[Hpn] After attacks, the jobless rate climbs and assistance is harder to come by for America's working poor

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Tue, 30 Oct 2001 12:29:39 -0800


Page 1A 

Tough times for laid-off, low-income workers After attacks, the jobless rate
climbs and assistance is harder to come by for America's working poor

By Stephanie Armour

Les Johnson is barely hanging on. With no home of his own, he sleeps curled
up in a recliner at a friend's one-bedroom apartment. With no full-time
work, he has taken temporary jobs cleaning dumpsters, stocking shelves and
handling maintenance for a private school.

He wants a permanent job where he can earn enough to get his own place, but
his hopes are waning as the U.S. economy slumps. The accelerated pace of
layoffs since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks means competition is stiff:
Johnson says job seekers sometimes camp out overnight outside the temporary
agency in Tacoma, Wash., where he goes to get work.

As the nation's economic forecast worsens, the country's working poor are
feeling the hurt. Reassurances that the economy will rebound have faded amid
war and terrorism, turning what many workers thought would be a brief
readjustment into a financial crisis. About 7 million people were unemployed
in September, according to the Labor Department, up from about 5.5 million
in September 2000. 

The next few months loom as the first real test of the Clinton
administration's 1996 welfare reform. Until now, the nation's social service
system has been spared prolonged stress because unemployment rates have been
low. But pressure is building as layoffs mount. Economists say as many as
1.5 million more jobs could be slashed over the next three quarters. More
than 350,000 layoffs have been announced since Sept. 11, according to
International Strategy & Investment, an economic research group based in New
York. Families are facing homelessness, turning to food stamps and working
two or three jobs to get by.

''Every day, I'm worried now, and at my age it's harder to get a good job,''
says Johnson, 54, who has found jobs through Labor Ready, a provider of
temporary manual labor. He generally works 5 days a week at about $8 an
hour. ''If I don't have work, I might be huddled under a bridge right now.''

Many of those hardest hit are in New York, where a report by the city
estimates that about 115,000 jobs will be lost this fiscal year because of
the World Trade Center attacks. A job fair last week at Madison Square
Garden drew thousands of people, many of whom waited in line for hours.

Troubles extend across nation
But the financial squeeze is being felt far beyond New York. In Michigan,
many homeless shelters are serving more people than last year. Requests for
unemployment benefits in Nevada have jammed phone lines since Sept. 11. In
New Orleans, jobless claims for the week ending Oct. 6 jumped 30% vs. the
same week last year. And in Minnesota, more than 42,000 families are on
welfare, the most since October 1999.

''The layoffs since Sept. 11 have been jobs held by many former recipients
of welfare. These are your most vulnerable families, single mothers with
children, and it's a real concern,'' says Heather Boushey, an economist at
the Economic Policy Institute, a research group based in Washington.

The concern is being felt by those who still are employed, too. Many have
lost good jobs despite years of loyalty to their companies.

''There are grown men with kids, with mortgages to pay off, who have lost
their jobs. I've seen grown men cry,'' says Perry Esposito, 35, an auto
mechanic in Baldwin, N.Y. He was laid off after more than 16 years at TWA.
His fiancée has lost her flight attendant job at a major airline. ''It's
going to take time to get retraining and change industries. All I have is
airline experience,'' he says.

In many cases, those in peril are those who can least afford to be out of
work. Hotel housekeepers. Food service workers. Waitresses and waiters.
Ticket takers. Bellhops. Desk clerks. Tour bus drivers. Most hold jobs in
the service and travel industry, which typically offers lower pay.

In Washington, D.C., 41% of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
International Union members are laid off. About 30% in Las Vegas and San
Francisco have been laid off.

Here's what they're facing:

* Unemployment gaps. Most jobless workers might be ineligible for
unemployment insurance or might get benefits that are below poverty level.
Fewer than 40% of jobless Americans were able to receive unemployment
benefits last year, the Department of Labor says. They might not qualify
under state rules that limit who gets payments, or they might be ineligible
because they were fired or quit.

