With unemployment figures dropping and more people getting back to work, there are reasons to be optimistic about the labor market. However, the upswing in employment is not affecting all job-seekers equally. For workers who have been out of work for over six months (otherwise known as the long-term unemployed) prospects are as bleak as ever. Moreover, the new jobs that are being created are not the same quality as those that have been lost. As growth in lower paying jobs outpaces that of mid- and high-wage jobs, many workers find themselves with wages that they cannot live on.
A recent Urban Institute report shows that older workers, minorities, single parents, and people with disabilities are disproportionately represented among the long-term unemployed. Compared to the newly unemployed, who might be looking for a first job, on temporary leave, or just completed a temporary job, nearly half of all long-term unemployed workers have lost a permanent job. Despite being casualties of a brutal recession, these workers are being actively discriminated against by employers—research indicates that if a job applicant has been unemployed longer than six months, their length of unemployment will have more influence than their industry experience on whether they will be considered for a position. The three million individuals who have been jobless for more than a year face a less than 1-in-10 chance of finding a job in a given month.
Compounding the problem for those who remain eligible for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits are cuts to both state and federal unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. State UI benefits are the benefits unemployed workers receive when they initially become unemployed—up to a maximum of 26 weeks of benefits. Federal UI benefits are generally authorized by Congress during periods of high unemployment, as experienced since the recession began in 2008. So one round of cuts to UI benefits is state implementation of the federal sequester cuts that have resulted in the deep cuts to unemployment insurance. A second round of cuts is related to state laws that have been enacted in the past few years that drastically reduced the maximum number of weeks a person is eligible to receive state unemployment benefits. Michigan (§ 421.27(d)) and Missouri (§ 288.060(4)) cut state UI benefits from a maximum of twenty-six weeks to twenty weeks, while Florida and Georgia offer less than 20 weeks. Illinois and Arkansas (§ 11-10-504(a)) cut their maximum benefit periods to twenty-five weeks. These cuts have also resulted in fewer weeks available of federal UI. And finally, federal UI benefits are set to expire by the end of this year. Slowly but surely, the unemployed are being left without prospects and without a safety net.
Furthermore, the jobs created in the recovery are not equal to the ones that were lost during the recession. Six in ten jobs lost during the downturn were in mid-wage occupations. In comparison, employment in lower wage occupations increased by 2.8 times as much as mid- and high-wage occupations during the recovery. The disproportionate growth of lower paying jobs will have serious consequences for income inequality in the future. The current fast-food worker strikes are reminders of the injustice of jobs that fail to pay workers a living wage; these jobs make it especially difficult for women and families to stay afloat and force workers to rely on public benefits. We need to provide people with wages that can keep them out of poverty and provide opportunities for career advancement.
A true economic recovery means an equal opportunity for everyone to get back on their feet. Right now, the long-term unemployed are being left behind, and quality jobs are being left out. We need to continue to fight the stigma of long-term unemployment and advocate for living wages.
Carolyn Sliwa, Employment and Training VISTA, contributed to this blog.