Long-term unemployed face hardships
By Becky Yerak
McClatchy/Tribune - MCT Information Services
CHICAGO — Greg Merrity, 56, was so stymied in his effort to find work that he once colored his gray hair so, if he got called in for a job interview, he’d look younger.
“After three days of constantly walking by a mirror saying, ‘Who is that?’ I said, ‘Forget this,’” Merrity said of his decision to go au naturel.
After being unemployed for about 18 months, Merrity found a job in May.
His struggle was highlighted in a recent speech by President Barack Obama about long-term unemployed Americans.
From the White House East Room on Jan. 31, Obama exhorted business leaders to give a fair shot to job applicants with big resume gaps, saying they can turn out to be some of a company’s best workers.
The president cited Chicago native Merrity — a 30-year sales industry employee who lost his job in 2011, searched futilely for a new one, and watched his unemployment insurance run out.
Then, Obama said, Merrity applied at Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, a jobs-matchmaking agency that Obama said got its start in part thanks to Chicagoan Penny Pritzker, now U.S. commerce secretary, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the president’s former chief of staff.
“Just two weeks after enrolling, Greg was back on the job,” Obama said of Merrity, who in May 2013 landed a full-time position as an insurance adviser at GoHealth, a fast-growing online health insurance shopping site in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.
Merrity, in an interview Wednesday in his new workplace, likened the presidential mention to being in a classroom with a teacher who suddenly calls your full name. Invited to the White House for the speech, Merrity said he got chills when Obama mentioned him the first time. He relaxed, only to hear Obama utter his name seven more times in the speech.
GoHealth Chief Accounting Officer Mike Ahern, also on hand at the speech, whispered to Merrity, “How many times will he say your name?”
“I don’t know, but it’s wonderful,” Merrity said he replied.
People who have been unemployed the longest often face the biggest challenge in getting back to work because they seem unemployable. Obama cited a study stating that, if someone has been out of work for eight months, he or she is likely to get called back for an interview only about half as often as someone who has been out of work for one month — even with an identical resume.
At the White House summit, the president announced that more than 280 businesses — including at least a dozen based in Illinois — have signed a document promising not to discriminate against job applicants who have been out of work for extended stretches.
Merrity said he rarely even got an acknowledgment that his resume was received. One hiring decision-maker who he was able to reach on the phone admitted a bias against the long-term unemployed.
“He said, ‘Let me be honest with you; the longer you’re off, the harder it is to get a job. You need to have a job to get a job,’” Merrity recounted. The hiring officer also said Merrity’s age worked against him. “They think if they gave you the job you wouldn’t stay if” the economy turned around.
Although the jobless are generally considered to be among the ranks of the long-term unemployed after six months, Merrity said that he felt potential employers begin to get wary after four or five months.
“They ask, ‘What have you been doing? Why have you been unemployed for so long?’” he said.
Merrity, who has a 10-year-old son, didn’t finish college. The employed are nearly twice as likely as the long-term unemployed to have a bachelor’s degree, according to a White House report.
His long sales career has included telemarketing, selling cars “for a long time,” and working in the mortgage industry for 10 years. He was out of work for nine months after he lost a mortgage job with a megabank after the real estate crash. Then he got a recruiting job at an online university, working in Chicago until it had a mass layoff.
He went on unemployment, and when that ended things got really tough. Around the time that he stopped receiving those benefits, the four-unit building where he lived in Matteson was being seized by the bank and its occupants had to move out, he said. He noted that he had lived there for about seven years, and his neighbors helped keep his spirits up when he was unemployed.
“How could I move with no job and no money?” he said. He said he has a sister and a brother, but they’re already living together, and he didn’t think there would be room for a third person.
At times, he began to doubt himself. He said he turned to food for consolation, gaining weight in the process.
“I kept thinking, ‘What must I do differently?’” he said. “I’m not going to say I was at the end of my rope, but I started wondering what you have to do” to get a job.
He said prayer also helped keep him from getting too discouraged.
Then, he said, his now-fiancee reconnected with him after 38 years. She had been his high-school sweetheart and best friend but he had lost contact with her. “Out of the blue, she calls me, and I had not a dime,” Merrity said. She had been married for 24 years, but her husband died two years earlier.
She owns a building in the Chatham neighborhood and offered him a place to stay, so he moved in there. Merrity recalls that, when he had a two-bedroom apartment in Matteson, he let an unemployed friend stay there for 18 months.
His fiancee also suggested that he sign up for an Illinois Link card, which includes food stamps.
Merrity has had financial scrapes before, including a 1999 bankruptcy. But applying for a Link card was “was the most humiliating day of my life,” he said.
He learned about Skills for Chicagoland’s Future after his fiancee read a Chicago Tribune story online about Marie Trzupek Lynch, head of Skills for Chicagoland’s Future. The nonprofit public-private partnership, which gets about 70 percent of its funding from public sources and the rest from private, aims to identify open jobs and offer qualified candidates to fill them. It was started in 2012 and Penny Pritzker was its founding chairman.
