Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bob Herbert: Laid Off and Left Out

You don't hear much from the American worker anymore. Like battered soldiers at the end of a lost war, ordinary workers seem resigned to their diminished status.

The grim terms imposed on them include wage stagnation, the widespread confiscation of benefits (including pensions they once believed were guaranteed), and a permanent state of employment insecurity.

For an unnecessarily large number of Americans, the workplace has become a hub of anxiety and fear, an essential but capricious environment in which you might be shown the door at any moment.

In his new book, The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, Louis Uchitelle tells us that since 1984, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics started monitoring "worker displacement," at least 30 million full-time workers have been "permanently separated from their jobs and their paychecks against their wishes."

Mr. Uchitelle writes on economic issues for The Times. In his book, he traces the evolution of that increasingly endangered species, the secure job, and the effect that the current culture of corporate layoffs is having on ordinary men and women.

He said he was surprised, as he did the reporting for the book, by the extensive emotional fallout that accompanies layoffs.

"There's a lot of mental health damage," he said. "The act of being laid off is such a blow to the self-esteem. Layoffs are a national phenomenon, a societal problem — but the laid-off workers blame themselves."

In addition to being financially strapped, laid-off workers and their families are often emotionally strapped as well. Common problems include depression, domestic strife and divorce.

Mr. Uchitelle's thesis is that corporate layoffs have been carried much too far, that they have gone beyond a legitimate and necessary response to a changing economy.

"What started as a necessary response to the intrusion of foreign manufacturers into the American marketplace got out of hand," he writes.

"By the late 1990's, getting rid of workers had become normal practice, ingrained behavior, just as job security had been 25 years earlier."

In many cases, a thousand workers were fired when 500 might have been sufficient, or 10,000 were let go when 5,000 would have been enough.

We pay a price for these excesses. The losses that accrue to companies and communities when many years of improving skills and valuable experience are casually and unnecessarily tossed on a scrap heap are incalculable.

"The majority of the people who are laid off," said Mr. Uchitelle, "end up in jobs that pay significantly less than they earned before, or they drop out altogether."

At the heart of the layoff phenomenon is the myth, endlessly repeated by corporate leaders and politicians of both parties, that workers who are thrown out of their jobs can save themselves, can latch onto spiffy new jobs by becoming better educated and acquiring new skills.

"Education and training create the jobs, according to this way of thinking," writes Mr. Uchitelle. "Or, put another way, a job materializes for every trained or educated worker, a job commensurate with his or her skills, for which he or she is appropriately paid."

That is just not so, and the corporate and political elite need to stop feeding that bogus line to the public.

There is no doubt that the better-educated and better-trained get better jobs. But the reality is that there are not enough good jobs currently available to meet the demand of college-educated and well-trained workers in the United States, which is why so many are working in jobs for which they are overqualified.

A chapter in "The Disposable American" details the plight of exquisitely trained airline mechanics who found themselves laid off from jobs that had paid up to $31 an hour. Mr. Uchitelle writes:

"Not enough jobs exist at $31 an hour — or at $16 an hour, for that matter — to meet the demand for them. Jobs just don't materialize at cost-conscious companies to absorb all the qualified people who want them."

The most provocative question raised by Mr. Uchitelle is whether the private sector is capable of generating enough good jobs at good pay to meet the demand of everyone who is qualified and wants to work.

If it cannot (and so far it has not), then what? If education and training are not the building blocks to solid employment, what is? These are public policy questions of the highest importance, and so far they are being ignored.

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