“That’s all I’m looking for, a chance at something better”
An unemployed furniture salesman, at the end of his resources, is forced into a shelter. But a new kind of employment office gives him hope.
NEW YORK — For ten years Anthony Hicks made an annual salary of $60,000 selling furniture, but now he is broke and spends his days standing in lines.
Each morning he waits for a computer at the unemployment office in Harlem, to update his resume and look for jobs. In the evenings he stands outside a midtown shelter, waiting for a place to sleep, sometimes for hours.
Despite his tough knocks, Hicks, 48, believes the unemployment system is the only way out of the shelter system. After responsibility for paying benefits shifted upstate to Albany in 2005, the unemployment office on 125th Street was re-branded Workforce1, part of a 2003 cost-cutting initiative by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that aligned the city’s training and small business services. The new entity is operated collectively by the city’s Department of Small Business Services, the New York State Department of Labor and the City University of New York.
“Workforce1 has given me hope,” Hicks said. “Sometimes it feels like New York’s gotten the best of me, but this helps me through. Because of them, I know there are opportunities and that I can take advantage of them.”
Each time Hicks goes to the Harlem office, which has around 25 full time employees and may serve as many as 300 newly jobless people each week, he hopes to find something substantial in his field of expertise, furniture sales. But as the process stretched from weeks into months and months into years, lately he has been forced to consider other options.
“It’s a new thing, but I’m rethinking my skill set, thinking of giving up the career I hoped to stick with the rest of my life,” said Hicks, who is divorced, and lost his sales job two years ago. “But it’s a new environment out there. I might have to make some drastic changes; I’m talking culinary arts or accounting, but I feel like I can do either.”
Many other unemployed people are open to career changes. Workforce1 is the city’s solution to the problem of changing labor demands.
At 10.3 percent, unemployment in New York City is higher than the statewide average of 8.9 percent, and the national average of 9.8 percent. Of the 860,000 or so residents of New York City who are jobless, unemployment is running higher among the young, while those age 50 and older, and those with long tenure in specific industries, have a more difficult time finding work after a layoff. Compounded by the fact they are likely to be out of work longer, the outlook is grim for older city dwellers thrown from the occupational train, labor reps pointed out.
Judy Sullivan, a supervising labor services representative who has worked for the Department of Labor for more than 24 years, believes Workforce1’s approach is working.
“The market has changed,” Sullivan said. “At Workforce1, we focus on longer-term needs, like upgrading their skill sets. We want to get the older generation prepared for a working and interviewing environment that may have totally changed since they last shook someone’s hand and asked for a job.”
The Workforce1 office, at 215 W. 125th St., is on same block as the Apollo Theatre. Vendors sell tubes of incense and takeout containers of Shea butter, clay busts and Grecian statues, bootleg films and dog-eared movie scripts on the street below. The buttons in the building’s elevator light up when they are pushed but the button for the sixth floor is burned out.
A sign displaying the Workforce1 logo sits above a receptionist’s desk. A black velvet rope stretches out in front; anyone waiting for an appointment must queue behind it. The waiting area is divided into two sets of chairs facing each other, both four rows deep.
There is little conversation, but whatever words are spoken seem friendly. Young men in sport coats sit around with legs sprawled out, wearing baseball hats. The older women are made up, with their hair done, while a few young mothers and fathers are easily overwhelmed by their children. Middle-aged men, wearing ties and eager smiles, hold briefcases and joke with one another, but in whispers.
For those like Hicks, who may have worked for a decade or more in the same job, revamping and circulating a new resume can be overwhelming. But they must do it.
“You can’t just walk into a company with a resume and a smile and expect to get an interview,” Sullivan said. “It’s all automated now. So we have to work on interviewing skills, resume writing and, believe it or not, branding workshops.”
The transition can be daunting. Cynthia Edwards, 52, a former home care specialist for the city, stops by the Workforce1 office a few times every week, hoping that each job listing means a new chance. Fired after 20 years of service, just one year before she would be eligible to receive her full benefits, Edwards is in a tough situation: she needs a city job in order to claim her full benefits when she retires. She must secure a new city job before June 28, 2010. But from what she sees, the city isn’t hiring.
“I feel a bit lost,” Edwards said. “I had a routine for 20 years, and they took it away right before I could collect on my benefits. I’ve been going to workshops and programs to get up to speed, but I need a city job, and when they’re not hiring, what can I do?”
Edwards’ situation is particularly difficult, since public sector jobs might be one of the few beacons of hope in an otherwise gloomy employment forecast.
Martin Kohli, regional economist for the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics, said city employees are losing their jobs less rapidly than in other sectors.
“I would think that during an election year, the city isn’t likely to have massive layoffs,” Kohli said, speaking before the November 2009 mayoral election in which Bloomberg was elected to a third term. “The city did hire a number of people over the summer with stimulus money.”
From August 2008 through August 2009, 42,000 New York City jobs were added, with the help of about $5 billion in federal stimulus funds. But the unemployment rate has continued to rise. That’s not unusual: New York unemployment is traditionally above the national unemployment rate.
Older workers also take longer to get back in.
Workers age 45 and over were out of work for 22.2 weeks on average after a job loss, against 16.2 weeks for those under 45, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Gary Burtless, the Whitehead Chair in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, said New York State “is hurting as bad as I expected.”
Burtless said the culprit behind both the state’s woes as well as the nation’s economic decline is the concentration of the financial sector in New York City, which translates to plunging property values and wages all over. Nationally, lower wages and high unemployment are symptoms of New York’s illness, he argued.
“What was destroyed was the value of stocks and corporate bonds,” Burtless said. “What was destroyed was the net worth of houses ⎯ they disappeared like water on a hot August sidewalk.”
At 9 p.m., Hicks arrives back at the midtown men’s shelter, and waits three hours for a cot and a bowl of cereal. When he first entered the shelter system in October 2009, he gave his mother all his remaining possessions. He keeps a little money in his underwear for emergencies or a can of beer, and the money is always the last thing he thinks about before catching a fitful few hours of sleep. Those same folded bills are his first concern in the morning. The men around him are not gentle people.
After he wakes, showers and breakfasts, Hicks checks his underwear and sheepishly asks the staff for carfare to head 95 blocks uptown to the Harlem office.
“This is something I’ve got to do. Each and every day until something better comes around,” Hicks said. “That’s all I’m looking for, a chance at something better.”