2011 - %3, June

"I don't have to put my child in pageants now."

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 12:38 PM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.

Meet Erin Rodriguez, the 31-year-old I've been living with in Ohio this month. Her husband, a state employee, got laid off the week before last, the source of a lot of worry around the couple's newly purchased first home, as well as the source of a sad running joke that their 11-month-old is going to have to enter beauty pageants to earn money. Erin got some news yesterday. I'll just let her tell you.

 

 

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My Sister The Squatter

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.

When I called my sister Jessica on Friday afternoon, she told me to look for the rusted-out couch frame on the front porch; I couldn't find her house, which I'd never been to before. And by "her house," I mean a house that has been foreclosed on and abandoned and in which she squats with three other people.

"There's not much to see," she said of the spacious two-story after she let me in the back door. The previous owners ripped up the kitchen walls for remodeling. In lieu of furniture, the family room has piles of discarded crap along the walls and in the corners. Upstairs in the bedrooms there are mattresses from the attic on the floor, marker on the walls (NIETZSCHE SUCKS), clothes hanging from a pull-up bar jerry-rigged out of wood and bolted to the ceiling. One of the downstairs rooms has a couch in it, and that's where my sister's boyfriend, Randall, was sitting.

This house used to belong to his parents. They bought it 10 years ago. Now, though it's big and has nice (albeit filthy) wood floors, it's valued at $40,000, which is less than they still owed on it, so they packed up and moved out last year. By that time, Randall had been looking for jobs as a line cook for months with no luck. Some of the positions he applied for had 150 other applicants. Eventually he gave up on the prospect of using his skills and shot for low-paying jobs like being a dishwasher. He applied all over town, but gave up on that, too, shortly after he asked the person in charge of hiring for a $7-an-hour job if they'd gotten a lot of applicants and the guy said, "Oh yeah. Seventy."

Jess and Randall, 35 and 33 respectively, have been living here since September. During the day, she puts on a nice white shirt and serves people $20 appetizers at a restaurant in Shaker Heights, one of the wealthiest Cleveland suburbs and once the wealthiest city in the country. At night, she goes back home a few miles away to Cleveland Cleveland, to a neighborhood she calls "the 'hood." Crime statistics seem to support this description; Cleveland's currently ranked one of the most dangerous cities in America.

While we were sitting around chatting, the back door slammed and footsteps approached. "Is someone HERE?" my sister asked, and between the squatting and the state of the neighborhood there's so much edge in her voice that I instinctively braced myself and we both started to get to our feet. There's a pet pit bull in the house, but he's a pussycat. A 23-year-old unemployed buff Navy vet who was discharged for depression and anxiety also lives here in the house, but he was very, very high. Anyway, it was just Randall's sister stopping by to say hello. "Do you want to see my gun?" my sister asked me, and she took me upstairs to show me where she keeps it in her room and explains she's got fucking throwing knives in her car.

Before this, they were renting half of a duplex at a pretty reasonable $400 a month. But Randall's been out of work for a long time now, and there's not much point in paying rent when this house is just standing here empty. It's something of a trend to occupy abandoned homes in the post-housing-crash world, and Randall's kind of a pro at this point. His grandmother also lost her house a little while back. She was disabled—when she worked at an auto plant in her 30s, a piece of sheet metal that flew off a rack sliced off both her feet; she took out a mortgage on her paid-for house after her husband died; she couldn't keep up with the payments and had to leave. When it was foreclosed on and empty, Randall moved in.

For the bulk of the time I spent at my sister's, she and Randall and the vet all talked about getting out of town, moving somewhere where there might be opportunities—West, Oregon. But they imagine they could probably get away with inhabiting this place for quite a while. "They probably won't get around to coming and throwing anybody out for a long time," says Randall, who knows from experience. "At the rate houses foreclose around here, they can't keep up."

"Recessions don't affect people like me."

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 2:52 PM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.

"So, why is it that you're here?" one of my father's coworkers, Mike, asked me. We were in the backseat of his boss James' Lexus. My dad was in the front. Together, the three of them account for three of the Lexuses (Lexi?) in the office parking lot.

"Because you guys are the only people I know here without any job- or financial-security concerns," I said.

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"You don't know the right kind of people."

Over lunch at a Thai restaurant, James explained why business is so steady at their firm, which companies hire to find them the managers and VPs and CEOs they need. "We work with people in the $100,000-plus range," James told me. The average salary of a person they place is $130,000, but they can deal in much "bigger fish," as my father calls them; right now, for example, he's been tapped by a company to find them the right candidate for a position that pays $600,000. Last year he placed someone who made $1.4 million annually, and another who made $1.5 mil. "The unemployment rate for people who make $100,000-plus is only 4 percent," James said. That never changes much. So over the last few years, while the economy's been...troublesome for a lot of other types of businesses, profits at the firm have been steady.

