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Tough economy keeps underclass out of work

Julie Sizemore can only imagine what employers think when her résumé crosses their desks.

After all, the Danville native is an ex-convict trying to re-enter the workforce during a severe recession after having spent several years at home caring for her three children. Hardly the type of credentials that would ordinarily help her rise above the throngs of recent college graduates and middle managers with MBAs all clamoring for the same jobs as baristas or restaurant greeters.

"It's rough. I prefer something in administration, but I would settle for anything I can find," she said. "The economy right now, there's so many people out of work and if there's an opening at a place, it's gone."

Sizemore recently went to a small tobacco outlet in her town to fill out a job application. Four hundred other people applied for the same position.

She didn't get the job.

She's filled out applications at restaurants, gas stations, stores and offices — all to no avail.

"I can't even get a job at McDonalds," she said.

Sizemore is part of the unemployment underclass, a group comprising people with scant or spotty work histories, workers without college degrees nearing retirement and those with criminal records who've recently found themselves crowded out by the ever-swelling ranks of overly qualified, younger applicants applying for low-paying jobs.

That trend is likely to continue.

Roughly 651,000 jobs were lost in February, according to the figures released Friday by the Department of Labor. Over the past year, the number of unemployed increased by about 5 million, and the unemployment rate has risen to 8.1 percent — the highest in 25 years.

Job losses have affected nearly all major industry sectors.

As the economy continues to weather massive job losses and a tightened job market, people like Sizemore are finding it increasingly difficult to land employment.

Studies have found that within a year after release up to 75 percent of ex-convicts remain unemployed, said Devah Pager, an associate sociology professor at Princeton University and author of Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration.

"Often, ex-offenders are employed in small business, service industry and low-wage seasonal employment, and that's exactly the areas where employers are cutting back," Pager said.

Even before the economic downturn, programs designed to address barriers facing ex-offenders were barely making a dent, Pager said. Similarly, though programs to help people re-entering the workforce, teens and older workers abound, the economic reality is that there are simply fewer jobs available.

"This economic downturn has affected management and blue collars. There are a lot of people hurting throughout the pay scale," said Brian Poe, CEO of Hard 2 Hire, a Kentucky-based company that specializes in helping job seekers like Sizemore. "If you have something on your record, you're at a disadvantage. If you're a military spouse, you're at a disadvantage. If you're over 50, you're at a disadvantage."

After she was paroled in October, Sizemore immediately went on the job hunt, scouring classified ads and Web sites. She signed up with Hard 2 Hire, but so far she hasn't netted a job.

The conditions of her probation for first-degree drug trafficking require that she be employed at least 30 days after parole, but her job hunt has lasted several months. Her probation officer understands the challenges.

Still, Sizemore worries about the financial strain on her husband, Ronnie, who now works six days a week at a local printing press.

"It's gotten more difficult for sure," said Warren Lambert, district supervisor for the Kentucky probation and parole office handling Sizemore's case. "Before (ex-convicts) weren't having to scrap and fight so much for everything. This was before everyone in the world was looking for jobs."

A recent study by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northwestern University found that the recession has been "overwhelmingly devastating" on adults under 30, young adults without college degrees, older workers with limited schooling and minority males, said Andrew Sum, the center's director.

"They're going to have the hardest time getting jobs," Sums said.

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