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After 3 Years, Local Unemployed Chart the Way Forward

Leadership conference held at the Ridgewood Library offers support for those guiding unemployed peers through a stubbornly slow economy.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors founder John Fugazzie reflects on the group's three year history Monday at the Ridgewood Public Library.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors founder John Fugazzie reflects on the group's three year history Monday at the Ridgewood Public Library.

Jacque Weiss started the Ridgewood group in January 2011, using her experience from a recently lost human resources position to organize about a dozen other area residents who were out of work.

She’s since landed work, but not before losing her village home of 24 years and relocating to Cape May County. And despite the 362 success stories told by the local chapters of support and networking group Neighbors Helping Neighbors, the barriers remain to re-entering the workforce after long-term unemployment.

“For whatever reason there’s a jaundiced perspective of people who are out [of work] for a while,” Weiss said after a training session Monday for the leaders of the group’s chapters. “People run up against these obstacles that they just have no control over, and somebody needs to give them a chance.”

Statistically, workers age 45 and over have the lowest rate of unemployment in the country, but the highest rate of long-term joblessness. When they fall out of the workforce, members of NHN said, the climb back is steeper. 

Applications, they claim, are discarded due to their age or the amount of time they’ve been without work, despite the laws in place to protect them from discrimination. Often, they’re laid off initially because the cost of their experience weighed heavily on employers.

“They’re getting disillusioned,” said Debbie Richardt, the leader of NHN’s Oradell group. “Especially the people who have been out of work for more than a year. They’re giving up.”

The group’s weekly meetings aim to fight that discouragement. Members on Monday at the Ridgewood Library heard presentations on running a support group and persisting in the interview process. Each member needs those leadership skills to step up as local leaders land back in the workforce, and also to market themselves to potential employers.

For those like Richardt, formerly a nonprofit manager, the gatherings also keep some of their most marketable skills fresh. And for everyone, each meeting is a chance to practice their pitch and do the networking critical to finding opportunity in the modern economy.

“All the out-training, all the severance programs, all the things that were historically in place don’t exist anymore,” said founder John Fugazzie, who himself has been out of work for 15 months. “So that falls on us.”

His approach has become three-pronged in the three years since the group started. It’s not only a matter of supporting members and helping them connect with their next potential employer. He’s also become a spokesperson of sorts on the issues, for a demographic often invisible to the public and politicians.

He’s been to the White House and met with senators and county politicians, and the meetings, he says, have shown those immersed only in the data the stories not apparent in the unemployment rate, which doesn’t account for those who have dropped out of the search or found only part-time work.

That role becomes important, Fugazzie said, in an economy that desperately needs an intervention, with tens of thousands across the state who have lost emergency unemployment benefits.

“If they don’t think it’s a big enough problem, they’re not going to address it,” Fugazzie said. “We’ve made them aware of things they weren’t aware of.”

Ben Siegel, a U.S. Department of Labor official present for the leadership session, agreed that the group, one of about 10,000 "jobless clubs" in the country, is vital in helping people find success in a tough market.

"People in a job club or support group [find] jobs faster and with more frequency," he told NHN members. "You're furthering the effectiveness of this model."

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