U.S. labor secretary talks with New Jersey’s long-term unemployed

 New Jersey resident Shelley Young described her struggle with unemployment to U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez (second from right) as well as other government officials and workforce professionals during a roundtable discussion at Rutgers University. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

New Jersey resident Shelley Young described her struggle with unemployment to U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez (second from right) as well as other government officials and workforce professionals during a roundtable discussion at Rutgers University. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez met with out-of-work New Jerseyans, workforce professionals, and other government officials at Rutgers University on Tuesday for a roundtable discussion on the state’s high long-term unemployment rate.

While he touted the Obama administration’s progress in pushing the national unemployment rate below 5 percent, Perez also acknowledged that is little consolation to those who continue to search for a job.

“What I’ve learned from my own experience growing up in Buffalo, New York, is all that data is kind of irrelevant if you know somebody who’s unemployed,” he said, “because the unemployment rate feels like it’s one hundred percent.”

Taking part in the discussion at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development were staff members and participants from the New Start Career Network, a recently-launched program to help long-term unemployed residents 45 and older.

One of those participants, Clifford Biroc, has not had a steady job since June of 2014. In the last 20 years, he has lost his job seven times.

“The most difficult aspects of this that I have faced include financial uncertainty, depression, and anxiety,” he said.

Biroc added that his most recent bout of unemployment has taken a toll on his family’s financial resources. “This time I have depleted my savings and am currently going into my IRA account.”

Another participant, Charles Goldstein, chronicled his financial struggles after losing his job with a nonprofit.

“I have no IRAs left. They’re completely wiped out,” he said. “The savings bonds I’ve had since I’m a kid — they’re all gone.”

Several participants mentioned how long-term unemployment adversely affects older people, who often compete with younger applicants for few available jobs and may face age discrimination during the application process.

In addition to the job and interview advice available through the NSCN, counselors described how the program also creates a community for older New Jerseyans who have been unemployed for more than six months and who may not know that others are facing similar situations.

“People feel ashamed for having lost their jobs. And then the longer that they’re out of work, the more shame is associated with that. So they tend to be very isolated,” said Michele Martin, a volunteer career coach with the NSCN and president of the Bamboo Project, a career and workforce development company.

“I spend a lot of time in my phone calls saying to people ‘you’re not alone, I promise, you’re not alone, other people are going through this kind of experience too.'”

According to officials, New Jersey has among the highest rates of long-term unemployment in the country.

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