like millions in his predicament, Rembold knows his chances of finding a decent-paying job doing what he loves decrease with each temporary, non-manufacturing job he's taken. What doesn't fit on a resume—and so frustrates him most—is his adaptability, if only he could convince an employer of it. College degree or not, certification or not, he insists, he's always adapted to new settings. "Could I do construction? Hell, yeah, I could do it. I could measure in metric, in standard; I'd correct cutting mistakes, do it all. I just can't get anyone to let me do it."

As we talked, the RV plants gave way to lush farmland and we found ourselves driving through Amish country, sharing quiet two-lane roads with horse-drawn buggies. By early afternoon we rolled into the town of Topeka (population 1,200), past the Seed and Stove store and the Do-It Better hardware shop. Then Rembold's cell phone buzzed, a rare break in the conversation. It was his daughter, Angie, 28, the youngest of his three kids.

He listened, then yanked off his sunglasses. "You what?"

Angie managed the Check$mart in Goshen, the check-cashing outfit Rembold once worked for, and she was good at her job, Rembold had told me earlier. Now she was agitated, talking so loudly that I caught bits and pieces of the conversation over the din of the radio. Something about a bonus owed that she didn't receive. When Rembold abruptly hung up, he muttered, "Jesus H. Christ." Later, over lunch at what looked to be Topeka's lone diner, he explained that Angie planned to quit her job over the unpaid bonus. After a full morning telling me about the nightmare of being out of work, he looked stunned. "You'd think she'd have learned from my situation. I don't think she realizes how her life is going to change."

The Trauma of Long-Term Unemployment

It's hard, even for the long-term unemployed, to grasp just how drastically life can change without work. Studying past recessions to discover just what does happen, researchers often focus on the collapse of the steel industry in Pennsylvania in the late 1970s that would turn a once-thriving region into a landscape of shuttered factories and ghost towns. Eighty thousand people worked in steel in the 1940s; by 1987, 4,000 remained.

In one study, male Pennsylvania workers with high seniority experienced a 50 to 100 percent spike in mortality rate in the first year after job loss. The life expectancies of those laid off after age 40 decreased by one to one-and-a-half years. In the long run, these laid-off Pennsylvanians suffered a 15 to 20 percent reduction in earnings. Those hardest hit in terms of lifelong earnings, economists found, were not low-skilled laborers or highly skilled wealthy elites, but workers who had managed to forge a middle-class lifestyle.

Suicide rates also increase, researchers have found, when unemployment rises. (In Elkhart County, near where Rembold lives, suicides exceeded the annual average by 40 percent last year.)

The 1980s recession in Pennsylvania was no outlier either, economic researchers have discovered, and the effects of long-term unemployment spread well beyond directly afflicted workers. In the short run, for instance, a child whose parent loses his or her job is 15 percent more likely to repeat a grade year in school, according to University of California-Davis economists Ann Huff Stevens and Jessamyn Schaller. This is especially true for children with less-educated parents.

Over their lifetime, the children of jobless fathers earn, on average, 9 percent less each year than similar children without laid-off dads, and are more likely to receive unemployment insurance and social welfare support at some point in their lifetimes. New research also suggests that the children of laid-off parents may have lower homeownership rates and higher divorce rates.

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