One of our earlier writing assignments in the course was to report on a specific group of people and how they are being affected by the recession. The plight of female public sector employees was brought to my attention by the great work of Bryce Covert, with whom I will be doing an interview soon. Through Working America, I was put in touch with Shonda Sneed, who was laid off two years ago and is still looking for full-time work while she looks after her dementia-afflicted mother. She could have had a job as an engineer rebuilding Ohio's infrastructure. But something went wrong. By Anna Louie Sussman
September 26, 2011, NEW YORK CITY -- One day in December of 2009, Shonda Sneed was laid off from her job as a computer-aided design operator after ten years with her company, unceremoniously escorted out of the building that same afternoon.
Sneed, 46, had worked as an engineer at various private firms in Ohio for over twenty years, and was making around $35,000. But she knew that another job would be hard to come by just a few months into the recovery, which officially began in June 2009. Luckily, she thought, hope was just around the corner. Ohio was slated to receive $400 million in federal stimulus money for a high-speed rail project linking Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus, and she had seen at least a hundred related engineering jobs advertised on Monster.com.
“I thought, woo-hoo, I am going back to work!” she said.
But something happened on November 19th: Republican former Congressman John Kasich won Ohio’s gubernatorial race, and immediately announced his opposition to a high-speed rail line. On December 9th, 2010, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that the federal government would be revoking the $400 million grant, sending that money instead to states such as California and Florida, which had gotten behind the rail project. Sneed was shocked.
Since the recession began in 2007, state budgets have faced the largest budget shortfalls in history, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in February of 2009, made $274 billion in federal contracts, grants and loans available to states and municipalities. One of its chief stated aims was upgrading the country’s infrastructure, and Sneed was keen to do her part. But when Kasich turned his nose up at $400 million in federal money, her job prospects dried up almost overnight.
Sneed had spent months staying up late and waking up early to get first dibs on newly posted jobs. Overall, she estimated, she had applied to 75 of them. They were slated to pay well, she recalls: around $20 to $25 an hour, plus benefits and the possibility to work over the long term, since the construction of any infrastructure she helped design could require her consultation going forward. Several of the firms, impressed by her diverse engineering experience – she has worked as a civil, mechanical, electrical, and architectural engineer, and is highly proficient in the three-dimensional imaging software AutoCAD – told her that as soon as their contracts were secured, they would give her a call.
“When he turned it down,” she said, “the jobs went away, the hope went away.”
As the ARRA funding dries up, states and municipalities can expect further public sector layoffs. To date, these public sector job losses have disproportionately hit women, who made up 57.2% of the public sector workforce at the end of the recession, but who have lost 72.3% of public sector jobs - 430,000 of them - since the recovery began in June 2009, according to data from the National Women’s Law Center. Women are overrepresented in education and health care, two areas hit hard by cost-cutting measures.
“The loss of women’s jobs is very much related to cutbacks in government spending,” said Joan Entmacher, Vice President and Director of Family Economic Security at the National Women’s Law Center. “The states are cutting back as ARRA investments expire. They have budget crises and aren’t getting help.”
Sneed, who was born in Dayton and lives in the suburb of Yellow Springs, had never worked in the public sector before. But after a year of un- and under-employment, she felt it was her last hope. While the private sector added 1.23 million jobs during the recovery, only 85,000 of them - one in 15 - went to a woman, according to the NCLW.
In the past, Sneed, said, she had never gone more than a month without a job. She’d look for two or three weeks, and by the third week, “you’d have three or four” offers. But this prolonged under-employment has robbed her, a single woman who cares for her elderly dementia-ridden mother, of the few so-called “luxuries” she once enjoyed. She no longer goes to McDonald’s every now and then. She skips $300 shots she used to get for her asthma. And when her car broke down last winter, she walked everywhere. Once a month, someone drove her outside of town do her grocery shopping.”
“You’re at the mercy of other people,” she said, her voice choking up. “I swallowed my pride, because it’s not for me. It’s for my mom.”
Thanks to lobbying efforts by the NCLW and a coalition of other women’s groups, the jobs bill that President Obama announced earlier this month does include some spending that will serve to protect women’s jobs, such as $30 billion to keep teachers on the payrolls, and targeted funding to train and provide jobs for women in construction and infrastructure. But it’s unclear what chance the bill has of passing. Republicans have already spoken out against its proposal to increase taxes on wealthier Americans.
Sneed has found temporary work organizing on behalf of S.B. 5, the Ohio Senate Bill protecting the right of collective bargaining, but it will end in November. After that, she’ll pick up the job search again.
“I won’t give up,” she said. “I have to work.”
As someone who has until recently been working since she graduated high school, she deeply resents the notion that she and other jobless people are laying back, living off the dole.
“I’m not asking for a handout,” she said. “All I’m asking for is the right to work in a safe place. I can do the rest myself.”