"Do you guys have unlimited capacity to absorb more employees? The market would support that, and support their being successful?"

"Oh yes," James said.

Their firm is part of a global group with 4,400 employees. James keeps his firm to 22, because his preference is a smaller, closer working environment. Mike is the star of the whole damn global show, the highest grosser. He generally bills more than a million dollars. Last year, my dad only billed $630,000. Though he admits he would probably make more if he worked more than 12 hours a week.

He wasn't always this fancy! About 15 minutes after I graduated from college, he got fired from his position at the head of a company; our overmortgaged, overfinanced house and cars all had to go back to the banks and dealerships that rightfully owned them. Both my parents were unemployed and effectively homeless for a while. And way before that, in order to get to that, he'd worked his way up from being a day-laborer at a moving company. After lunch, he was talking about how shortly before I was born, he made $10 an hour.

"You did not make $10 an hour," I said. That's the same wage that a lot of moving companies pay now, I offered as proof that he was wrong.

"Exactly," he said. "That's the problem. The cost of living has gone way up, but wages have just been"—and here he made a box in the air with his hands and sort of a Tupperware-closing sound with his mouth—"locked in." In 1980, when the value of $100 was the equivalent of $274 today, he got his first management job at a Cleveland business with a high-school diploma for $28,000 a year. In 2007, I got my first magazine job with a master's degree for $27,000.

My dad's been at the firm since 2003; he got into the people-who-make-more-than-$100,000-a-year, unemployment-resistant job world just in time. Everybody at the office is totally in love with super-supportive James, and they have a room where you can take naps, and they put plaques with your face etched in bronze all over the walls when you've billed for the firm a million, and two million, four million dollars. "Recessions," my dad often says, "don't affect people like me."

Advice to Self: Don't Quit Your Day Job

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 1:15 PM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.  

Let's just dispense with the most disheartening things I heard yesterday from a career adviser: It's much harder to find a job now than it was when I graduated from Ohio State University 10 years ago. Several years ago, most of the people coming to this Continuing Education Department were alumni who had careers but wanted new ones; now it's mostly people who got laid off. Because the job market is so saturated with applicants, employers can be more demanding and picky. It's important to find a job that you're happy in because you'll spend most of your life doing that, though admittedly everyone, even people who love their jobs, would prefer to not work.

I met Jeff Robek the other day at career-exploration workshop, one of many programs the Columbus Metropolitan Library has been offering since its librarians started getting overwhelmed with requests for job-search assistance in 2008. I made an appointment to talk with Robek, and while I was at it, I got myself job-counseled.

After all, it would be statistically surprising to no one if I got laid off. In that event, Robek would be a good person to talk to, because I'd probably have to move back to Ohio from San Francisco. I'd need the cost of living decrease, since I'd probably stay unemployed for a while: Before the econapocalypse, the general rule was that it took one month of job searching for every $10,000 in annual salary earned. Nobody's crunched a new stat for the new order yet, but Robek says that, anecdotally, what used to take three to six months often now takes six to twelve. He adds, "Or even longer sometimes!"

And um, I was an English major. "Overall, it's harder to find students employment in their field" in the last couple of years, says Stephanie Ford, director of OSU's College of Arts and Sciences Career Services. Not as many employers are participating in job fairs; those that do consistently cancel. The 64,000-student OSU graduates many, many people with the same academic qualifications as me every year. Now that so many people from the skilled workforce are getting laid off or downsized, new grads have to compete with them. "It's a double whammy" for graduating seniors, Ford says. "They're competing with a more talented applicant pool, and there are fewer jobs to compete for."

OSU students are therefore being advised to step up their game by doing internships, building rock-solid resumes before graduation, and mastering professional communications so they can email and interview like pros right out of the gate. Ford agrees with Robek that it is "more of a challenge" to find jobs now than when I graduated, no matter how crazy your qualifications. I invite anyone who doubts this to browse the resumes of Mother Jones' most recent crop of interns, who between the seven of them speak Russian, Farsi, Dari, Arabic, Italian, French, Spanish, and Hebrew and have worked at places like PBS' Frontline (two of them), NPR, NBC, New York Press, the Miami HeraldWashington Monthly, The Nation, Sierra, the ACLU, the FTC, and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

Fairly recently, Robek advised a local alum who was a journalist about my age. He had worked in the field for years, but had lost his job due to cutbacks. He searched and searched for work. Committed to staying a reporter, in the end he moved to DC and took an unpaid internship. "If the field you're working in has no opportunities, it might be time to find something else you're passionate about," Robek said.

