Press: Personal Struggles Shared During Unemployed Nation Hearings

Apr 4 2012

By Lily Katz
From The Daily

“If I don’t have any value to anyone else, what kind of value do I have to myself?” asked Colin McMullin, a Washington native and Boeing engineer who was laid off in 2009. “The last three years have been the toughest years of my life.”

McMullin and other Washingtonians came to the Walker-Ames Room of Kane Hall last Friday to share their stories of unemployment at the Unemployed Nation Hearings.

The hearings were organized by the UW Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council, the Washington State Labor Council, and several other campus sponsors.

James Gregory, director of the Harry Bridges Center, was especially inspired to organize the hearings after seeing three-quarters of his class raise their hands when he asked if his students knew someone who has struggled with unemployment in the Great Recession.

Gregory and UW President Michael Young were among the speakers who introduced the hearings.

“The Great Recession has been accompanied by what I call ‘the great silence,’” Gregory said. “It’s a hidden nation of unemployed or nearly unemployed people. The silence is a problem. It doesn’t create the right kind of political momentum to encourage the policy-makers to actually do something about it.”

This silence was the overarching theme of the hearings, which also focused on the inaccurate unemployment numbers the U.S. government has provided. While the government reports there are 12.8 million people unemployed, this number does not include the 8 million who can’t find a full-time job as well as the 1 million who are so discouraged from what seems like endless job searching that they’ve stopped looking altogether.

But Khayah Brookes, a UW senior who testified at the hearings, was everything but discouraged.

Before Brookes came to the UW, she studied at Seattle Central Community College, where she worked in IT services. Barely able to make ends meet due to the school’s contradictory rules regarding students who hold jobs, Brookes was forced to drop out of school in order to focus on working.

Unable to find a steady job, Brookes worked up to five jobs during the six months she was not attending college.

Brookes entered the UW with just enough money to get by. But soon after she started classes, she was again forced to withdraw in order to work.

“I was handicapped by the system’s unrealistic estimation of my family’s resources — somehow, it was calculated that my unemployed mother had over $8,000 per year to contribute to my support. In spring 2010 I was compelled to withdraw completely again and work a medley of odd jobs to stay afloat.”

Yet even though she was forced to drop out of college twice in three years, Brookes did not give up hope and considers herself fortunate. Many of her classmates were forced to abandon school completely.

“I am here to show policy-makers the unique challenges that face young workers who are trying to make the best of the resources available to us,” said Brookes, almost in tears. “Young people, and especially full-time students, are a vulnerable population of workers. … This is bad for us now, and it is poison for the economic engines of our society for the future. As the saying goes, even in the harshest of winters, you don’t eat your seed corn.”

Larry Neilson, currently unemployed, was laid off at Microsoft and gave a lengthy list of tips to those who are in similar situations.

“Among friends, ask for help. Oftentimes they’ll give it to you. Among strangers, if you have to, beg. You’d be surprised how generous people can be. I go out and beg for gas every month.”

Instead of using a cell phone or a landline, Neilson uses Skype to keep in contact with his friends and family.

There were numerous other speakers at the hearings, including several UW faculty members as well as Dow Constantine, King County executive, and Washington Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells.

Constantine and Kohl-Wells ended the hearings by providing hopeful sentiments.

“I wanted to thank everyone … for sharing their stories and helping put a human face on a problem that is too often defined by charts and statistics rather than by human lives,” Constantine said.

Reach reporter Lily Katz at news@dailyuw.com.