You would think that with all the yelling, all the speeches about what’s best for unemployed Americans, and all the editorializing, people would actually be talking with each other.
Katie DeVito, who is intimately familiar with the realities of unemployment, finds the opposite to be true. Lawmakers are doing what they can about the state’s near-10-percent unemployment rate, she says, but the people who need the situation changed on their behalf usually have no real idea what those lawmakers are doing; much less how it will help them.
But there is plenty being done in New Jersey to get people back to work, and DeVito wants to make sure people know it. DeVito, the founder and president of NJ Unemployed, a jobs and career counseling and advocacy group based in Hamilton, has engineered a first in New Jersey. On Tuesday, February 15, NJ Unemployed will host a town hall meeting that puts the general public in the same room with state legislators in an attempt to let unemployed people know what is being done on their behalf.
The NJ Unemployed Town Hall Meeting will run from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. Free to attend, the meeting will feature a panel discussion by state legislators regarding a cluster of Assembly and Senate bills known as “Back To Work NJ.” The discussion will focus on two bills in particular, one that allows unemployed New Jerseyans to file and update unemployment information online at any hour (which is a big deal) and one that puts out-of-work adults into temporary positions with companies that have the option to hire them permanently.
Attending legislators include Senator Shirley Turner and Assembly members Alberto Coutinho, Wayne DeAngelo, Elease Evans, Louis Greenwald, and Bonnie Watson-Coleman, all Democrats. Mercer Chamber president and former county executive Bob Prunetti will be the moderator. Register at njunemployedtownhallmeeting.eventbrite.com, or visit www.njunemployed.com.
DeVito says the event mainly will be a panel discussion about recently enacted and pending jobs-related legislation. It will feature a questions-answered segment after the discussion, she says, but not an interactive Q&A. She had considered the Q&A angle, but says she is trying to avoid a situation that could devolve into a shouting contest. However, DeVito is inviting the public to submit questions through NJ Unemployed, and those questions will be passed onto the panelists, who will answer some as part of their presentation. If you are interested in submitting a question, E-mail it to email@example.com.
The reason for the formality, DeVito says, is because she wants information made available to the unemployed public, not a public free-for-all. She admits that emotions run high when people are out of work, and the anger people feel over what they perceive at times to be little progress can get the better of them. They want answers, not rhetoric. DeVito envisions the meeting — the first of several, she hopes — as an example of civil discourse from which out-of-work residents can emerge with a clear idea of the road ahead.
The event was born as an extension of DeVito’s work as a consultant to the unemployed. Her background, first described by U.S. 1 on December 8, 2010, is in nonprofit management, where she was heavily involved in recruiting and events planning. Because, by nature, nonprofit agencies tend to be advocates and lobbyists, she grew accustomed to the dynamic.
So when DeVito was downsized one year ago (for the second time in three months) she began her march toward self-employment through Twitter. DeVito, who earned a bachelor’s in fine art from Rider in 2001, sent a tweet immediately following her ouster, curious to know how many people in her online orbit had been through something similar.
As it turned out, a lot. And, as it turned out, she found herself helping others with their work search strategies often enough that she decided to abandon the job search herself and start her own business, Katie DeVito LLC, from her home in Hamilton. Concurrently she started NJ Unemployed as a way for out-of-work professionals to come together, talk, and see what they could do for each other.
It wasn’t long before DeVito realized that the unemployed needed more help than just each other, so she started talking to people whose jobs revolved around other people’s jobs — career counselors, coaches, and others in the field. Her efforts got a lot of notice quickly. Barely a month in business last spring, DeVito found herself on “The Early Show” on CBS, discussing where the jobs are. She caught the attention of several other newspapers and television stations too — and she caught the attention of the state Assembly Majority Office in Trenton, from where a legislative aide called and asked that she advocate for the jobless before state legislators in Trenton.
