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Job search leaves many exhausted

Anjanette Lal is among about 60,000 Washington workers who lost their jobs and exhausted their 99 weeks of jobless benefits. (Colin Mulvany)
Anjanette Lal is among about 60,000 Washington workers who lost their jobs and exhausted their 99 weeks of jobless benefits. (Colin Mulvany)

When all the new jobs that the new spending cuts are bound to create finally get created, will someone please call Anjanette Lal?

Lal is what the government calls an “exhaustee.” She’s been out of work for 27 months. Her search for a job lasted longer than her unemployment benefits. She’s cobbling together an existence from government programs, but what she wants is a job as a medical assistant – something she trained to do, graduating Nov. 30 with honors from a 10-month program.

“I thought for sure I’d have a job by now,” she said. “The longest I’ve ever been out of a job before was two weeks.”

Lal is a 41-year-old mother of three, with a life of work experience, specific job training in a field that’s relatively robust, and a willingness to do something else if that’s what she’s got to do. And yet she feels as if all of these advantages are adding up as a disadvantage.

Like many job-hunters who are a little older, she believes that employers are passing her over for younger people. And viewing her unemployment, in and of itself, as a liability.

“What I think is happening in Spokane is there’s a lot of competition and we have a lot of medical assistants coming out” of local programs, she said. “I see a lot of these young ones coming out and they’re getting hired right away.”

Lal’s experience is typical. The Washington Employment Security Department recently surveyed more than 5,000 exhaustees about their experiences. Three-quarters had not found work months after their jobless benefits expired. Eighty-six percent of those people said they were still looking. Forty-five percent said they believe age has been the greatest obstacle to re-employment.

The average and median age for an exhaustee in Washington state: 47.

They’re stuck, a little more than halfway into a working life.

Lal’s present circumstances are quite the comedown from her life just a few years ago. She and her three kids rented a four-bedroom home and she had a job at a Liberty Lake insurance company. Her oldest son was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2009, and she lost her job because she couldn’t juggle his care with her work, she said.

Over the next couple years, she qualified for unemployment, and also for a job training program to be a medical assistant – those people who direct patients, take information and vital statistics, and give immunizations. It’s a field with some opportunity, but even more competition, she said.

Now her adult son is in remission and living at home, along with her 14-year-old daughter. A 20-year-old daughter has moved out. Her son gets Social Security Insurance payments, and she’s on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Programs like these have a big target on them – we are told by the current crop of intransigent budget hawks that cutting them is actually going to create jobs.

In any case, Lal is getting by on about $1,000 a month. Her rent runs $758. She lives in the exact place where our rhetoric about the unemployed crashes into reality. In Washington, there are about 60,000 people in that place, and the group grows larger every week. Across the country, there are millions and millions – pinning down precise figures is difficult because of the maze of different kinds of jobless benefits and extensions.

It’s not uncommon to hear people characterize the unemployed as people who won’t work. Or to hear them seize on information about welfare cheats to undercut the whole idea of social assistance. Or to point out that some poor people have TVs and microwaves, if you can imagine. Or to place certain words in quotation marks – like, say, “poor” or “rich” – to glibly dismiss the realities of our economy.

But this is a rhetorical game that is only available to those of us with the luxury of rhetoric. Meanwhile the exhaustees are trying to get out from under an enormous, grinding burden. And the ones I’ve interviewed, this week and over recent months, have not been complaining about a lack of government help. They’ve been complaining about the lack of jobs.

Brigette Ramos is a 39-year-old mother of two teenagers. She ran out of unemployment benefits in October, and is getting by on her child-support payments. She says that if people believe there are jobs to be had, they should walk a mile in her job search.

“Where are they?” she said. “If that’s true, where are they? I’ve applied for things I never would have applied for (before). Dishwasher at Shari’s Restaurant, I’ve applied at Taco Bell … and all these fast-food thingies, and not one person called. It’s scary.”

She had an interview this week. For a job she applied for one year ago.

Even the bright side has a dark side. Twenty-five percent of people who exhausted their benefits had found work by the time of the state survey in April. The average wage for those people went from $25.38 an hour before losing their job to $18.12 in their new work. Fully 80 percent took a pay cut.

Those are the lucky ones.

“I think those who are working don’t think it’s as hard as it is,” Lal said. “Those who are working really don’t have a clue.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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