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Underemployment resulting in downward mobility

Underemployment

Underemployment

Untold numbers of New Yorkers have been forced to settle for the employment equivalent of booty calls.

Longing for the security of challenging, full-time, benefit-bearing relationships with employers, they are instead forced to settle for on-demand contract work, gigs below their skills and expertise, unpaid internships or part-time jobs — the equivalent of cheap, ungratifying employment hook-ups.

According to the latest data available by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 8% jobless rate in New York State swells to 14.9% when “underutilized” workers are taken into account. Such workers include those who have part-time jobs but want full-time ones, as well as people “marginally attached” to the labor market.

In addition —and also uncounted — are contract workers and full-time employees in lesser positions making much lower wages than they made before the recession.

Many workers who dropped out of the job competition to attend school, travel or raisechildren also are members of this unacknowledged pool of “underemployed” people— as are highly skilled immigrants whose credentials are spurned in the U.S.

And yet, New York fares better than the nation, which has an official 16.1% “underemployment” rate. Marriages, children, home purchases and retirements are delayed as a result.

Underemployment “is even worse than the official statistics,” said Ruth Milkman, academic director of CUNY’s Joseph S. Murphy Labor Institute. “Whenever you meet someone now at a party who says, ‘I’m a consultant,’ that usually means they’re underemployed.”

That would describe Charles Allman, 33, of Bloomfield, N.J. An IT professional, he went from earning $75,000 a year at a full-time Wall Street job to working on-call as an IT consultant after being laid off in 2009.

He has tried to score a position equivalent to what he held before, “but that’s a Cinderella story: You hear about it, but it doesn’t happen.”

Paul Mubanda, 48, of midtown agreed. “If you’re an IT systems administrator, you’re almost extinct,” because the emphasis now is on applications and programming,” said Mubanda who quit his IT administrator job with the United Nations in 2008.

Everyone he knows in his profession “is a freelancer or consultant. … No one wants anyone who is full time.”

This “on-demand”employment phenomenon is even more prevalent in the retail and service sectors,one-time bastions of full-time jobs, Milkman noted.

“They keep a huge head count of people on call and dole out hours in sync with consumer demand,” she said. “You have to be available all the time, but sometimes you get as little as four to six hours a week.”

Carl VanHorn, public policy professor and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, said: “This huge growth in the part-time and contingent work force enables employers to avoid paying benefits.”

Signe Valentinsson, 30, of Harlem graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz in 2007 but works as a nanny.

“I don’t have a lot of access to health care right now because I don’t have insurance,”she said. “Last year, I got pink eye from the kids.”

She paused, noting that while her job may have been the source of her malady, she was forced to take unpaid sick leave once she contracted it, because “no one wants you to interact with kids when you have pink eye.”

Valentinsson said she may attend grad school in her dream field of archaeology, hoping a graduate degree will help her land a job.

Older workers have the worst time getting any job.

People overage 55 “have the lowest re-employment rates,” and it’s not just because they’re opting for early retirement, said Van Horn.

They’re perceived as expensive both in benefits and wages, so “a lot of employers don’t want to hire them,” he said.

Unable to find an equivalent job, Mubanda is now drawing down his pension and savings to start a web-based medical image archiving service. If there is a bright spot to the demolition of conventional employment and secure work, it’s that it’s spurring, frustrated, displaced workers to think entrepreneurially.

In today’s economy, said Mubanda, “you have to create your own ideal employment.”


Sidebar

Tumbling down the economic ladder to earn a fraction of one’s previous salary feels like falling into poverty, New Yorkers said.

Take Jennifer Schneider, who is officially fully employed but desperate to climb back into the wage tier she occupied two years ago. Her slashed household outflow also shows how one person’s hardship can affect others whose jobs depend upon consumer spending.

Schneider, 35, used to live the good life in an $1,800-a-month Staten Island apartment that she shared with her son, Nelson, 13, when she made $60,000 annually as a sales woman for a bottled water company.

After she was laid off in 2009, she downsized to a smaller, $900 a month apartment in Bensonhurst and she surrendered her new Toyota Avalon to the dealer because she “couldn’t afford the $600 a month payment.”

She stopped eating in “beautiful restaurants” to cook at home and stopped shopping in “nice boutiques” to make do with what she had. Even little pick-me-ups, such as inexpensive manicures, are out of reach, said Schneider.

“My son feels it a lot,” because she is forever saying “no” to his requests for school fees and pleas for electronic equipment and other items.

Schneider recently landed a job helping low income people sign up for free cell phones in a government program. She makes about $500 a week “before taxes,” but too much too qualify for the food stamps her customers receive or to be eligible for a free cell phone.

She managed to get Nelson enrolled in Child Health Plus, but has no medical insurance herself.

Schneider knows that being paid very little for working very hard is the new normal for millions of Americans. Still, she sighed, not having enough money to cover even basic expenses “is devastating. … It hits you like a ton of bricks.”

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