“That really got my foot in the door,” DeVito says. She became an active and regular lobbyist for job creation, testifying before legislators and spreading the word that the government needed to step in and fix a problem that wasn’t going anywhere fast. “That’s when I looked around and thought, ‘You know what? We need a town hall meeting.’”
The February 15 event is, as far as DeVito can tell, the first of its kind in New Jersey. “I’ve really looked into it and I don’t think there’s ever been a town hall meeting in New Jersey that deals with employment,” she says.
What she hopes for is that residents and lawmakers can come together. Legislators can demystify the usually intimidating language of bureaucracy, and residents can offer input from the trenches — something lawmakers often hear little about.
What does she expect? On the one hand she expects a full house. The library’s conference room, where the event will occur, has a maximum capacity of 125 people. “We’ve had 75 people show up for our seminars,” she says, “so I expect it’ll be a pretty packed house.” On the other hand, she’s not sure what to expect in terms of outcome “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” she says. “But I’m going to try it.”
DeVito does not charge for her seminars or workshops, but then, she tends to see success in larger terms than just money. She says her business is coming along well, finding new clients, and is successful enough to dissuade her from feeling as if she needs to look for work with another company.
Her business gets a big boost of moral support from her husband, Nick, who also has been unemployed for more than a year. A former human resources officer, Nick has been a regular presence at NJ Unemployed events, though he downplays his role in the company as something akin to vice president. Katie refers to him as a pillar of support (and often asks him, “What’s going to happen when you get a job?”). But Nick sees his job at the moment to be exactly that — support. “When it’s your wife you want to support her as much as you can,” he says.
The couple met at Rider, where he earned a bachelor’s in American studies. Yet the two never dated at the time. Ten years later they ran into each other at Starbucks in Hamilton and have been together since. Nick started his career in publishing for a now-defunct business magazine called Home Office Computing. When it went under, shortly after the tech bubble popped in 2000, he went back to Rider for a master’s in education.
Nick then went to work editing copy for a company that handled payroll for small banks. Soon he found himself running the HR department. The firm doubled in size while he was in this position, but after the financial bubble popped in 2008 and small banks frittered away in the fallout, Nick found himself laying off people by the day. Soon there were fewer people in the company than when he started. “I knew I was going to be next because there was no need for HR anymore,” he says.
By the end of 2009 Nick’s prophecy came true. He has been looking for work in human resources, but a lot of companies either ended up in a similar position to that of his last employer or simply had no new staff coming in. Still, he says he learned a lot about human resources — enough to consider starting a consulting business, though he qualifies his interest in that path as “a tentative yes.”
The couple had been looking for a house when the economy dealt them two bad hands. They decided instead to move in with his parents, a move Katie defends. “They’d been saying for years that we should move in with them,” she says. “We’re lucky to have that opportunity. A lot of people don’t even have that.”
Fortunately the couple has no children to worry about. She wants them, but says they will wait until things are a little more concrete. And as her own boss, she says that she will be able to build her business from home and be able to spend more time with the kids when she has them.
When she will have the time is anyone’s guess. Following the advice she gives her clients — do something every day for your career — DeVito spends much of her time doing workshops, going to meetings, and advising the unemployed. And, of course, connecting with state lawmakers in an effort to get people back to work.
Her efforts at the legislative level could be helping. State legislators have put together at least 30 bills and proposals designed to stimulate New Jersey’s battered business and jobs environment since the bottom fell out two years ago.
Most concern business incentives and investments aimed at luring companies to the state or encouraging them to stay.
The “Back To Work” package is a wholly Democrat-sponsored effort that has largely received public support, though critics contend that most of the bills amount to bloated sweetheart deals for big businesses. Few, however, have significant issues with the bills that get people through — and off — the unemployment rolls.
DeVito supports all the bills that fall under the Back To Work NJ umbrella. She has lobbied for them on behalf of NJ Unemployed and has worked to get the word out about them. But the two that get her most ardent support are the ones regarding online unemployment filing and temp-to-perm hiring.
