workforce

Labor-force loss prompts search of churches, libraries

Posted 2/6/12

SAN FRANCISCO - In the nation’s capital, city employees are scouring churches, libraries, and community centers to find people who have dropped out of the labor force and help them get jobs.

“The most surprising thing is the length of time people have been out of work,” said Hugh Bailey, head of satellite operations for Washington’s Department of Employment Services, where municipal crews are using a mobile van made by Winnebago Industries Inc. to find people. “We ask, ‘How long have you been out of work?’ and may hear, ‘Three, four, or five years.’”

The lowest U.S. jobless rate in three years hasn’t changed the long-term picture for millions of Americans: about 5.5 million haven’t worked for 27 weeks or more and are still looking -- making up 42.9 percent of the total unemployed pool. Another 2.8 million are too discouraged to actively look for work in recent weeks or have other reasons for not wanting to be in the labor force, according to non-seasonally adjusted data released Feb. 3 by the Labor Department.

“The labor market is still worse than the official unemployment rate would suggest,” said Henry Mo, an economist at Credit Suisse Group AG in New York.

Unemployment fell to 8.3 percent in January from 9.1 percent a year earlier, and payrolls increased by 243,000 workers, extending from professional services and hospitality to manufacturing. Job gains haven’t done much to boost the percentage of the population participating in the labor force: 63.7 percent, the lowest level in three decades. Last month’s drop in the participation rate reflected adjustments to the labor force count resulting from the 2010 census.

Shares Fall

Stocks fell today on concern Greece’s political leaders will fail to reach an agreement allowing the nation to receive a second bailout from international creditors. The Standard & Poor’s 500 dropped 0.3 percent to 1,341.37 at 10:02 a.m. in New York, snapping a three-day rally.

Data today showed German manufacturers were weathering Europe’s sovereign debt crisis on growing demand from outside the region. Orders to factories, adjusted for seasonal swings and inflation, rose 1.7 percent from November, when they slumped 4.9 percent, the Economy Ministry in Berlin said today.

Long-term unemployment in the U.S. is a focus of attention among Federal Reserve officials, who last month said they would keep borrowing costs low through at least late 2014 to boost the economy and put more Americans back to work.

“We’re concerned that the large amount of long-term unemployment may be causing some workers to lose skills or lose labor force attachment,” Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said at a Jan. 25 news conference.

Household Survey

Labor force data is released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and based on a monthly survey of 60,000 households that uses a geographical sample to extrapolate the total number of employed and unemployed people 16 and over looking for work in the four weeks prior to the data-reporting period.

Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York concludes that the percentage of men active in the labor force has declined “considerably more than” women.

That’s possibly because industries such as construction suffered disproportionately during the recession compared with education or health care, according to a paper released in December by bank economist Richard Peach, analyst Josiah Bethards, and Joseph Song, a former researcher. The participation rate among workers over the age of 55 is dropping faster than their younger counterparts for reasons that may range from the availability of early retirement packages to a lack of job opportunities and age discrimination, they said.

Demographic Changes

About a quarter of the decline in the labor-force participation rate from 2008 to 2011 among 16- to 79-year-olds is due to long-run demographic changes, such as the retirement of baby boomers, economists from the Chicago Fed said in a paper released Feb. 1.

The efforts in Washington to find both the long-term unemployed and out-of-work who have given up searching has found a roughly equal number of males and females in the pool of “disaffected, disconnected” workers who have “checked out,” mostly between the ages of 22 to 44, Bailey said.

“There are a large number of reasons why people are not working or engaged in the process,” he said. “We found some people homeless and living in shelters, some living with family members, some having been involved in illegal activity, and many relying on public assistance programs. Some found themselves not believing they would be able to get back to work, and some have grown accustomed to not finding a job.”

Tanya Smith, 46, said she is ready to begin looking again after losing her last full-time job in 2008 as a teacher’s aide, which paid $13.63 an hour.

Looking for Work

“You go on enough interviews, it does take you to that point where you think, ‘No one’s going to hire me so let me get out for a little while,’” said Smith, a mother of four from Washington. “I know there’s a job out there for me. Where it is, I don’t know.”

Smith said she spent September through December of last year doing housework, volunteering at her church, and attending parent-teacher meetings at her son’s school. Meanwhile, she relied on her husband’s salary as an assistant supervisor at a university, along with income from his side business repairing watches.

Washington officials have placed more than 2,000 out-of- work people since September, using a campaign in five languages that also includes public-service announcements and websites such as Twitter Inc.’s twitter.com and Facebook Inc.’s facebook.com, said David Thompson, spokesman for the city’s Department of Employment Services. More than 450 employers -- such as Safeway Inc., CVS Caremark Corp., Denny’s Corp., and 7- Eleven Inc. -- are participating in the program.

Outreach Programs

The city’s efforts go beyond those being made in some states where unemployment levels are among the highest in the country.

In California, where the jobless rate was 11.1 percent in December, reaching out to workers needing a job “has grown more difficult as layoffs have soared and funding of our programs has dwindled,” Patrick Joyce, a spokesman for the state’s employment development department, said in a statement.

Michigan, which had 9.3 percent unemployment as of December, has no program to reach out to discouraged people who have dropped out of the labor market, according to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Agency.

For millions of workers counted as long-term unemployed, the search continues. Teresa Johnson, 56, hasn’t had a full-time job since April 2005, when she was earning $5.25 an hour as an administrative assistant and secretarial trainee.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Johnson, a Washington, D.C., resident. “I do a lot of praying. You go through a lot of headaches and it wears you down.”

Still, “you feel a little bit more confident when somebody is helping you find work,” she said of the city’s outreach efforts.

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