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The new Vegas identity: Unemployed

One laid-off reporter’s struggle to survive in one of the hardest-hit states in the country

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Writer Becky Bosshart lost her job, ironically, while writing a series about unemployment.
Photo: Richard Brian
Becky Bosshart

I was laid off from my Las Vegas newspaper job while I was writing a series about unemployed Nevadans. The irony is so sick it’s funny—even six months later.

I’m embedded with the denizens of misfortune. Entrenched in economic malaise. Investigating failure from the bottom up. Moments of gonzo madness will probably overtake my rationality—so beware. The unemployed masses meet regularly and discuss our plight. We run into one another in the course of our lives. It’s an unorganized confederacy of people. We’re everywhere, yearning to connect.

A job fair at the CityCenter Career Center in July.

Unemployment isn’t just a noun anymore. In Las Vegas, it’s a perpetual state of being. The unemployed eat less and drink more, mostly during happy hour. But it doesn’t make us happy. Our sphere of influence shrinks—to anything within a one-and-a-half-mile radius of home. We spend hours in front of the computer looking for jobs. Jobs we aren’t getting. And all of this brings home the bitter truth: The American Dream has escaped our grasp.

All recessionary stories start the same: with the walk from your desk to human resources. I wept the first time I saw it. In February, some of the staff at my Las Vegas newspaper was laid off in a cost-cutting move. I don’t condescend to a journalistic ideal here—I cried because one of my closest friends was let go. A co-worker passed me a Kleenex. He was next. Similar scenes have occurred in workplaces everywhere.

Liza Bishton is part of a generation that will no longer define itself by career. No more “I’m a copy editor.” It’s “I’m Liza. I’m unemployed.” She and her husband live off his income and her unemployment, which has been extended. Still, Liza keeps an optimistic attitude about her situation. The couple is planning to have a baby next year.

“I think when you’re a mom, you need to take some time off work, at least at first,” says Liza, who doesn’t travel too far from her Boulder City home these days. “I’m not working, so it makes for a good time to do it.”

A career fair at Green Valley Ranch earlier this year.

Joshua Ferris’ novel Then We Came to the End, about working woes during the economic downturn of the early 2000s, describes the escort out the door as “walking Spanish down the hall.”

I walked Spanish about two months after Liza.

The thing I remember most about that day is Cynthia Stone, a 53-year-old grandmother. Cynthia was the subject of the last story I wrote in my unemployment series. It was posted to the website that afternoon. Cynthia is a certified pharmacy technician priced out of the market. She’s been willing to take less in salary with the hope of getting good health benefits.

I’m 30. I can start over again. The process feels exciting and challenging. Not so for Cynthia. She still hasn’t found a job. After losing her position at University Medical Center about eight months ago, Cynthia is on extended unemployment benefits. She sends out resumes daily for jobs she’s overqualified for, most of the time not getting a response. No idea when salvation will come—hoping it’s before her benefits run out.

“I’m going to pray,” Cynthia says.

About 113,000 Nevadans claim unemployment, according to the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. Many risk running out of payments before securing a job in a city with a 13.4 percent unemployment rate. To find work, Nevadans are leaving the country (or just Las Vegas). Others are exiling themselves in education. Or just going off the grid, getting paid under the table, freelancing or asking others for money. Some find salvation through family. Others are making a career change. Some just pray.

Since the recession started in December 2007, the number of unemployed Americans has risen from 7.6 million to 15.1 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national unemployment rate has doubled to 9.8 percent. The number of long-term unemployed, people who’ve been jobless for 27 weeks or longer, keeps rising. In September, 5.4 million of the unemployed hadn’t had jobs for six months or longer.

The so-called underemployment rate (which includes those whose hours have been cut, or who are working part time for lack of full-time positions, plus the jobless) has reached 17 percent, the highest level since the government began tracking it in 1994, according to an October 3 New York Times story. The average work week in September was 33 hours. This Great Recession is the longest since the Great Depression.