Getting connected to the unemployed. So far, the benchmark of the 21st century has been communications technology. We all have gone wireless and we are all connected to everyone else through our phones and computers.
This is why DeVito is flabbergasted that the unemployed in New Jersey are still on bankers' hours. They either have to physically go to an unemployment office every two weeks between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to file their information or do so online, but only between the same hours. Nearly every other state has it set up so that you can file, reopen, cancel, or close claims online at any hour.
“Say you’re supposed to go on Wednesday,” DeVito says. “Well, what if you’re not around on Wednesday?” The short answer is, if you don’t make it on Wednesday, you will not get a check on Friday.
One of the biggest myths about being out of work, DeVito says, is that you’re always available. But just because you don’t have a formal job doesn’t mean you’re not busy. What if, for example, you’re out on an interview on that Wednesday? What if an emergency came up? Or what if you’re actually away, doing something on behalf of your mental health, which DeVito says should be part of the picture when looking for work.
“Unemployed people are going through enough,” DeVito says. “They already have a lot on their plate.”
The state, of course, could not care less. If you are supposed to file by 5 p.m. every other Wednesday, then you’d better file before 5 p.m. every other Wednesday. But DeVito counters with a time-is-money philosophy. Every hour you spend in line, in a state office, or on hold with the unemployment department in Trenton is an hour you’re not looking for work; an hour for which you can’t schedule an interview.
What really throws DeVito is that the state has abundant and easy online resources for businesses that are available 24/7. She founded her company through the state’s website, getting her Employee Identification Number and registering the business as a taxable entity “in less than an hour, at 10 p.m.,” she says. Why has it taken so long, she wonders, for the state to consider allowing the unemployed to file online at any time? “In a day and age when technology is booming, why aren’t we doing this?” she asks.
Besides, DeVito is convinced that online filing will save the state money by reducing panicked phone calls from people who missed their deadlines, reduce lines at unemployment bureaus, and allow job seekers to look for work during business hours.
The bill to offer 24/7 online filing has passed both houses of Legislature and is waiting for approval by Governor Chris Christie.
Back To Work. The more ambitious of the state’s two jobless-centric bills is the one that looks to put unemployed professionals inside companies for what essentially is a cross between an internship and a temp job. This bill is based on the Georgia Work$ program, in which unemployed Georgia residents are put to work as trainees for companies with positions to fill.
Georgia Work$ has proven successful and has become a model that other states have considered adopting. DeVito believes that with the number of major companies in New Jersey and the number of highly skilled professionals out of work, the Back To Work program should be as successful here.
The program works like this: Say you were in biotech before you lost your job. You might be a good fit for, say, Johnson & Johnson, which is looking to hire someone who is familiar with the pharmaceutical industry. You would then be sent to J&J for a few weeks so that the company can gauge whether you would be a good fit.
DeVito supports the program because it allows a qualified person to get inside a company and potentially get a job. But she also likes that the employer gets to evaluate a potential worker without having to pay for her. The trainee stays on the state’s unemployment rolls throughout the trial period.
Lest you think that such a program opens the door for companies in the state to get a steady supply of free labor, know that there are conditions involved. First, a company looking to try out a potential employee must have a position available. The employer must also meet federal fair labor standards and prove that it is capable of providing proper training.
The work during training also needs to be largely the same as the work you would do if hired, and companies cannot get rid of a position just to create one for a trainee. To be a trainee, you must be receiving unemployment compensation and have at least six weeks of benefits remaining. The bill calls for trainees to receive workplace training for a maximum of 24 hours per week for up to six weeks.
This bill also has passed through both houses of the Legislature and is awaiting Christie’s signature.
Though the unemployment rate in New Jersey has hovered between 9.5 and 10 percent for two years, it has held largely steady for the past few months. So things are not getting worse; indeed, DeVito says they are getting a little better. “I think things are starting to improve,” she says. “But it’s a very slow process.”