"My...'skills' as a journalist are awfully...specific," I told him. "It's hard for me to imagine how they might transfer over to a different and lucrative career."

He nodded and said, "Yeah."

Alright, fuck it. After reading my editors' special report on the "do more, earn less" economy, I announced that I'm moving to France anyway. I should probably get a complementary career for my impending new life. "I want to be a farmer and make cheese," I told Robek. (A career-compatibility test names skills I do not have—like mechanical competence—as good fits for this. But I'm totally a match for the corresponding values: Tradition. Practicality. Common sense!)

In the case of a career switch, the first thing Robek counseled me to do is gather a lot of information: What do farmers really do? What's it really like? I'd need to interview some. When I told Robek I'm way ahead of him—I worked on farms for several months in my early 20s—he said I should still get an update on the state of the field, then figure out what to do to break into it. Look on Monster, stalk LinkedIn, try to get in on the ground level. In this employer's market, where bosses know what they want and can demand exactly that, I have to be able to give it to them. Which in this instance—and in many of Robek's clients' instances—will probably involve going back to school, so it's a good thing I bothered getting a master's degree. In writing.

By the time I'm done with all that, perhaps the economy will have turned around. Robek is starting to see signs of progress. In the last six months, some of those people who already have careers but are just looking to switch are feeling secure enough to come back to his office. A year ago, he was lucky to have 80 job postings on the Buckeye Job Board. "Right now, there are 200."

Speaking of Buckeyes, my temporary landlord/roommate Anthony, was one, too, and he has just been informed that he's lost his job. "Rejected by the Ohio State University!" he said when he opened his laptop after getting home from work tonight. "They just sent me a letter." He'd applied for a position that he has years of direct experience with, but clearly a lot of other people did, too. He didn't make it to the interview phase at his alma mater.

Plus: For much more on our "work more, earn less" economy, including the jobless recovery, see our current package on The Great Speedup.

Ohio Dispatch: Can My Friend Get a Job Interview?

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 11:34 AM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.  

Last week was Erin's 31st birthday. When I asked her what her husband, Anthony, got her, she said, "Not a damn thing, I'd imagine, since we might be about to be a single-income family." She was wrong: Like on Mother's Day, he came home armed with presents.

The next day, Anthony called. His employer, the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, which is slated to have its finances reduced by as much as half in Governor John Kasich's budget, had given him notice. His job ends on June 30.

"What are we gonna do, monkey?" Erin asked their toddler, Jocelyn, as she sank to the floor, sighing. "I'm going to have to start entering you in pageants." Her face brightened a little when she turned to me. "I watched Toddlers & Tiaras for the first time today. I don't know why I haven't done that. Except that it smacks of child abuse."

Jeff Robek has some better advice. Yesterday, I watched the Ohio State University career advisor deliver a whole PowerPoint deck full of advice on career exploration. He was talking to a conference room in the downtown Columbus Metropolitan Library, which invited him as part of its Job Help Center. Staff and volunteers help job-seekers with everything from the very basics—email training, online-application navigating—to workshops for professionals. CML's website is the second most-visited in the whole county. Within the site, the Job Help Center page is the most-visited page. (It's not clear how those services will be affected after the new budget passes, since libraries are also in line for a big cut.)

"A lot of the people I'm working with have been laid off or find their field is shrinking," Robek told the assembled audience. The other big demographic? "I work with a lot of older job-seekers. Fifty-plus, sixty-plus." (OSU career advising is available not just to alumni but to anyone in the community.) Robek—who is perfectly Midwestern, with khakis and friendliness and neat hair—taught me the term "encore career," which appears to be a euphemism for "professionals who are old but can't afford to retire." He pointed us toward a lot of websites that list jobs, that allow you to research possible careers, and that have stats about jobs, like which ones are supposedly in a growth period. "With the job market as tight as it is right now, employers are picky," he cautioned.

The fact that it's a hirer's market is stunting Anthony's job search. He had an interview on Friday, his first one so far, though he's got years of experience and has been applying for dozens of jobs, for weeks. He was fortunate to make it into those who got interviewed out of the 150 who applied, but he's still up against 11 other contenders. He wore a purple shirt, to stand out, and because he doesn't like to be "bland." Though he has his fingers crossed, he's not counting on that position.

