Jenny Njirich’s father always told her that one day she could take over his design firm, so she didn’t see it coming when the business fell on hard times and she was laid off.
Mother Lode Job Connection career counselor Ernie Lacarra-Babor advises job seeker Daniel Swafford at the Calaveras office on Tuesday. Swafford has been unemployed for four months and visits the center daily. Christina O'Haver/Union Democrat, copyright 2012
That was more than a year ago, and the intervening months have been a struggle for the 27-year-old mother of two. Her car was repossessed, she was forced to sell her house for less than she paid for it and she slipped further into a chasm of credit card debt.
She moved to Columbia with her children, ages 11 and 6, and her husband, who became disabled and unable to work around the time she was laid off.
Njirich and her family live in an apartment in Columbia, spending $600 of her husband’s $800 monthly social security checks on rent alone. The family relies mostly on a local church for meals.
The family’s unemployment benefits ran out about a year ago, and Njirich is racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. She earned an associate’s degree in liberal studies from Columbia College and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in special education online at Grand Canyon University.
“It definitely humbles you a lot when you lose everything and it makes you see what’s important in life,” she said.
Njirich’s situation isn’t unusual. She’s one of more than 1 million people in California facing long-term unemployment, according to the California Employment Development Department.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines long-term unemployment as joblessness for at least 27 weeks.
Although the EDD does not provide long-term unemployment statistics by county, the state saw a 620 percent increase from May 2007 to February 2011 in the number of long-term unemployed Californians.
Both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have a higher overall unemployment rate than the state. The EDD reported last month that the July unemployment rate was 11.7 percent in Tuolumne and 13.1 percent in Calaveras.
The state unemployment rate was 10.9, which was higher than the national unemployment rate of 8.6 percent.
Long-term unemployment represented 15.9 percent of California’s total unemployment in October 2007 and nearly tripled by March 2011, reaching a record high of 46.8 percent.
The share of Californians unemployed 52 weeks or longer nearly tripled from December 2005 to December 2010 — soaring from 11.2 percent of total unemployment to 31.7 percent.
According to the EDD, Calaveras County had 328 claims of exhausted unemployment insurance in July alone, and Tuolumne County had 359 claims. The data counted the number of individuals who ran out of benefits in a specific unemployment insurance program who may or may not qualify for additional benefits.
Ernie Lacarra-Babor, a career counselor at Mother Lode Job Connection in Calaveras, said she sees some of the same people in the office everyday.
“Usually I can tell the individuals that are serious about job searching because they’re in here early and they’re here until we close,” she said. “Searching for a job is a full-time job.”
Struggling to find work
Dan Siegel, 45, of Crystal Falls, searches for jobs daily.
Siegel’s handyman business gradually slowed down over the past five years, about the same time his mother died, and he has not been hired for his services in the past year.
“People want work done, they just don’t have the money right now,” he said.
Siegel has exhausted his unemployment insurance and is now living off his retirement benefits.
At age 13, with his mother on welfare, Siegel began earning money by shoveling snow out of driveways around his neighborhood.
He has certifications in water treatment and automotive work from Columbia College and a lifetime of experience in manual labor. At age 19, he landed his first maintenance job with a homeowner’s association in Lake Don Pedro.
Siegel said he is behind on his mortgage but will be able to pay off his house in about four years if he finds work. He said he is looking at jobs in all industries.
Caron Cavalero, 50, is also searching for jobs in various fields after remaining unemployed for more than three years.
Cavalero lost her job as a social worker at a prison after the substance abuse program she worked for was cut due to lack of funding.
With a bachelor’s degree in sociology, an associate’s degree in child development and more than 25 years of work experience in social work and restaurant service, she found herself unable to get a job for the first time since age 13.
She held onto her Columbia home for almost a year and renegotiated her mortgage payments. When she went to make the following payment three days after the due date, the bank refused it and began the process of foreclosure, she said. She filed for bankruptcy and took the case to court, but ultimately lost her home of eight years.
“I thought about doing something drastic like chaining myself to the pine tree,” she said.