* Welfare caps. Some welfare recipients are becoming ineligible for
assistance just as businesses halt hiring, leaving them with fewer or no
options. Congress set a 5-year lifetime cap on the years people can receive
welfare, but some states elected to reduce that.

* Strained support agencies. Social service agencies are less able to cope
with the increase in demand because many Americans are giving to Sept.
11-related charities instead of traditional non-profit groups, such as food

* Job displacement. The surge in layoffs has created job competition.
Unskilled workers are finding themselves at a disadvantage as downsized
professionals vie for their jobs. New jobless claims rose 8,000 to a
seasonally adjusted 504,000 for the week ending Oct. 20, according to the
Labor Department. Because weekly changes can be volatile, economists tend to
follow the 4-week average of initial claims. By that yardstick, jobless
claims have reached a level not seen since March 1991.

It's a trend that concerns out-of-work employees such as Gabriel Torres. The
security guard at the World Trade Center escaped from the rubble after the
buildings collapsed. But now he has no job.

Charitable contributions have helped, he says, but he was earning $10.61 an
hour. With so many displaced workers in New York competing for jobs, Torres
worries he won't find work that pays as much or better. He worries about
being unable to pay his $600-a-month rent. And he worries about how to help
support his wife, Vivien, and 2-year-old son Nicholas.

''Unemployment doesn't pay anything, and it's very hard when you have a
kid,'' says Torres, of Brooklyn. He's still recovering from head and leg
injuries. ''Not a lot of jobs pay (what I was earning). It's going to be so
much harder now, with so many more people out of work.''

Eligibility for unemployment benefits is often too stringent for the
lowest-income workers, and benefit amounts for that income group are below
the poverty level in many states, according to an Economic Policy Institute
study. The worst states: Alabama, Arizona, California, Mississippi and South
Dakota had maximum weekly benefit levels last year at $230 or less, the
study found. 

In some cases, an unemployed person may be denied benefits because he or she
hasn't earned enough or isn't seeking full-time work. The average weekly
benefit in the USA is about $230. The highest is in Massachusetts, which
last year had a maximum weekly benefit of $477, according to the study.
Nationwide, benefits typically are provided for 26 weeks. President Bush has
proposed extending coverage for an additional 13 weeks.

''When these types of layoffs happen, they're catastrophic,'' says Tom
Snyder, a Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union
spokesman. ''People can't afford to pay bills, to get food, to get health
care. It's distressing.''

Non-profits and job service agencies on the front lines say they are already
seeing an increase in basic needs such as housing, clothing, food, skills
training and emotional counseling.

Labor Ready, the provider of manual temporary jobs, reports an increase in
people seeking work. The YWCA of Greater Milwaukee, which helps provide
job-hunting services, has seen cases grow from an average of 110 a month to
150 a month. Project Match, a community-based agency in Chicago that helps
welfare recipients and low-wage residents find and keep employment, has seen
the number of people attending orientation sessions double.

''What we have feels a lot like the early 1980s, when we had an explosion in
the homeless population,'' says Donald Whitehead, executive director at the
National Coalition for the Homeless, based in Washington.

'I want to go back to work'
Rosemary Washington, 64, feels it. The retired New Orleans child care worker
is hoping to find work to help with her retirement but fears it will be
tough with so many layoffs and a downturn in tourism.

''I want to go back to work,'' she says. ''I'm not going to stop trying, but
it's going to be harder to find work. The economy is slow, and people are

Hyacinth Vanriel of Boston feels it, too. To help support her four children,
the 34-year-old former welfare recipient has worked two jobs. She is a
housekeeper at a hotel, working 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. She holds another
full-time job from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., caring for the mentally retarded.

She hasn't been laid off, but she has been asked to work only a few shifts
at the hotel since Sept. 11.

''My biggest fear is health care. I can't afford that,'' Vanriel says,
adding that paying for health care on her own would cost about $966 a month.
''I wish I had savings. It's very hard. This is going to be a tough ride.''

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