Have the unemployed become modern-day lepers?

Woman searching for a jobThere's been a sea change in the public attitude toward those who were laid off in the Great Recession. What started out as empathy -- and the knowledge that the next tap on the shoulder could be yours -- has now shifted from "we're all in this together" to something akin to "get off your lazy butts and find a job already, you despicable freeloader, you."

Actually, I believe that is the precise language in one of the comments to my recent post on extending unemployment benefits. Or maybe it came from Sharron Angle, a Republican who wants to be the next senator from Nevada. She called the unemployed "spoiled" and said the reason they don't have jobs is that they don't really want to work. She added that unemployment benefits "take away the incentive to have a job because ... you know that you can't make as much as you are making on unemployment, you'll stay on unemployment.

So according to this brainiac's logic, the problem today is not that we don't have enough jobs to go around, but that unemployment benefits, which average $300 a week, have been too generous? I see. I suppose she thinks that the National Employment Law Project, the Economic Policy Institute and the Department of Labor must be wrong when they say there are five workers applying for each available job. Silly them.

The reality is, Angle and my 300 angry commenters are just the tip of the iceberg. The wave of bias building against the unemployed has turned into a tsunami. Last month, news reports detailed how some companies advertised that they only wanted job applicants who were currently employed. Out-of-work applicants need not apply. The feeling, several admitted, is that if someone was out of work for more than six months, there must be something wrong with them. Damaged goods, if you will. And here's the rub: Its not against the law for companies to exclude the unemployed when trying to fill positions. What's next? The unemployed won't be allowed to share public water fountains or sit at the lunch counter with the gainfully employed? Unemployment might be contagious, you know.

Think I'm exaggerating? In the course of writing "The Layoff Survival Plan" and the forthcoming "Walk Away From Debt," Nicholas Carroll interviewed hundreds of people from around the country. He says that in 2008 to early 2009, the attitude toward those who had lost jobs was dictated by local conditions. In the "sand states" (California, Arizona, Nevada and Florida), there was no contempt at all, Carroll said, "It was just 'Oh yes, my oldest son was laid off last week.'"

Long Island, in New York, with a modest 7% unemployment at the time, and Washington, D.C., were the standouts for contempt toward the unemployed. The exception to the geographic rule was state and federal government workers, who were generally smug everywhere.

"Today," says Carroll, "government workers are worried about their own jobs as states scale down, teachers are laid off, and even in D.C., federal bureaucrats are toning down their criticism."
On Long Island, where the theme song of "no mortgage bubble here" has faded, companies that deal nationally are learning that they can't sell their goods to the rest of America because the rest of America is broke.

As for the unemployed being lazy, Carroll says he doesn't see it. "Show them a salary and situation that allows them self-respect, and they'll jump at the job. Most people would rather have self-respect and a steady paycheck than suck up cable TV all day, wondering how Congress will vote on unemployment benefits," he said.

Carroll lives in San Joaquin County, Calif., where the official unemployment rate is 16.2% and 25% unofficially when you add in the "discouraged workers" -- the government's name for them, not mine -- who aren't looking anymore and those who work part-time so don't get counted in the "official" unemployment scorecard.

Carroll points the 700,000 people who signed on as Census Bureau employees, knowing the jobs would expire in a few short months, as good examples. Many gave up their unemployment benefits to take a job they hoped would help them ride out the recession. They figured once the Census gig was over, there would be places they could find work. It hasn't worked out that way for most, and some are now ineligible for unemployment benefits again, Carroll said.

Colorado-based Liz Ryan, who writes about the workplace for Business Week and Yahoo!, says she frequently hears employers saying things like, "It's not that all laid-off people are bad employees, obviously. It's just that sticking to employed people to fill our job openings is a safer bet."

She adds, "As a former HR executive, I've never seen such a sharp divide between the job-hunting community and the too-often clueless hiring manager when it comes to perceptions of the job market. There are lots and lots of people on the hiring side of the desk who truly believe that if you haven't found a good job after six months, there's something wrong with you. God help them if their company should be sold tomorrow!"
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