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The new minority: Millions of long-term unemployed looking for hope

Published: Monday, July 30 2012 9:53 p.m. MDT

A group of long-term-unemployed people meet at the Platform to Employment program that was developed by Joe Carbone in Bridgeport, Conn.

Platform to Employment, Roger Salls Photography

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Joe Carbone can't sleep — and the odd thing is, he deals in hope. Carbone is the President and CEO of The WorkPlace, Inc., a non-profit workforce and economic development organization in Bridgeport, Conn. He developed an experimental program to help the long-term unemployed that was recently featured on "60 Minutes."

But the problem of the long-term unemployed in America is so large it weighs on him. "I can't tell you what this issue of long-term unemployment has done to me," Carbone said.

In the economic downturn, the Federal government and some state governments have extended unemployment benefits beyond the standard 26 weeks — covering some people up to 99 weeks. But the way things currently stand, all extended benefits are set to expire at the end of 2012, putting everything back to a 26 week measure. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' June numbers has 5,370,000 people who have been unemployed 27 weeks or longer. The official unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, but if you add "discouraged workers" who have given up looking for a job, it jumps to 8.7 percent. "We are not talking about a small group of people," Carbone said. "I called it carnage on ('60 Minutes'). That's what it is."

And so Carbone set out to do something about it — developing a unique way to put the long-term unemployed at the top of the hiring pool by making the employers an offer they couldn't refuse.

DIFFERENT NEEDS

Justine tenZeldam and her husband lost their jobs in the San Fransisco area and went to live with her parents in Sacramento, Calif. Month after month, the lack of employment weighed down on her. "It wreaks havoc with self-esteem and confidence," she said.

She applied for various jobs. "But I got the line that I was over qualified for everything I was applying for," she said. "That can be equally discouraging. 'Just give me a job!' was what I was thinking."

But they didn't.

Her husband went back to school to become an art teacher. Eventually, she gave up. But not forever. For her, the fire came back six months later when people started suggesting she take a minimum wage job.

Carbone at The Workplace said part of the problem the long-term unemployed face is their needs change after six months — both emotionally and in their ability to get employers' interested.

But government helps for the unemployed don't recognize the needs of the long-term unemployed. Carbone said many special populations receive targeted help in employment, such as veterans, the disabled and so forth. "We treat the long-term unemployed no different than if people are out of work for three days," he said. "There are no added benefits or tools if you are out of work for three days or two years. ... That's wrong, and that's shortsighted."

STIGMA AND THE BUYER'S MARKET

How employers treat the long-term unemployed is different as well."You can post a job and have 300 applicants in 15 minutes," Carbone said. And, he said, with that many applicants it is easy to cut down the hiring pool to a more manageable level by excluding those who have been without jobs for a long time — like Frank O'Neill, an accountant in Connecticut who lost his job in 2008.

"The whole perception that people out of work are lazy or want to live off the system is wrong for the vast majority of people who are unemployed," O'Neill said. "I'll take a job over unemployment any day of the week. I just couldn't get one."

Some want ads say "unemployed need not apply." Although some states such as Oregon are banning ads that blatantly say this, there is a stigma that puts the long-term unemployed at the bottom of the hiring pool. "It's an actual form of discrimination that they face," Carbone said.

PLATFORM TO EMPLOYMENT

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