It has placed 655 individuals so far, of which 75 percent had been jobless for at least six months.
Merrity said he had tried such online job-search sites but none worked for him.
Merrity also is thankful for a friend who suggested that he update his resume. Her suggestions included listing only the most recent jobs so companies wouldn’t automatically discount him because of his age.
Within days of creating a job-seeker profile on the website of Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, he was contacted and told about an opportunity with GoHealth. Skills for Chicagoland’s Future has placed more than 160 unemployed people with GoHealth since spring 2013.
GoHealth was founded in 2001 and in 2012 received $50 million from Minneapolis-based Norwest Equity Partners for a minority stake in the business.
Initially, Merrity wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of selling insurance.
“I had been in sales my whole life, but every time I’d talk to someone about insurance, it just seemed to have a negative connotation, and I thought it would be hard to sell,” Merrity said.
But he was open to the idea of trying to sell something different and figured that virtually everyone wants health insurance.
Plus, “I thought, ‘You know what, Greg? You’re getting a job offer. Take it and see where it goes.’”
Merrity got through two interviews at Skills for Chicagoland’s Future. GoHealth hired him, and his training and licensing were paid for by the company and Skills for Chicagoland’s Future.
Merrity counsels health insurance shoppers both online, at GoHealthInsurance.com, and by phone about their health coverage options and helps them enroll.
“I love it,” he said of his GoHealth job. “It makes me feel relevant again.”
Merrity said he gets paid a base salary plus commission at GoHealth. He hopes to make at least $50,000 this year. But he said his credit is shot, and although he’s satisfied with help he’s getting from a credit-repair firm, he still has many debts to pay off. He said his car breaks down every other week. One of his goals is for him and his fiancee to move out of their neighborhood. He said a co-worker is kind enough to swing by and give him a ride to work.
He said he was at his GoHealth desk Jan. 29, getting ready to go home, when a manager told him to contact the personnel department; the manager hastened to add that it was good news. It was then that he learned he was going to the White House to hear the speech. GoHealth covered travel expenses.
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Being unemployed for a long stretch causes lots of tension. Just ask Michael Isble, of Northbrook, Ill., who was laid off in March from a California defense contractor. He and his wife moved to the Chicago area in September. She found a marketing job at a local drug company, but he is still looking for work. The couple has a son who turns 2 in April.
“It has caused tension,” Isble, 37, said of his unemployment. The fact that his unemployment benefits ended in December also upped the stress level, he said.
“We have our joint household bills that she is taking care of,” Isble said of his wife.
But it’s becoming near-impossible for him to pay his personal bills — including his $130,000 in student-loan debt, much of it from getting a master’s in business administration in 2007.
Ideally, MBAs should be able to pay for themselves through better jobs, but “in hindsight if I was back in 2005 now I’d think, ‘Let’s postpone that MBA for about a decade,’” he said with a laugh.
Isble’s resume includes 11 years of experience, from 1998 to 2009, with Northrop Grumman. He began as a pipe fitter there but worked his way up to project manager. That’s one of the types of positions, along with data analysis, that he is now seeking.
By 2012, he was working for another defense contractor as a regional account manager but got laid off due to military budget cuts, he said.
Isble said he has read that about 75 percent of jobs are landed through networking, and he believes it.
“The black hole of Internet resume dumping is not effective at all,” he said of job-search websites where he said he has posted hundreds of resumes.
“Unless your resume exactly matches whatever job description is being posted for, odds are that human eyes will never look at it,” he said.
Isble said he doesn’t think that his long-term unemployed status is behind his cold reception, saying he got no response to his resumes from the get-go.
He also sent emails to many Chicago-area recruiters and staffing agencies.
“Out of maybe 30 emails, I’d get one or two saying, ‘We’ll keep your resume on file,’” said Isble, who suspects that many of those responses are automated.
Isble said he ran into a Skills for Chicagoland’s Future representative while he was visiting the unemployment office near Northbrook. He said he is now up for a position through Skills for Chicagoland’s Future that he hopes to land.
“As for right now, in the past three or four months, the only positive response has been through Skills for Chicagoland’s Future,” he said.
Meanwhile, every day is a struggle, Isble said, but it’s important to keep pressing forward.
“You just have to know that ultimately this isn’t the way I’m going to leave this world — unemployed and never having worked again,” he said.
The experience has humbled him.
“Once I land a job, it will be better for me and the company,” he said. “I won’t take it for granted.”
When he first became unemployed, he wanted to find a new job that paid at least six figures. Now his expectations have been ratcheted down. At one point after he became unemployed, he worked as a waiter at a BW3. He said he has considered “swallowing some pride” and going back to pipe fitting.
“I will inevitably if something doesn’t present itself,” he said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to provide for my son.”
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