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Denver's long-term unemployed struggle to find work

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By Jake Kincaid
CU News Corps

Ricardo Guzman sits at a computer in the workroom at the downtown Denver Workforce Center on Speer Boulevard. He’s perusing for jobs, unsuccessfully.

Guzman, unemployed for the past year, splits his time applying for jobs and taking on day-labor jobs. He can sometimes find work for the day, and get paid that day, just to stay afloat. He has been unable to find any source of income other than day labor.

“What really gets me is when people complain about their jobs,” Guzman said. “They are lucky just to have a job.”

Guzman is one of the 40,000 people whom the four Denver Workforce Centers serve annually. The centers help unemployed and underemployed people get back into the workforce and move toward self-sufficiency by offering services such as coaching, help with resumes, tuition for school, recruiting events and job training.

Nationally, 35 percent of the unemployed, or 3.6 million people, have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks.

The centers served about 10,000 people who are long-term unemployed in 2013. Many of the long-term unemployed have been without work for much longer than 27 weeks. Those who have been unemployed more than 97 weeks can no longer receive income from unemployment benefits because the special emergency extension passed by Congress in 2008 was allowed to expire in December. The services at the workforce center are one of the few sources of help available.

About 17,000 people were receiving emergency unemployment compensation in Colorado before it expired in January. Another 10,000 were on state benefits that would expire at the beginning of the year.

“There is a perception that the long-term unemployed share some particular characteristic or traits, and they really don’t,” said Anita Davis, operations manager of the Denver Workforce Centers. “They cross the gamut. Some have only a high school education, some have bachelor’s degrees. We have people that have master’s degrees, doctorate degrees … There was really a lot of variation in those education type demographics.”

After the financial crisis “the face of an unemployed person changed dramatically,” Davis said. She recalls a post-crisis recruiting event for a part-time job that paid $16 dollars an hour. “At that recruiting event there were four attorneys there. There were like three CEOs, a couple of CFOs and you look at that fact that this can touch anyone. This is everybody.”

Davis said that the primary commonality among the long-term unemployed served by the work center is that they are skewed toward the older end of the age spectrum, with the majority 35 and older and 40 percent being older than 40. “I think there’s clearly some age discrimination that goes on in the market,” Davis said .

“You have people that have worked there the longest, so you let them go … That job is gone now and it’s very hard for them to get back, particularly at the level they were at economically and within the workplace. And so sometimes there not wanting to take a wage cut or start all over again. Sometimes there just not given a chance. Also sometimes the nature of business hiring is that they eliminate people with an employment gap.”

Some people have other traits that make them undesirable to employers: 30 percent of the long-term unemployed served by center are felons, Davis said.

Cassidy has been unemployed since getting out of jail for theft. He has applied to more than 100 jobs since getting out.

“Most of them, right away when I told them about my criminal background, that was the end of it,” Cassidy said. “I just use it as an opening to try and break the ice, I guess.”

Some have ended the interview and told Davis, “We don’t wanna waste the time.”

Davis said that there are few employers who will hire people with a criminal background.

Despite the need to generalize in order to understand the larger issue, Davis stressed that we need to focus on the particulars.

“I can’t stress this enough,” said Davis. “We tend to group and categorize individuals under this label of long-term unemployed, but there are so many different variables associated with them. They’re very unique individuals, people with different skills and different experiences and different life circumstances, that, you know, removing that label, we just have to look at them individually and consider each person on their own merit.”

Caleb’s story

Caleb sits in the Speer workforce center computer room on Tuesday morning, like he has almost every morning for months, looking for a job. A science fiction novel sits next to the keyboard — the book’s the only source of entertainment he can afford. He has no television and no Internet. He owns a car, but he can’t drive it because he can’t afford insurance or the fee to renew the registration.

“I don’t ever go out. I don’t see my friends much,” he says. “I can’t afford it and I don’t feel like it. I’m depressed.” He said he spends most of his free time reading and walking his dog.

A little over a year ago Caleb worked in IT as a network administrator. A few months after his contract ended he was arrested.

He was charged, but the offense, which he did not want to talk about, was not serious enough to earn him jail time.

It only took him two months to widen his job search from IT jobs to any job after several IT headhunting agencies refused to work with him after finding out about his criminal background. He has only been able to get a few interviews in the entire year.

His unemployment benefits ran out in January. Listen to Caleb talk about long job search below.

Reporter’s Notes: This story was difficult to report. Many people in the Denver workforce center were not interested in talking with me. When they did, they often wanted to remain anonymous. All of the people I was able to speak with had felonies, which altered the focus of my story unexpectedly. Caleb, for instance, didn’t want me to use his last name. Interviewing for an audio story was difficult. I was unable to turn of my print interview instincts, and kept saying things. It was mostly things to encourage the person to keep talking. It was very difficult to edit these things out but I got most of it. I am not sure if I would have been able to get the content I got if I had chosen to remain silent. People tend to just stop talking.

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Explanatory Multimedia Reporting from CU Boulder Journalism Students
Denver's long-term unemployed struggle to find work