Discouraged, Disillusioned, and Ultimately Disposable

A new study released yesterday demonstrates just how bad it is for the American worker in mid-2003. In The Disposable Worker: Living in a Job-Loss Economy, we learn that nearly one in five workers (18%) suffered layoffs from a full- or part-time job in the last three years, with low-income workers particularly susceptible to layoffs (23% for workers making less than $40,000 per year, compared to 11% for workers making over $40,000). The vast majority of these workers were laid off with little or no notice (64%) and no severance pay (65%). As the survey concludes, “the current troubled economy is hitting many workers hard–particularly lower-income and minority workers.” No kidding.

Between June 10 and 21, 2003, researchers at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut interviewed 1015 American workers as part of Work Trends, “a national survey series that polls American workers and employers about issues affecting their lives in the economy, the workforce, and the workplace.” What researchers found were workers expressing concerns over economic issues related to employment at the highest level since the Work Trends series began in 1998. Workers, regardless of their political affiliation, think that the president could do better handling issues related to jobs: only 8% thought President Bush was doing an excellent job handling job issues, while 31% said that he is doing a poor job. Congress gets even lower marks, with only a whopping 2% giving it high marks, while 33% rating it poorly.

As pessimistic as the results are, the survey may not even fully reflect the seriousness of the situation nationally. Workers who have dropped out of the workforce and are no longer looking for a job are considered “discouraged workers,” and were not included in the survey sample (or national unemployment statistics.) And 35 percent of survey respondents who found new jobs after being laid off said they were underemployed, earning less than they had before. As Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, notes, “To really get a picture of the breadth of the pain doled out by the jobless recovery, you need to account for … those who are employed in less than optimal situations.” (See Newsday article.)

The experience of polled workers resonates with other workers interviewed for news stories about the Work Trends study release. Serge Kher, a 48-year-old father of four, was formerly the general manager of a car dealership in Virginia Beach until he laid off in March. Since then, he has had only one job interview, even after sending out 107 resumes, trolling Internet job sites and looking into different fields. He says, “I’m starting to go crazy. There are days when I feel that I’m worthless.” (See USA Today article.) Sheila Ireland, a former home health care aide who hasn’t worked in four years, says, “I know what it is to not have money and to have to support yourself.” (See Newsday article.)

Researchers conclude from the survey results that a backlash is brewing amongst workers angry about the unemployment crisis. Study coauthor Carl Van Horn asserts: “There is a ticking time bomb of concern among American people about the economy. For employers and political leaders, it’s volatile. Employers need to think about what are the consequences to not giving people a soft landing when they do have to cut back their workforce.” According to Van Horn, one of the reasons most employers do not extend severance pay or benefits to laid off workers is because of the jobs lost in this recession are gone forever–for instance, in manufacturing. Since workers are not likely to return to their old jobs, “the employer is less concerned what the employee thinks about them,” he said. (See Chicago Tribune article.)

What solution to this very serious problem do workers favor? More support and intervention from the government to assist the unemployed. Fifty-seven percent of workers strongly agree that the government should help laid off workers keep their health insurance, while 39% strongly agrees that the government should help unemployed workers pay for education and training for new jobs and careers. Nearly one-third (32%) support extending unemployment insurance benefits beyond 26 weeks. More than 70% support federal reemployment accounts, which would provide individuals with their choice of reemployment and training services, as well as cash incentives for quickly finding new work.

Do the Work Trend researchers consider the recession over, despite the high unemployment rate? (See 7/17 blog entry for more information about the claim that the recession is over.) Not by a long shot. As coauthor Van Horn states, “There are still a lot of people unemployed. If you’re a typical person and not an economist, you don’t really care about the GDP.” (See USA Today article.) Now, if the politicians would just stand up and take notice of this study, perhaps some of the solutions to widespread unemployment will start to see action this fall in Congress.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.