Cavalero said she uses her humor to stay positive and that her life experiences have prepared her for dealing with stressful situations.
“I’ve fought a lot of fights and I’ve managed to get through them … I have a lot to be grateful for but it doesn’t pay the bills,” she said.
Cavalero, a breast cancer survivor, recently had a heart attack and has been living on disability benefits. In about 10 weeks, she will have exhausted her unemployment benefits.
She has managed to scrape up cash by helping people with housework. She picks pine cones for a woman who owns about 100 acres of land and distributes them to craftspeople. She also helps a family with housekeeping, cooking and paperwork.
A letter of recommendation from the family is Cavalero’s only recent reference. She said potential employers question why she has been unemployed for more than three years.
“They want you to fill in the gaps, when it’s economics and downsizing,” she said, adding that social work in particular seems to be a dwindling industry.
Cavalero grew up in the lower-middle class and is used to budgeting her money. She said she takes unemployment one day at a time, but every time rent is due, she wonders if she will be homeless the following month.
“As much as I don’t want to work for McDonald’s, if that’s the job that I get and I can pay my rent and feel a sense of security, I’m good with that,” she said. “I’m realizing that’s not what makes me who I am.”
Individuals who are unemployed long-term are much more likely to experience depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, and feelings of shame and not belonging, said Sonora psychologist Dr. Susan B. Day.
Njirich has been battling depression since she became unemployed. To suppress feelings of self-doubt, Cavalero tells herself daily that she is a resourceful and capable person.
Cavalero said she sometimes feels isolated because she cannot afford to pay for gas to visit her friends in other counties and her family in the Bay Area. She also cannot afford to buy a plane ticket to visit her 22-year-old son who moved to Texas in April. She said she has not figured out how she will be able to spend Christmas with him this year.
Day said people who are unemployed may also experience psychosomatic illnesses — physical disorders resulting from or influenced by negative emotions.
Cavalero said she had no history of heart problems before her recent heart attack, and her doctor told her stress could be a factor.
Arthur H. Goldsmith, an economics professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., researched the psychology associated with unemployment and published his findings in 2008.
Immediately after people are unemployed, they have a benign ignorance and think they will easily find another job, he said.
If they are still unemployed after about five weeks, they begin to question their skills and character, which leads to the erosion of self-esteem.
After a few months of unemployment, individuals begin to exhibit higher levels of anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Goldsmith found that once people reach about six months of unemployment, the psychological effects can become irreversible.
He said that the longer people are unemployed, the more they become externally focused, which means they feel as if they have little control over their own lives.
More highly educated people tend to be the most vulnerable to the psychological ravages of unemployment, because they are often more internally focused by nature, which leads them to attribute unemployment to personal flaws, according to Goldsmith.
Day said parents who are unemployed may be less present and consistent in their children’s lives, leading to academic problems, substance abuse and depression among the children.
Day said she is seeing more patients with psychological issues related to unemployment than she did several years ago. To help her patients overcome the issues, she encourages them to develop a strong support system.
“One of the first things for people to understand is that they are not alone in the process and that their responses are normal,” she said.
Advice from experts
Murphys clinical social worker Anne Berner Calderwood recommends being active in the community, because passivity can reinforce depression.
“I think finding something you can do, whether it’s going back to school, volunteering or becoming involved in your community … can provide a sense of support,” she said.
Babor encourages her clients to look at their search as a quest for a career, not just a job. She recommends applying for positions that provide opportunities for growth and that relate to the job seekers’ interests.
“If you’re passionate about it, you’re really going to exceed,” she said.
For those who have yet to find their passion, she recommends career assessment services, which help people understand the fields best suited for them based on their interests.
She also advises job seekers with poor records to be honest with employers about their history, because many employers are willing to give second chances, she said.
Marilyn Conner, manager at Job Connection Calaveras, said people who have been unemployed for long periods of time and cannot find a job in the industry in which they previously worked may want to look at other jobs that match their skills or consider training for jobs that are in demand.
She said the best way for job seekers to increase their chances of employment is by investing the time to look for work.