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Voices of the unemployed: Frustrated, angered by empty search

Posted Dec. 13, 2012, at 1:20 p.m.

There’s an unemployment crisis in this country. And people are angry.

For many families — lucky families — it’s invisible, happening in some far-off place, to some other family.

For me, it’s very personal. It’s an ordeal that has stretched on for nearly two years.

This week I attended the mandatory “eligibility review interview and workshop” at the local Department of Labor Career Center. The notice of the workshop was tucked in one of the 10 pieces of mail I got last week from the Labor Department regarding my eligibility, ineligibility, work search log(s) and weekly reporting.

Only one in 10 unemployed people get “selected” for this workshop. It’s the second time I’ve been “invited” to attend.

Last time, I was frustrated and annoyed.

I was sure, certain in fact, that it was just a matter of days — maybe a week at most — until I would be re-employed. After all, I was a very experienced and talented professional who had phenomenal contacts and had accomplished great things.

Two years later, I am a bit more humble.

I have had temporary work — good work — doing things I am good at and like, working with great people. But nothing permanent.

This time, I listened. And this is what I heard. People are angry that they are unemployed. Not just on-the-surface angry but a deep-seated, deep-rooted anger at a system where employers have all the power, and no matter how hard you work, how dedicated you are, how many years of service you have given to that employer, you can be laid off. And then there is nothing. Nothing but unemployment, bureaucracy and mandatory workshops.

I’ve heard people who still have a job talk about being unemployed like it’s a vacation. It’s not.

Our society revolves around work for socialization, companionship and money. Unemployment is isolating and devastating, and being turned down for job after job is humiliating.

Unemployment breeds insecurity, and, perhaps even worse, it cuts you off from your social circles and norms, the daily coffee with co-workers, the act of getting up in the morning with a place to go, something to do. And it brings with it an inescapable message: You are expendable. And as an employee, you are powerless to do anything about it except move on.

I heard this frustration, this anger, in people’s stories. Being laid off because the district manager changed. Losing your job because your supervisor felt you were rude to a customer despite four years as a top performer. Being laid off from a job you had for 20 years because, after a car accident, the company felt you could no longer do your work.

None of this is supposed to happen. There are laws right? Yes. But the deck is stacked by the employer, the one with the resources to hire the lawyer, who can wait you out, deny you unemployment benefits.

Too often, the only protection workers have come from their union, if they’re lucky enough to belong to one.

At the same time I was attending the Labor Department workshop, the Michigan Legislature was working to silence the only voice workers have: unions.

Anti-union, right-to-work legislation — which is not about rights or work — was being railroaded through by a lame duck Legislature.

Last spring, as the Maine Legislature was getting ready to gut workers compensation, I watched as the AFL-CIO, Maine State Employees Association, Maine People’s Alliance and others lined the halls with workers telling their stories.

I heard from injured workers whose lives used to be like yours and mine. They went to work, watched football with friends on Sunday, went to the movies with their spouse, hunted with their buddies. It all changed in the blink of an eye.

They were injured on the job through no fault of their own.

Now, they struggle to get out of bed, eat on their own and to navigate a world that isn’t accessible.

They are haunted by the question of whether they will be able to work again. And they are forced to fight with the insurance companies for the right medication, for physical therapy, for a mattress that does not give them bedsores.

Like the folks who can’t find a job, there was anger in their voices. Anger at losing their livelihood. Anger at their lives being swept away from them. Anger at not ever being “normal” again.

In Michigan, in Maine and around the country, these are the voices that are being silenced.

It’s time we put our political focus where it belongs: on building good jobs that pay a living wage, lifting people up, replacing anger with hope.

Over the last 14 years, Peggy Schaffer of Vassalboro worked for the Maine Legislature as a lobbyist for a state agency and as a partisan staffer. Her last job was as chief of staff to Senate President Libby Mitchell. In the last two years she has applied for more than 50 jobs and interviewed with about 20 different organizations. She was hired this election season by Maine State Employees Association to coordinate its electoral program. She is currently looking for work again.

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