At night, after work, he was still working on his communications portfolio and putting in more applications. According to Robek, the odds aren't awesome; his last slide said that only 14 percent of people land a position through advertised jobs. Seventy percent of jobs come from networking, 11 percent through staffing agencies, and 5 percent through sending resumes. "I'm making a portfolio so I can use it on interviews," Anthony said with a toothy smile as he picked up a piece of it Jocelyn had thrown on the floor. "If I ever get one."

Plus: For much more on our "work more, earn less" economy, including the jobless recovery, see our current package on The Great Speedup.

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Who's Getting Screwed by Ohio's Budget Cuts?

| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 12:01 PM EDT

Editors' note: Mac McClelland is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.  

Wildly unpopular Republican Ohio governor John Kasich has a proposal: to cut $8 billion from his state's 2011-2013 budget. Despite plenty of controversy since he unveiled the plan in March, both the Republican-controlled state House and Senate have passed versions of it. The only thing left to do is sort out the differences in conference committee before final passage at the end of the month.

While Kasich is indeed facing a gaping budget hole (though some say he's exaggerating its size), many argue that the reforms unfairly punish lower-income Ohioans. Democratic representatives say it "balances the budget on the backs of the middle class." One provision gets rid of the estate tax, which applies to only the top eight percent of estates, and another would enact income-tax cuts that return way more money to Ohio's top earners. Let's break down who's carrying the bulk of the proposed budget's burdens:

State workers: Local governments are probably the biggest losers in Kasich's budget, losing 50 percent of their funding by the second year of the plan. And prison workers worry that the provision to sell off Ohio's prisons will lead to layoffs. Altogether, a report by think tank Innovation Ohio estimates, the budget will cause a loss of 51,000 state jobs.

People who enjoy learning and/or teaching stuff: Education loses 11.5 percent of its current funding in the Kasich budget. According to the Ohio Education Association, that would mean firing 10,000 teachers. Cleveland schools are already planning to lay off at least 500 educators. At the university level, the cuts average 13 percent. Ohio State, one of the largest universities in the nation, soon will be presenting its plan to account for the deficit to its board. Spokeswoman Shelly Hoffman says the budget-balancing measures include early retirements, not filling vacancies, and raising tuition for the second year in a row.

People who go to libraries or whose houses catch on fire: Mike Gillis, communications director of the AFL-CIO, says the union's concerns with the budget are "too long to list," but that problem number one is "definitely the massive loss of public sector jobs." Those cuts won't just affect state workers. Library funding, for example, will be cut 5 percent, on top of a 30 percent cut since 2000, while demand for services has grown 23 percent in the same period. And since a lot of Ohio cities spend much of their funds on public safety, cuts to local governments mean big hits to fire and police departments. Like in Circleville, where Mayor Chuck Taylor is fretting about how to maintain the town's infrastructure. "We're cut to the bone now," he told the Columbus Dispatch. "I don't know what we are going to do. It's going to be devastating to us, to be honest."

Women who need an abortion: In a bizarre move—in that it's not meant to save money—the Senate slipped limits to abortion access into its version of the bill last week. One provision bans unincorporated (read: mostly rural) counties from covering abortion in their employee insurance plans. Another bans publicly funded hospitals from performing the procedure. That affects "pretty much all the public hospitals in the state," says Ohio NARAL's Kellie Copeland. "Some of them are the top hospitals in the state, who have top OB-GYNs who specialize in high-risk pregnancies." Exceptions will be made in cases of rape, incest, or when a woman's life is in danger. Republican lawmakers say these measures will keep taxpayer dollars from going toward abortions. Copeland says they don't, since taxpayer dollars are legally banned from going toward abortions in Ohio; procedures at public hospitals already have to be paid with private funds.

The Best Place to Work in Ohio

| Mon Jun. 13, 2011 9:44 AM EDT

Editors' note: Mac McClelland is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.

Over at the house I'm staying at in Gahanna, Ohio, everything's a little on edge.

"I'm freaking out," Erin, the lady of the house, told me on Friday. Very calmly and quietly.

"You don't look like you're freaking out," I said.

"I'm trying not to." Maybe because there was a 10-month-old skirting her feet at the moment. The day before, though, she'd turned in the paperwork to switch her family over to her insurance just in case her husband, Anthony, loses his job at the Ohio Consumer's Counsel, whose budget Governor John Kasich has proposed cutting by 51 percent. On her way home, she cried in the car for an hour while the baby, Jocelyn, was sleeping in the backseat.

That night, Anthony went straight back to work on their laptop when he got home from the office. While Erin and I watched a reality cooking show, Jocelyn toddled over to him. She's got a thing for electronics; no cell phone or remote control in her vicinity is safe. So she reached up to the computer and started tugging on the plug. "Could you not, uh," Anthony said, waving her baby-fingers away. She made a mad-baby face. "I know. I'm sorry. But I'm kinda trying to find a job."

