Tuesday, November 25, 2008

r.i. makes bbc news - for unemployment

how do we respond?

Ocean State feeling the pinch

By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Rhode Island

Arthur Hallam and cousin Dennis
Arthur and Dennis worked at a food packing factory that has now closed

Rhode Island is the smallest American State, but it has the country's highest rate of unemployment.

The latest monthly figures show that 9.3% of the Ocean State's population are out of work. Only Michigan has a comparable level of joblessness.

Michigan is, of course, home to the Big Three car companies, whose large-scale problems are well known.

Their joint - and, so far, rejected - request for a $25bn (£16.5bn) loan is dominating the Lame Duck session of Congress.

Rhode Island's problems are less well documented.

Most of the state's businesses are small and, of those, over 80% have fewer than 20 workers. They are particularly vulnerable to the knock-on effects of the current economic crisis.

So, they have been laying off workers, such as brothers Johnny and Arthur Hallam and their cousin, Dennis. All three have lost their jobs in the past year.

Cutting logs

Approaching retirement age, but finding themselves without an income, they spend their days in Johnny's house, watching the news and reminiscing about the old days - the days when they were in work.

"At first, it was like a vacation," smiled Arthur, who lost his long-time job packing food, "but then it went on and on."

Providence police chief Dean Esserman
You feel the whole fabric of societies begin to unwind
Dean Esserman
Providence police chief

His smile turned to a frown. "To have a job, even though it's not a spectacular one, was enjoyable... To not have it, well, you don't feel worthwhile. You don't feel like a real man."

His younger brother, Johnny, drove trucks for a lumber firm for 15 years. As the orders dried up, he saw other colleagues getting laid off, but he didn't think he would be for the chop.

He has applied for other truck driving jobs, but says they go to men half his age. "I've not had one call back. Not one, he laments.

Dennis is blunt. "My unemployment benefit just about covers my mortgage. To keep warm, I take my chainsaw, go out to the woods and cut up logs. If I can go out, clean someone's yard and get a quick $20 bill, that's how I pay for my food."


To the south of Providence, in the town of Peace Dale, I watched people queuing up for free Thanksgiving dinner ingredients.

Turkeys, sacks of potatoes and packets of cornbread mix all flew off the shelves at the Jonnycake Center, a food pantry providing supplies to the needy.

According to the Executive Director, Susan Gustaitis, there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of people turning to the Center.

"Last September we had an average of 261 families who were registered with us," she said. "Now we have 970."

People collect handouts at the Jonnycake Center
More people have been coming to pick up food at the Jonnycake Center

The rising unemployment has added to the number of people losing their homes. Rhode Island now has the sixth highest foreclosure rate in the country.

On a drive through Providence, the city's police chief, Dean Esserman, told me that the abandoned properties had resulted in a 17% increase in break-ins over recent months.

"We started to see families move out overnight. You feel the whole fabric of societies begin to unwind," he said with an air of regret.

"We've got to lean on each other. We're hiring more kids in the police force and encouraging employers to take them on. But these are tough times."

Rhode Island's Republican Governor, Donald Carcieri, is also trying to encourage job creation.

At brainstorming sessions with business leaders and economists, they have discussed plans to lower state taxes and rationalise its sprawling education system.

"For the first five years we were in office, we had the best record of job creation in New England," he said, wistfully, " but we felt the recession early and severely.

"It disappoints me greatly. But all you can do are the things you can control. Families have to watch their expenditures and they want their government to do the same. We'll come out of this."

More lay-offs?

Rhode Island's businessmen and women may welcome the governor's optimism, but - in the short term - some are having to take drastic steps to keep their workforce intact.

Cheryl Merchant is CEO of Hope Global, a firm in the town of Cumberland, which makes textiles for - amongst others - car companies.

Cheryl Merchant
Cheryl Merchant has put her workers on a four-day week

She has taken advantage of a state-run scheme, which allows employers to place their workers on a four-day week and to claim unemployment benefit for the fifth.

She says it was her only option. "If we didn't have to lay people off or cut back, it'd be the last thing we'd do," she said.

"But there is no other way. The opposite to going to this four-day week, or to finding some kind of half-way measure, is just to start laying people off permanently."

But the measure is a sticking plaster. If the economic situation does not improve, she says she may be forced to place her workers on a three-day week and then, in the New Year, to begin sacking them.

President-elect Barack Obama is promising to create 2.5 million new jobs. Rhode Islanders would like just a few of them, but they would like them fast.

No comments: