6 challenges affecting the American worker

DETROIT - Labor Day means more than a chance to relax and eat hot dogs. It's also a time to reflect on the challenges facing the American worker.

Those challenges range from the profound to the prosaic: stubbornly high unemployment, bad bosses, lousy summer jobs for youths.

The Detroit Free Press looks at some of those challenges.

Not enough jobs

Perhaps the biggest problem facing today's workers is that there's not enough work.

Today's national unemployment rate of 8.3% in July, remains well above the comfort level.

Add in those workers who can find only part-time work, or the discouraged dropouts no longer counted in the workforce statistics, and the national jobless rate rises to about 15%.

Charles Ballard, a professor of economics at Michigan State University, said disappointing jobless numbers may represent "the new normal."

"At the very least, it looks like it will take a very long time for us to get back to the levels of underemployment that we had before 2008," he said last week.

At a job fair last week in Dearborn, Mich., Dwayne Dixon said he spent 18 years in the food and beverage management industry, at one point overseeing 180 employees. Then he opened his own restaurant, but had to close it after seven years as the economy slowed. He has been unemployed for the past two months.

"My attacks are online and job fairs ... and trying to stay aware of jobs available," said the 55-year-old from Harrison Township, Mich.

"I'm hopeful and optimistic, because if you give up hope, it's over," he said. "You have to have the right people at the right time. I believe by looking, I'll find something."

Long-term unemployment

More than three years after the end of the Great Recession, long-term unemployment remains one of the most serious challenges facing the country. In July, 5.2 million Americans had been searching for a job for more than half a year, accounting for nearly 41% of all unemployed workers.

The improving job market has merely dented the number. Last Labor Day, long-term unemployment affected 6 million Americans.

Many are older workers like Vincent Calabrese of Fraser, Mich. The longtime facilities manager lost his job at a charter school in 2009. He has been trying to get hired ever since.

Calabrese, 62, has used up every cent of his 401(k) retirement savings. This summer, he applied for Social Security benefits even though he's still hoping to find a job. He's thankful his wife has a full-time job.

"I'm not giving up, but I'm trying to be realistic," he said. "I'm still capable of providing a full day's work."

Retirement anxiety

Retirement may not be a total bust, but it's no party for those on the job and wondering when they'll be able to stop working.

A little more than half of Baby Boomer and Generation X households are projected to have enough money for retirement - even taking into account nursing homes and long-term care, said Nevin Adams, co-director for the non-partisan Employee Benefit Research Institute's Center for Research on Retirement Income in Washington, D.C.

But no doubt the other half has some challenges to face - such as saving more and working longer. "We think retirement is the top challenge facing workers today," said Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for the Pension Rights Center, a consumer organization to protect retirement security.

Bob Pettibone, 56, thought he would have been retired by now or would be very close in a few years. Instead, the biology teacher finds himself worried at the very thought of retirement.

"It's difficult for me right now because the rules are changing as I approach retirement," Pettibone said.

In addition, many workers have seen pay freezes and pay cuts during the hard economic times.

It's tougher to get ahead or keep up for many workers. Many in their 50s saved for retirement based on one set of expectations and then saw the rules change.

Many workers age 50 and older lost jobs during the Great Recession and had a hard time finding another job at similar pay. Many had a tough time saving for retirement.

Although some workers continue to look forward to receiving a traditional pension check, others are looking at a less stable 401(k) plan.

And yes, there continues to be the growing cost of health insurance premiums and health care.

Even those who are 10 years or so from retirement are uncertain of how much savings they'll really need to cover the bills.

About 28% of "transition" Boomers - those ages 55 to 65 - are concerned that they won't be able to cover basic living expenses in retirement, according to Allianz Life's Transition Boomers and Retirement Income survey.

Crummy jobs

The notion that work ennobles the worker may be true for a lot of jobs - doctors, say, or clergy or teachers or poets - but millions of Americans suffer through jobs that are dull, dirty and demeaning.

The Free Press asked readers on Facebook to post their "worst" jobs ever. A couple of the responses:

Reader Al Larese ranked his worst ever as a college job doing janitorial work at a local auto plant. "For two weeks, I was sent to fill in for someone at another building where my only work for EIGHT HOURS was to empty the wastebaskets and sweep the floor twice per day. The rest of the time there was literally NOTHING to do, and I had to look busy doing it. Those were by far the longest days of my life."

Reader Steven Paquette also hated his summer break job - "scrubbing dorm restrooms" at Michigan State University. "Filthy," he recalls.

Bad bosses

One reason some jobs rate as crummy is The Boss.

Almost one in every two Americans admits to having suffered under an unreasonable boss, according to a 2011 survey by the staffing service firm OfficeTeam.

Some 55% of those said they dealt with it by either trying to improve the situation or just suffering through it. But 38% said they quit, either immediately or when they had a new job lined up - a huge disruptive cost for the American economy.

"Bad bosses aren't necessarily bad people, but they certainly can make work challenging for those who report to them," said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam, when the firm's most recent survey was released in 2011. "Often, individuals are promoted because they excel in a given job, but that doesn't mean they have the skills to be effective leaders."

OfficeTeam identified five types of bad bosses: the micromanager, the poor communicator, the bully, the saboteur and the mixed bag. (Go to http://officeteam.rhi.mediaroom.com/badboss for more discussion.)

Decline of unions

Say what you will about unions in the political sphere, they have always bolstered the wages of working- and middle-class workers. And their long-term decline is a big reason behind wage stagnation.

The Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed, liberal-leaning think thank in Washington, D.C., estimated last week that the decline of unions accounts for about one-third of the wage inequality in America. The share of the workforce represented by unions declined from 26.7% to 13.1% from 1973 to 2011, according to the EPI report's analysis.

"Unions reduce wage inequalities because they raise wages more at the bottom and in the middle of the wage scale than at the top," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the institute. "It is unsurprising that efforts to weaken unions have exacerbated both wage inequality and the divergence between overall productivity and the compensation of the typical worker."


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