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Hidden Unemployment Inflates State's Real Jobless Figures

By JANICE PODSADA | The Hartford Courant

April 19, 2009

On paper, the numbers and categories are precise. Connecticut's jobless rate reached 7.5 percent in March, according to the state Department of Labor. Exactly 93,505 people received unemployment benefits.

But the monthly report released Thursday is just a snapshot taken from 30,000 feet above the fray.

On the ground, for those on the outside looking to step back in, the reality of being jobless or teetering on the margins is far murkier than the data. These people don't fit easily into the government's sharply defined categories.

And their numbers are far larger when "hidden unemployment" is added in a measure of those who have stopped looking for work or can find only part-time work. By some estimates, hidden unemployment now affects nearly one in seven Connecticut residents who consider themselves part of the workforce.

These workers' stories are complex, nuanced. At a career fair in East Hartford, on the telephone from Cheshire, or at an amusement park in Bristol, jobless workers unwittingly describe slipping in and out of the official categories as their outlook, and their working status, change by the week.

Some of them, like Hartford resident Gail DuPre, who works for a catering staffing agency, have had their hours slashed when work has slowed. Hers were recently restored, so she's back in the ranks of the fully employed.

Other workers, like Robyn Anderson, a pregnant mother on food stamps but with no unemployment benefits, are at first considered officially unemployed because they're actively looking for work but then they become discouraged and suspend their search temporarily, falling into the so-called marginal group.

Or they might take part-time work, officially or not, for a short time. Others, who have been laid off from high-paying professional jobs, are back on the employment rolls if they take a minimum-wage job assembling machinery, or a temporary job at a supermarket.

Phyllis Zweifel of South Glastonbury, who has a master's degree in mathematics education, is finishing a stint in a supermarket. She was laid off in February from a Hartford architectural firm where she worked as an executive assistant.

"We don't really track how many discouraged and marginal workers there are in the state," said state labor economist John Tirinzonie.

When involuntary part-time workers, discouraged workers and other job-seekers are factored in, the nation's 8.5 percent unemployment rate in March vaults to 15.6 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which publishes monthly estimates of the hidden unemployment rate. Connecticut's rate could also be nearly double, although a similar estimate isn't available.

The number of hidden unemployed continues to climb as companies, faced with dwindling revenue, cut workers' hours and as out-of-work job-seekers give up their searches. A year ago, Connecticut's hidden number hovered near 75,000; in March, it swelled to perhaps 118,000, by a Courant estimate.

So far, well-paid professionals and those with a college education not used to being on the margins have fared better than those without. Connecticut is among the states with the highest percentage of college-educated workers, 38 percent, according to a report by Connecticut Voices for Children.

But in recent months, these people, too, have begun to feel the recession's sting.

"I've never seen anything like this in the 21 years I've worked here," said Julie Redding, program and services coordinator at the Department of Labor's CTWorks Career Center in Hartford. "One person had been earning half a million."

Milton Schuelke of Bristol is an IT networking communications specialist who has had his own business for seven years. When orders dried up, he took a temporary job working with a mechanical heating and cooling company in Wallingford just to pay the bills.

"We're seeing a lot of workers who are telling us, 'I had a better job, I was in something better and when this is over I want to get back to that,'" Tirinzonie said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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