Yesterday, Anthony shared some good news. Right now, the state budget's in conference committee, where the House and Senate are trying to reconcile their versions. And according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Anthony's boss at the OCC is trying to make a deal with lawmakers that would keep her office's funding at 75 percent. In return, along with instituting some other changes, she would resign. A lot of the reason for the OCC cut is that the state is broke. But part of it is, apparently, that lawmakers also don't like her.

Last night, a guy I knew when I was at Ohio State pointed out one industry around here that's not suffering cutbacks: defense. I hadn't seen him since I left 10 years ago, and when I stopped by his house last night he explained the security of working in weapons-systems support for the federal government. Every time they develop a bigger, more armored vehicle, he said, the enemy figures out how to blow it up, requiring a project to develop an even bigger, more more-armored vehicle. And with all the waste and padded budgets everyone's always talking about in the defense industry. "I think if I didn't go to work for a month nobody would notice," he said.

So. No economic-apocalypse effects here in his neck of the woods?

"Noooooo," he replied. "This kind of government job isn't affected by cutbacks. It's flourishing."

Friday Copycat Blogging

| Fri Jun. 10, 2011 1:59 PM EDT

Editors' note: Mac McClelland is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.  

I'm borrowing this meme from my esteemed colleague Kevin Drum today, in the interest of introducing someone.

This is my tormentor:

His name, as mentioned before, is Barack Obama. He's one of two cats belonging to the family I'm staying with while reporting from Ohio. Barack Obama parks himself on my dominant arm while I'm trying to work. He cuddles up against me while I'm trying to keep my cat allergies under control. He learned how to open my bedroom door at four in the morning, and made me suspicious about a mysterious puddle I stepped in on the kitchen floor.

Yesterday, though, Barack Obama earned my respect. As it turns out, he has a tormentor too. Her name is Jocelyn.

She eats his food (which is upsetting for the parents as well as the cat). She makes him the subject of her preferred game, which is slapping people in the face with toys and DVD cases. Then last night, while he was taking a nap, she toddled over to him and, with the full force of an unsteady baby-run behind her, threw herself onto his back.

Photo: Erin RodriguezPhoto: Erin Rodriguez

Barack Obama just lay there, wincing, enduring her ignorance about how uncomfortable this might be. Watching him, I thought maybe I didn't give him enough credit. I mean, I wouldn't attack a baby, either, but I still feel like there's a lesson to be learned about patience and tolerance here. So props to Barack Obama, whom I will push off my lap with extra gentleness 47 times today. He's good people.

"No Jobs To Be HAD"

| Thu Jun. 9, 2011 10:40 AM EDT

Editors' note: Mac McClelland is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.   

Yesterday I did something I haven't done in a really long time: went to school. Middle school. My new/temporary landlord/roommate/reporting subject, Erin, teaches outside Columbus, and I joined her for one of the last days of class before school lets out for summer.

Out here, the public schools spend nearly 20 percent less per student than the national average. The lack of resources can be challenging—one local school closed down because its AC broke and the summer heat was too sweltering for the kids. Erin's school doesn't even have AC, but she loves loves loves her job. As a writing teacher, she brought me in to talk to her students about what it's like to be a professional writer. So I spent the day fielding some excellent questions (as well as a couple of racist and homophobic ones) from her seventh and eighth graders. I also heard about their plans for the summer. Lots of them have jobs, mostly with companies or farms owned by their families. Some of those without those types of connections are having more trouble finding work, not totally surprising since job growth in this town is -4.6 percent. As one 14-year-old explained his failure to land summer employment despite having applied at several places, "No jobs to be HAD."

When Anthony, Erin's husband, got home last night, he told me he'd spent the day talking about employment as well. Since he and so many of his coworkers at the Ohio Consumers' Counsel are facing layoffs under Gov. Kasich's proposed budget cuts, his office had brought in people to talk to them about resources for getting new jobs, like résumé services. Anthony has started searching for alternate work, but hasn't had any more luck than the 14-year-old yet.

Since Kasich's budget also targets schools, I asked Erin if she's concerned that the threat of becoming a single-income household could actually be a threat of becoming a no-income household. Her school recently had to lay off a couple of teachers already, and cut a few more to half-time. But she thinks her position is secure. Ohio is one of the states where teacher seniority is protected by law, a law that teachers' unions are fighting to defend. So it's a good thing Erin's been teaching for eight years. The bad news is that the governor's trying to cut her union's power, too.