It was a beautiful fall day – more like August than October – but there was a chill hanging over the long queue of unemployed workers lined up on the sidewalk in front of the Bridgeview Community Center.
Their faces are views of desperation as they wait for the doors to Congressman Dan Lipinski’s job fair to open. Out of savings and unemployment benefits, they are in survival mode, willing to take demotions and pay cuts. There are mortgages to pay and kids to support. They’ll take anything.
“You can’t give up because once you do, it’s over,” said an Oak Lawn woman named Pat.
Too Young to Retire, Too Old to Work
Up until seven months ago when she got laid off, Pat was employed as a medical secretary at a local hospital. Describing her job search—she says she looks every day – she could be the adult poster child of the unemployed.
"I go online every day, I get all the newspapers, I go to employment agencies,” she said. “Anybody I know, my friends, my family, I tell them I’m looking for a job.”
A few weeks ago she received a call from a prospective employer who told Pat that she had 1,100 resumes to pour through.
“That’s not too encouraging,” she said quietly. “It’s kind of sad.”
When we ask Pat, who’s in her early 50s, if she thinks her age is a detriment, another woman standing behind her nods.
Like Pat, Lynn doesn’t want to give her last name because in today’s dog-eat-dog job market “you have to stay four steps ahead of everyone else.”
'Heart Attack' Policy
“If you read the statistics for people in the 50s age group, if you do lose your job, it will probably take 18 to 24 months to get back working again,” Lynn said. “You’re looking to lose ground and you won’t be where you were before. You’ll have to take a pay cut and reinvent yourself a little bit.”
Lynn doesn’t have 18 to 24 months to wait. A single mom of two high-schoolers, she is a CPA who was laid off a year ago from a financial services company. She’s kept up her job search, although some periods more intensely than others.
“I’m coming to the point now where it’s been so long I can’t leave any options out,” she says. “My unemployment is going to run out.”
Thankfully, her children are on their father’s health insurance plan. She’s taken out a “heart attack” policy with high deductible just in case of the unthinkable.
“That’s better than going uninsured,” she said. “At this point in time especially with two kids and a mortgage, I can’t take that risk.”
Inside the Job Fair
Inside the community center, more than 40 employers arrange bowls of candy and stress balls on tables. There are a large number of trucking companies, the local Kmart, fast food franchises, security firms and inside sales jobs.
Perhaps using his federal clout, Lipinski has also lined up railroads and government agencies, offering such positions as chief audit and compliance officer, assistant conductor and train engineer.
A man from a trucking company said, “I could hire 100 people today.” One wonders what America is still moving.
The doors opened at 10 a.m. and the community center quickly filled with the unemployed, filling out applications and pitching themselves to company representatives.
One such representative barked at a prospective applicant, “I’ll look at your resume but I can’t accept it. You have to apply online.”
'I'm Not A Yeller Or A Screamer'
At some point during the morning the congressman strolled in. Unemployment has hit Illinois' 3rd District hard, where in many communities joblessness hovers in the double digits. Lipinski takes the stage and welcomes attendees, tells them he’s on their side and to contact his office if they need anything.
Many walked up to the congressman and thanked him for holding the job fair. They’re impressed that he came. The congressman shares that someone asked about changing the current tax law so that people don’t get penalized for early withdrawals from their retirement funds.
“It’s an idea I’m going to look into introducing legislation on,” Lipinski said.
Asked if he’s worried about the nation’s 9.1 unemployment rate hurting democratic incumbents in 2012, Lipinski deftly points out his
“People know I’m somebody who tries to get things done,” he said. “I’m not a yeller and a screamer. I’m a person who wants to work together to things done and I think people appreciate that.”
But to the anxious cross section of job seekers dressed in Blackhawk jerseys and executive suits for whom time is running out, they could probably use a yeller about now.