In Nevada, more people are claiming welfare, Medicaid and food stamps. According to a recent Las Vegas Sun story, the number of Nevadans on food stamps crested 200,000 this year, and that’s expected to double by the end of 2010.

How the mighty fall.

For years I reported on Nevada’s high job growth, the most new residents, the most new construction. When our jobless rate was 3-4 percent, construction companies in Northern Nevada (where I worked from 2002-2007) complained about not having enough laborers. Home sales were through the roof. Any Cassandra reports were criticized by advertisers and politicos.

Rachel Lucero moved to Henderson for a job during the economic expansion. She fell in love. She got married and had two children. When I called her again recently, she was at her computer, applying for a job as a technician at Levi Strauss. Rachel lost her job a year ago as a data clerk.

Unemployed Rachel Lucero is currently a stay-at-home mom.

Unemployed Rachel Lucero is currently a stay-at-home mom.

Rachel’s voice always crackles with humor … except when she talks about friends who’ve lost everything. She’s cushioned by family.

“Don’t treat your family like crap, because you don’t know when you’re going to need them to help you,” Rachel advises. “We’ve got my husband’s paycheck and my mom’s Social Security, because she lives with us. Family really has to stick together in these hard times.”

Unless benefits are extended further, Rachel thinks she’ll run out of unemployment in November. The average Nevadan makes $300 a week, based on a federal formula. Depending on how much you qualify for, that can carry you up to 79 weeks. The Nevada unemployment trust fund will run out in mid-October. It has been funded by employers, who pay a tax on each employee. The state will borrow from the federal government to keep paying out benefits to Nevadans.

A House-passed bill extending unemployment benefits by 13 weeks in states where the jobless rate is above 8.5 percent (which includes Nevada) is bogged down in the Senate because of resistance from lawmakers whose states would be left out, according to a recent Associated Press report.

I tackled the knotty system the week I was laid off in April. I called the toll-free 888-890-8211 number (I was told the number gets less traffic) at 8 a.m. on a Thursday, a non-peak time. I got through in only about 10 minutes. Ten minutes later, I hung up—with no benefits. I had been working at the newspaper for six months when I was laid off—which is how long you need to qualify. But the state only had a record of three months of my employment. I had to wait until the newspaper reported its employment for the last quarter. But it wouldn’t do that until July. The agent told me to call back on July 6 and I would probably qualify.

I couldn’t wait that long. My savings would last me only about two months.

When you lose your job, you put your fate in the hands of bureaucracy. For some people, sometimes it works. For other people, in times of great upheaval and demand, it just doesn’t work.

I’m just one of 113,000. Everybody needs help, and everybody has a complicated story. I e-mailed Dina Titus’ office, appealing for intervention. I didn’t even get a courtesy reply.

I drank more that month, but I had no appetite to get drunk.

My dad, a Libertarian who has a secure job with the government, graciously offered to make my car payments. But he’d take my Toyota, and I’d get his GMC truck. I wasn’t anxious to take his bailout.

This is when you hit the stage of “any job will do.”

Craigslist professes 1 million new job listings a month. Most of them pay under the table. I applied to be an editor for a stripper working on her memoirs. I wrote a sexy cover letter detailing my interest in the Las Vegas adult-entertainment industry. I applied to be a nanny for a Summerlin family who lived behind a fierce guard post and two gates. The mother looked like Gisele Bundchen lounging by her shimmering pool. I applied to tutor disabled ESL students for $10 an hour at the multicultural center I volunteered at. Friends recommended me to a local ad agency. I would do anything to keep writing.

The stripper ignored me. The supermodel’s luxe lifestyle (and demanding work schedule) conflicted with my humble, green, social-justice ethos. Her tanned and athletic children would probably have Nike endorsements before I got a full-time job. The multicultural center hired me as a tutor, for five hours a week.

