On Jan. 8, 2014, I was honored to be part of a group of 19 long-term unemployed workers from career ministries and job-seeking organizations who met with Labor Secretary Tom Perez at the Department of Labor's Frances Perkins Building in Washington, DC.
With people from all across New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia in attendance, offering a wide range of viewpoints, the conference was an incredible opportunity to share some very personal stories concerning the struggles we have all gone through while trying to find a job in the current economic climate.
Focus on solutions
Ultimately, our goal was to come up with new and creative solutions to help fix the unemployment crisis that is still plaguing our country.
Through Ben Seigel, Senior Policy Advisor, Office of the Assistant Secretary, Employment and Training Administration the U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Perez had requested to meet with people who were long-term unemployed, which is defined as anyone out of work for six months or more. Many who attended have been out of work much longer – myself included.
Each of us took turns speaking about our own experiences with being unemployed, the many challenges we have faced, and our thoughts about what is holding back our job search campaign. There were many similar stories to those I hear from members of Neighbors-helping-Neighbors USA, with whom I interact on a daily basis.
Many had the common themes of applying to numerous positions without any success, experiencing mounting financial pressures that forced the draining of savings and retirement funds, and having a negative impact on their immediate and extended families. While everyone was obviously on the same path, each person was at a different point along it.
One major issue that surfaced several times in people's stories was the fact that many of us were forced to withdraw money early from retirement plans and 401k programs; this in itself is an enormous strain on someone when they are unemployed, but an additional weight is added to that burden as the government has been levying extra taxes and penalties on the accounts, despite the fact that it is only through the withdrawal of these funds that many are able to continue to feed their families and pay necessary bills (i.e. heat, gas, and electric).
For those who have never been in such a dire position, it was an eye opener as to the realities of what it is like being unemployed for an extended period of time. It was noted that, despite the protests of certain members of Congress, cutting off unemployment benefits to those in these situations does not help them, as they have already been doing everything they can to get any job with a reasonable enough salary to care for their families. So losing that extra lifeline does nothing to aid in that regard, and simply heaps on even more difficulties.
The Department of Labor published a blog post about our meeting. Read it here.
Secretary Perez promised to look into some of the matters brought up during the conference, such as seeing if there could be some relief to the problems with the IRS's taxes and penalties on the savings and retirement funds.
Humbling and motivating experience
The idea that our humble group of unemployed American citizens could have assisted in addressing this issue was quite powerful, and makes you realize that the government does not always have all the answers themselves. Individuals can make a difference, even if it is simply by suggesting solutions to a problem facing this country, rather than merely bringing up the problems and waiting for someone else to think of a way to solve them.
A meeting like this one was not only educational, but was also both motivational and comforting, to see that you are not alone in your struggles. Even smart, well-educated, and highly-accomplished people find themselves unemployed and having difficulties finding a new job, through no fault of their own.
This is why coming together to find solutions is so imperative for the continued success of our country and its citizens, and I believe that the spirit of all those people who volunteer their time to help others, despite needing help themselves, really had a major impact on Secretary Perez and his staff.
At the end of the meeting, we were able to talk with the members of the department staff that had sat in on the meeting. These government staff do their job every day, helping many people they never know, so allowing them to interact with us face-to-face was genuinely a gratifying experience. I have a sense that this meeting will go a long way towards helping find solutions to the unemployment crisis.
For More Information:
The White House Faith-based Neighborhood partnership program:
Neighbors-helping-Neighbors USA: www.nhnusa.org
Wake Up Call for Congress:
Edited by Matt Fugazzie