Worked Out

Who are the Unemployed? Why aren't they back to work?

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 8/11/21

SULLIVAN COUNTY. NY — The numbers don’t lie, but they can sure obscure the truth.

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Worked Out

Who are the Unemployed? Why aren't they back to work?

Posted

SULLIVAN COUNTY. NY — The numbers don’t lie, but they can sure obscure the truth.

Unemployment figures just show people who are looking for work.

But there is a different kind of truth. It is the truth and knowledge of experience and interaction.

Laura Quigley is the commissioner for Community Resources in Sullivan County, and her department’s job is to talk to the unemployed and help them get back to work. She deals with the actual human beings who want to work but aren’t doing so.

And while some of us would like to point to a single conclusion, the current situation “is complicated; there’s no one answer that covers everyone,” she says.

So let’s take a look.

Who are the unemployed?

“The majority of people in Sullivan County who are collecting unemployment are entry-level,” Quigley said. “And maybe their supervisor.” [It’s] not just restaurant, daycare or box-store employees but also workers who are manicurists, hairdressers and bus drivers.

What do those jobs have in common? Many require a lot of contact with people and they are not high-paying.

“Say you’re making $15 an hour. Unemployment is roughly half of what you’re making,” Quigley said. Add the extra $300 a week, and you’re basically back to where you were when you were working.

Of course, the extra unemployment runs out in September.

But in the meantime, no problem, right? They are not paying for childcare, because they’re home and anyway daycare is still closed. No commuting, because no work. They can relax.

Except people aren’t relaxing.

“Prices are going up,” Quigley said. “Food and fuel have gone up.” The unemployed are watching that and thinking that they should wait and see what happens—pay off credit cards, lay in extra supplies just in case.

They don’t have childcare

“The majority that we talked to had children who were home” during the pandemic. The parents lost childcare, because daycare centers shut down and babysitters stayed home. “In this county, we had a shortage of childcare to begin with,” Quigley said. “Getting that back is extremely difficult.”

Plus, schools aren’t always back to full-time in-person. (And anyway, here comes summer vacation.)

Without childcare, one parent can’t go out to work. What if that one parent is the only parent? That might be behind another problem: Women are slower to rejoin the labor force.

Nationwide, 4.6 million people have dropped out of the workforce, Quigley said. “And three million of them are women.”

Meanwhile, the number of licensed childcare providers was down 13 percent in December from a year before, according to Child Care Aware of America.

“That’s three million women who’ve said, ‘I’m done,’” Quigley said.

They or family members are at risk

Going back to the unemployed: They’re mostly in low-level jobs that involve a lot of face-to-face contact with people.

Some, especially older workers, “have healthcare concerns or have family members at risk,” Quigley said.

A moving target

The number of unemployed can be hard to track. People who have taken work off the books don’t show up in statistics, Quigley said. And without tax or census data (which isn’t available yet), the county doesn’t know how many have switched to some version of self-employment: starting a business, selling stuff on eBay or artwork on Etsy, renting their home out short-term; joining the gig economy, or maybe just switching from one traditional job to another.

Are there scammers?

“A small percentage, from Wall Street to Main Street, is going to scam,” Quigley said. But the majority of people she and her colleagues have talked to had serious and legitimate reasons for not getting back to work.

Why it matters

There are problems with long-term unemployment, Quigley said. “There’s a whole psychological process; you can slip into a depression. If you aren’t engaged in something,” it can be very hard to get back on your feet again. “You might be afraid to be around people, you can lose confidence, you can lose the ability” to communicate well.

If you can look for work, now is the time.

Right now, there are lots of open jobs, so if you can go back to work, you should. Her department encourages people to “look for a job now, you have better choices” and you might be able to negotiate a higher wage.

Those interested can contact the Center for Workforce Development for more information.

Ultimately

There’s an idea out there that the unemployed are just hanging out, spending their extra cash on fun stuff.

Quigley isn’t seeing it.

Nobody’s sitting at home eating bonbons. Many folks are just trying to juggle the needs of others, and the supplemental income is simply helping them get by. “They’re going grey because they’re trying to get their kids to remote-learn,” Quigley said.

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