Other than that, I’m off the grid. Like many creative types, I’m taking project work from employers who don’t have room for employees, such as the ad agency. It helps cover my monthly bills. I stash away 20 percent each quarter, because Uncle Sam knows you’re still there.

Lucky Wenzel, a former Venetian concierge and victim of the economy

When you don’t have a full-time job, you take more walks, mulling it all over. I spend some time on the porch, staring at the pigeons. That’s where I first met a neighbor, the loquacious Lucky Wenzel. He and his wife, Lindsay, often greeted me on their way to happy hour at one of the university-area bars.

Lucky was laid off from the Venetian, where he worked nights as a concierge. Lucky also had a problem with unemployment. His benefits stopped after about a month and a half, he says. When he called to find out why, he was told it was because of his status as a full-time student. Lucky argued that he was looking for night employment, but that didn’t seem to matter.

Mae Worthey, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, assured me that unemployed students can receive benefits, as long as they qualify and continue looking for work. Qualified Nevadans receive unemployment as long as they’re seeking a job, she says. Each week they must check in on the DETR website or by phone, reporting their efforts.

Lucky is focusing on his studies. The young couple lives off Lindsay’s salary and savings accrued from their wedding gifts. Unemployment gives Lucky the time to invest in a new venture.

“I’ve started a community-building website for locals,” he says about The Alpha Complex. “I’ve also joined some volunteer organizations. I’m going to art shows and doing community events that I wouldn’t have gone to before when I was working full-time.”

I don’t see Lucky and Lindsay strolling down the street hand-in-hand anymore. The house they rented near the university went into foreclosure. They’ve moved to the Summerlin area. The pressure will be on after he graduates in December with his degree in university studies.

“The Dream in America is a demanding standard, the myth is a noble goal,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author David K. Shipler in The Working Poor: Invisible in America. He goes on to say that society needs governmental tools to help those at the bottom—lending them a hand in what they cannot do alone and assisting them in developing the abilities to do what they can ultimately do themselves.

When the American Dream doesn’t work, some ponder leaving the country. I met Steph Galka at my weekly tutoring gig. She wanted to pick my brain about working in South Korea, where I had taught English for a year. Steph was willing to move to Asia and make less money for the sake of working.

She moved to Las Vegas in August with the promise of a job with the Clark County School District. The process stalled (because of an error with her background check, she discovered later), and she grew anxious. Fate stepped in just in time. Steph got in her classroom last week.

“I don’t think words can describe how I felt,” she says. “I actually cried.”

She’s working toward her dream—of making a difference with high-school students.

Ron Mangual, who was laid off from his job as a Strip-resort cabana host on October 1, thinks the Vegas Dream (big boobs, big house, big bankroll) is superficial. That may sound strange coming from a 30-year-old guy who spent the summer slathering lotion on sunbathing babes. But Ron is serious about service. I met him recently at a friend’s party.

“The American dream for me is being able to do what you want to do and being happy about what you want,” Ron says.

The house doesn’t matter. His is in foreclosure. Money runs out. He made buckets working at resorts. This Vegas native plans to move to Washington, D.C., to take a job as a bar manager at a restaurant being opened by a friend.

Ron personifies a Las Vegas worker. And many are moving on.

Those who are left must find out what it means to be a Nevadan. We’re not unique anymore—well, we are, in all the bad ways. The new American Dream will be about self-discovery, not selfishness. That will come through working fewer hours and having fewer toys. It will come with the help of friends. It will come with volunteering—which could lead to a new passion and a new job.

When you are unemployed, you have lots of time to think. Often this happens during happy hour. I’ve come to love my small sphere of influence in the university area, places like the Coffee Bean, the Clark County Library, Yama Sushi, Jason’s Deli, the LVAC. My dream is to write—and I’m doing that. This is the most challenging, and the most free, time of my life.

Becky Bosshart worked for The News division of Greenspun Media Group, which also publishes the Weekly.

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