Underemployed are unseen face of recession

With higher unemployment, thousands of people affected aren't part of publicized figure
2009-12-20T00:05:00Z Underemployed are unseen face of recessionBy Bowdeya Tweh - bowdeya.tweh@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

Now juggling two part-time jobs while launching a pet-sitting business, Hobart resident Deb Clemens imagined, when she was younger, having a much different employment situation at this stage of her life.

Clemens, 51, said she's lucky to have some kind of work after being laid off as a bookkeeper at a mortgage-processing firm in November 2008. She has had trouble finding full-time work since then.

"It's so frustrating," said Clemens, calling her resume "scary" because of her depth of experience. "I feel like every time I get to start with a new company, six months or a year later the thing is shutting down."

Clemens is along millions of Americans whose jobs have been affected by the recession -- even though they may not be counted as unemployed. Measuring so-called labor underutilization is one way the government attempts to track people who have lost full-time positions.

The national unemployment rate stood at 10 percent in November, according to seasonally adjusted data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that figure doesn't tell the whole story.

The federal government and the states also track those they deem "underemployed." In November, the national underemployment rate was 17.2 percent, which includes the unemployment figure. Average underemployment in the last four quarters was 16.6 percent in Indiana and 15.7 percent in Illinois. In East Chicago, Gary, Calumet City and Chicago Heights, where recent unemployment figures topped state averages, the underemployment rate could be upward of 20 percent.

Counting everyone

Who are the additional people in the underemployed statistics? The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the underemployed category includes people who are too "discouraged" to look for work at all because of their age or lack of education; those who are working part-time; and those who are "marginally attached" to the work force. So-called marginally attached workers are those who still want full-time jobs but hadn't searched for a job in the last month for whatever reason.

National unemployment data is based on answers from about 60,000 American households to questions in a monthly employment survey.

Thomas Krolik, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said national labor underutilization is at its highest level since 1994, when the current definition and method of tracking the information went into effect.

While lawmakers and local politicians struggle with how to remedy problems connected to higher unemployment, interest in the underemployed statistics has increased as well. In times of high employment, there doesn't seem to be as much interest in the underemployed. The tally also doesn't count people who may have left the labor force to attend school.

"Certainly that sentiment intensifies every time the labor market is in a period of deterioration, which is where we are now," Krolik said.

Indiana University Northwest economics professor Don Coffin said it's hard to determine where the national employment picture is heading in 2010, because many economists expect double-digit unemployment to continue.

"We're still in a recession," Coffin said. "There's not much way to get around it."

Hammond resident Amy Wilson agrees. Unemployment figures don't count Wilson because she was rehired from a layoff at her job as a forklift operator earlier this year. One catch: it was for less pay.

While unemployed for 10 months, Wilson sent many letters and faxes to the White House and state and federal labor agencies seeking help. In the few responses she's received, she believes there's a gap between what politicians are promising and what is available for people who are suffering financially.

"They have no clue what's going on," Wilson said.

Hoping for alternatives

April will mark three years since Lansing resident Bob Gross was laid off from working at the village's Public Library. At 55, he's not ready to retire, but he believes his age may have hindered his opportunities.

"I still have years of work left in me," Gross said.

He joked that a group should be created called "the unemployed of America" so people can better understand the plight of unemployment -- especially the large numbers of baby boomers without work. What isn't a laughing matter is the sense of frustration and discouragement Gross said he and others face in applying for jobs with online job banks and state work force agencies to no avail.

Speaking after working on a term paper, Denise Blackman, of Lowell, said some days the emotional toll wears on her more than others after being without a job so long.

"Some days, you're totally depressed, because you're not getting up and going to work," said Blackman, former librarian and media specialist at Hanover Central Middle and High Schools. "I always enjoyed working. I didn't consider it as a job. I thought it was fun."

Blackman, 55, has been out of work for more than six months, and she decided to take classes online through Ball State University instead of waiting impatiently for another job. She's hoping to have a license by the summer of 2011 to become a school administrator and return to working with children on a daily basis.

Money is tight, but Clemens, of Hobart, says she's remaining upbeat about her employment situation. Clemens formed Creature Comforts in November after embracing the entrepreneurial spirit and taking a hard look at how long it may take for the real estate sector to recover from the recession.

Clemens said she can understand the frustration people face when they're stuck without work, but she said the best things to do are stay encouraged and continue putting energy into efforts you believe in. Continuing your education and networking are also good ways to stay current while searching for work.

She is now attempting to grow her client base while juggling work a few hours each week at the mortgage processing company and with the U.S. Census Bureau.

"It's a matter of being willing to step outside of your comfort zone and learning something new," Clemens said. "I'm hoping it will work. I seem to be getting a good indication that it (will)."

Loss of purpose often accompanies job loss

Howard Weiss, a Purdue University psychology professor, said people find job loss so difficult because they feel like they lose so much of their identity.

Going without work for extended periods could have detrimental effects for people well beyond their pocketbooks.

"It's clear that one of the end products of long-term unemployment is this nonenergetic stress," Weiss said. "It can lead to a sense of apathy that takes its toll."

Weiss recommended people seek fulfilling activities outside of work so that if there is a change in employment, the psychological devastation could be mitigated.

One short-term solution could be doing volunteer work, because it can help provide a sense of identity and give structure to time spent, Weiss said.

Weiss also said that companies need to pay more attention to the stress "the survivors" face after their co-workers have been laid off. People still on the job can suffer from guilt, emotional insecurity and job uncertainty, which can diminish work performance.

People working in manufacturing and construction industries or those with regular periods of layoffs and rehires are somewhat insulated from these pressures, although they aren't immune to them.

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