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Hidden Masses: NYC's underemployed near 600K
New York Post
John Aidan Byrne

March 13, 2011
View the Original Article

Gaynelle Atkinson, 52, is a career-driven professional who lost her secretarial position a few years ago. A single mom living in Coney Island, her unemployment benefits have run out, so she now averages about $150 a week babysitting her granddaughter. She supplements this with occasional odd jobs and food donated by the charity City Harvest.

Because she's been out of work so long, Atkinson doesn't show up on the official unemployment rolls. Instead, she's become one of the more disturbing statistics of the recession -- the underemployed.

"Yes, I have looked hard for work," Atkinson told The Post. "I do whatever it takes to pay my rent. I'll clean out a few apartments to make a few dollars. I don't get any welfare assistance. They said I was eligible for food stamps, but they sent me nothing this month."

While New York State's unemployment rate stands at 8.3 percent, its "hardship rate" is much higher -- near 15 percent -- because of workers like Atkinson. She's one of the nearly 600,000 people who want a full-time job but can't find one, scrounging for work without benefits or consistent hours.

Statewide, the underemployed double the official unemployment rate, with 1.3 million New Yorkers still suffering despite Washington's insistence that the economy is recovering.

Gaby Morena, a former insurance claims adjuster, could soon be joining the hidden jobless ones in the Bureau of Labor's broad measure of unemployment -- a category called "U6."

Morena, 50, an Upper West Side resident who lost her job in a wholesale departmental cutback nearly two years ago, also will soon lose her unemployment benefits, qualifying her to join the ranks of the so-called 99ers, folks who fall off the rolls after 99 weeks.

Morena has also exhausted her 22 weeks worth of severance pay and has started to dip into her retirement account. "I have sent a lot of applications for jobs, but I am not getting a lot of responses," Morena. "I've only done two interviews so far."

It is often discouraged workers like Atkinson and Morena who vanish from the state's official unemployment data and then become forgotten U6 statistics that show up in the Bureau of Labor's household survey. They can't find work and then stop looking.

"We've seen plenty of people in the situation," said Noreen Connell, a former assistant commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor and a labor movement activist. "There are many discouraged workers and people working part-time trying to get back to their previous pay scales after losing jobs."

Paul Ashworth, chief US economist with Capital Economics, says the latest unemployment data suggest a huge proportion of the decline in the standard rate of unemployment, known as U3, is due to people leaving the labor force.

For instance, Ashworth noted the national rate has fallen sharply in the past three months, from 9.8 percent to 8.9 percent. At least half of that, he says, is due to workers exiting the labor market. "When they are surveyed, they basically say, 'You know, I am no longer actively looking for a job,' " Ashworth added.

Of course, data released this week show New York state's private sector generated an extra 95,000 jobs from the official beginning of the economic recovery in December 2009 through December 2010. But the corresponding declines in the standard rate of unemployment statewide and in New York City in the 12 months ended January 2011 -- from 8.9 percent to 8.3 percent, and 10 percent to 8.9 percent, respectively -- don't include people who've stopped job-hunting.

"Lower unemployment figures mask a very different reality that over a million New Yorkers continue to face -- one in which a job doesn't necessarily mean a family can put food on the table every day," Jilly Stephens, executive director of City Harvest, told The Post.

"We know that 25 percent of New York City residents living with incomes at or below the federal poverty line do so in spite of being employed," she said. "The programs where City Harvest delivers food provide support at a time when for many, self-sufficiency is out of reach."

Atkinson said not too long ago the food pantries were mostly filled with homeless people. "Now, you'll see people from all walks of life on the lines," she said. "A lot of people's pride has to be put back in their pocket because of these bad times."