Women struggle to escape unemployment, study finds

| Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Losing her job was a shock, but Tonita Hunter never imagined that after three decades in the insurance business, she would be looking to reinvent herself in the casino industry.

“When you don't get any responses, it makes you look further,” said Hunter, 56, of Highland Park, about her job search. “I thought, maybe this is an opportunity to go another way and start doing something different.”

Hunter has been unemployed for two years since she was laid off from her job as a financial analyst. Having long ago spent her severance and whittled her savings, Hunter takes no job opportunity for granted. At a recent job fair at the Rivers Casino, she clung to a list of openings and awaited her turn to interview. “Explore the Possibilities!” the flier said. The cage cashier position caught her eye.

Hunter is at a loss to explain why she has been unable to find full time employment. She is far from alone.

Unemployed women older than 50 have had a particularly difficult time getting back into the workforce since the recession ended in 2009, despite an improving labor market and unemployment rate of 4.9 percent.

A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found in the two years before the downturn, less than a quarter of unemployed women ages 50 to 64 had been out of work long term, considered to be at least six months. By 2012-13, half of that group was long-term unemployed.

The impact on older women can be especially harsh because they are less likely to have pension balances that would support them, experts say. Unemployment benefits generally provide half a person's weekly wages and run out after 26 weeks.

Older men have also been unemployed for longer post-recession, but the shift has not been as dramatic as their female counterparts, leading economists and employment experts to wonder what is causing the gender divide.

Family considerations

St. Louis Fed economist Alexander Monge-Naranjo said there is no easy answer. There were some sectors, like government and public education, that tended to employ older women and were hit hard during the recession. But that was also the case for male dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing.

More likely are the family considerations that attend decisions to work.

“I think that could be a big factor,” Monge-Naranjo said. “Firms like to hire people that they are a little more certain about the prospects ... and traditionally, it has been the case that women are the ones taking time off.”

When she was laid off in February 2014, Hunter was in no rush to return to work. She used the time to help her daughter in high school prepare for college.

She doesn't regret the decision but said she never anticipated how difficult it would be to get hired. Hunter spends most of her days searching and applying for jobs online, and seeking out job fairs like the one at the Rivers Casino, but has had no full-time prospects.

“It's disappointing,” she said. “It's made me, I wouldn't say depressed, but it's brought me down.”

Patricia Phillips, 64, said more than three years of unemployment has deepened her depression, a symptom of her post-traumatic stress disorder from serving as a nurse in the first Gulf War. Since losing her job at UPMC Shadyside Hospital in 2012, Phillips has been getting by on Social Security disability benefits and drawing down on her retirement savings. But her 401(k) will run out in May, she said, leaving her struggling to cover her $1,000 monthly mortgage payments.

“I hoped to have an easy life and travel in my senior years,” said Phillips, of Highland Park. “But now I'm stuck.”

Networking skills

A spotty employment history in which there were gaps for raising children or caring for elderly parents can be all the reason a hiring manager needs to move on to the next candidate, experts said.

Hunter knows that the longer she stays out of work, the more difficult it will be. Her skills will get rusty. Also, the gap in her employment history could make her more likely to get filtered out by the applicant screening software many companies use for online applications.

She recently signed up for a networking program with the nonprofit Pennsylvania Women Work, a job training and placement organization.

Reaching out to professional peers is something that far too many older women fail to do after they lose a job, said Julie Marx, the organization's CEO and executive director.

“Women in this age group are really not used to using their networking skills to enhance themselves professionally,” Marx said.

Older women might have coffee with friends, but these interactions tend to be more socially oriented than professional, Marx said. Men are better at keeping up the kind of “transactional” relationships that help them find jobs, she said.

Irene Prendergast said she undervalued the need to keep up professional relationships. The 62-year-old Moon resident lost her job in U.S. Steel's recruiting department a year and a half ago. At the time, she could see retirement on the horizon. She needed only to hang on a little while longer.

“You think you're going to move onto something better and then this happens,” Prendergast said. “But what happened is, I lost my entire network.”

She worked for a year to rebuild her professional network. She attended career events, chamber of commerce mixers, “anything that's free,” she said.

Prendergast recently caught on as a recruiter for an insurance company, though she views it as temporary. She is earning less money than before her layoff and working with people half her age. Prendergast puts little faith in finding a permanent job through online applications and is hoping to use her network to launch her consulting company.

“I know from being a recruiter, the competition is too high,” she said. “It's all driven around technology and key words. You still have to know how to do things, but you also have to know people.”

Job programs

At least 80 percent of jobs are found in a “hidden job pool,” which is not advertised on job boards and is accessed primarily through a professional relationship, Marx said.

There are some efforts to support older women looking to get back into the workforce. PA Women Work has recently started a “3 Cups of Coffee” program that pairs unemployed women with professional mentors, who meet over coffee to talk about how the person can improve their chances for employment. Another program, New Choices, offers free computer and customer service skills training to women of all ages, though most of them tend to be in their late 40s and 50s, Marx said.

Monge-Naranjo, the Fed economist, doubts whether the struggles of older women after the recession signal a permanent shift in the job market.

Hunter isn't so sure. She hopes her two daughters don't find themselves in similar situations after they've been working for more than 30 years. But then, Hunter never expected to struggle herself.

So, she's offering herself as a lesson to them.

“At least, they can take it seriously,” Hunter said. “I've told them never to take anything for granted because it can change in the blink of an eye. You never know.”

Chris Fleisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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