Long Term Unemployment Persists in Rhode Island

Jun 20, 2013

Imagine having nowhere to go in the morning. You’re constantly worried about money. Your self esteem is low and you’re forced to dip into savings to pay for life’s most fundamental needs. This is the lot of the unemployed in Rhode Island – the daily struggle of some 49,000 residents. And the desperation only increases with the passage of time.

Dan Walsh is one of Rhode Island's roughly 12,000 long term unemployed.
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

Dan Walsh has been spending a lot of time at his Central Falls condominium this year. Sitting at a laptop in his combined office/bedroom,  he types in the words “graphic designer  New Hampshire,” and “graphic designer Colorado” in search of an opening.  Walsh was fired last year from a six-figure management job at CVS.  He’ll never forget that day last August when his supervisors called him in and confronted him with rumors that he was having a relationship with a subordinate.

“It was August 1st,” he recalls “And I had been .. I ended up dating a person that worked for me. So we’re still together. We’re really happy. She’s working now. But we were given a choice. They asked us what was going on and we said ‘this is what’s happening and we wish it didn’t happen but this is what’s happening.’ And then eventually both of us were let go. I was let go without a severance, without any fallback plan or anything except my savings.”

Walsh estimates he has sent out 500 resumes in the past ten months. Most of the time, he says he hears nothing – not even a rejection email. 

“The stress is definitely palpable,” he says.  “Sometimes you forget. You’ll be having dinner or you’ll be trying to enjoy something and – oh yeah! I don’t have a job. ! Oh yeah, I’ve got to call into unemployment. Oh yeah! I’m not sure how long the unemployment’s going to last for.”

A few miles away in Cumberland Ann O’Reilly, 56,  is engaged in a similar struggle.  She was fired from a day care center manager’s job 15 months ago because of sloppy record-keeping.  Like Walsh, she’s frustrated at the lack of response her resumes are generating.

“I send it out and that’s it. Out of the 80 resumes, maybe 10 [get reponses]. ‘Thank you for applying. A lot of people applied for this job. Blah blah blah blah blah. That type of thing. That’s it.”

Walsh and O’Reilly are two of Rhode Island’s long term unemployed, a term defined by the federal government as being out of work six months or longer. Roughly one in four unemployed Rhode Islanders belongs to that unenviable club. And that doesn’t count the people whose benefits have expired or who never qualified for unemployment insurance in the first place.

It’s not like no one’s trying to help them.  The state Department of Labor and Training – the DLT --  offers workshops like this one in resume writing. The Department also hosts a job bank website with a resume posting capacity and counsels the unemployed in job interviewing skills. 

Additionally, the state offers at least 13 other job training and placement programs – many of which focus on a specific group, such as veterans or seniors. Indeed, the state offers such a wide array of programs, long term unemployed residents are required to sit through an orientation program to educate themselves about all the help that’s available to them.

“It’s not that we mind paying you unemployment insurance. It’s that we want you to be employed. That’s the whole purpose of this,” DLT jobs counselor Max Factor tells about a dozen jobless people.

“What we’re here to do is to give you an understanding of what your obligations are when you’re collecting unemployment insurance, to assist you in registering on our virtual One Stop which is Employ RI, to give you some labor market information regarding jobs that might be available and hopefully make a plan for you or develop a plan for you that will help you become reemployed. “

So why can’t these people find jobs?  Recent research done by Rand Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, suggests there is a built-in bias against the long term unemployed.  Last year he sent out 4,800 fake resumes for 600 real jobs. The applicants were unemployed varying amounts of time. He found that an employer was more likely to hire someone who had no relevant experience, than someone who had experience but had been out of work more than six months.  His conclusion: companies are using software to screen out the long-term unemployed because of a belief that their skills have become rusty or there is something intrinsically wrong with them.

“Somebody who’s been out of work so long is somebody who could be a lazy person, somebody who’s not really serious about looking for a job, somebody who’s been just relying on unemployment benefit paychecks and waiting at home doing nothing,” says Ghayad.

Charles Fogarty, director of the DLT, says the most common error the unemployed make is resume writing.

“It’s amazing to me, even in this day and age, that even well-educated people do a very poor job at putting their resume down. And today particularly when large corporations have computer programs that scan it, you could have the perfect skill set and experience they need and if it’s not formatted the right way you’re not even going to get considered,” says Fogarty.

Kathy Aguiar, a DLT counselor, teaches the jobless the importance of having a resume that reflects the words the employer uses in a job description.

“Your resume’s going through a computer before the employer will even look at it with their eyes. That’s a problem. We’re going to teach you how to communicate with the employer by using certain words on your resume,” she tells her hopeful pupils.

The roughly 20 jobless people who sit in front of Aguiar in a West Warwick classroom look defeated.  That’s the look that psychiatrist James Greer sees when he counsels the unemployed at the Providence Center.

“People feel like they have lost their meaning in life,” says Greer. “ I hear people complaining that they feel that they’re no longer of use, that they’re not valuable any longer. Many of them are parents and feel deeply ashamed that they are not able to care for their families in the ways they want to. People who’ve been in traditional ‘breadwinner’ roles finding themselves suddenly having to re-assess who they are. “

Experts counsel the jobless to be open minded to new lines of new work – and perhaps even a new home.  DLT director Fogarty concedes some people may have to leave Rhode Island to find gainful employment.

“For some people it may make sense for them to look at job opportunities elsewhere where the economy is stronger,” says Fogarty.  “We obviously don’t want to lose any well-qualified Rhode Islanders but individuals have to make that assessment themselves.”

Ann O’Reilly and Dan Walsh are trying in their own ways to be flexible. She’s branching out from day care to sales positions. He’s willing to move just about anywhere to find a job as a graphic designer. And yes – he plans to marry the woman who cost him his job – once he lands a new one.

“You paid a deep price for love,” I remind him. “Definitely,” he says.  “I mean I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’d probably do things a little differently but it’s funny because we worked so well together.”

In the long-term, his new love will probably give him more satisfaction than his old job ever did.  But that doesn’t make his current predicament any easier to take.

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