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Jobless, but not alone

The creator of a popular web forum for the unemployed talks about how heralding the recession’s end is premature.

Last Thursday, unemployment claims fell for the second week in a row. Is the economy finally getting better?

Jenny Hong, the proprietor of Unemployed-Friends.com, doesn’t think so. Joblessness rates remain high, and the site’s forum still draws thousands of visitors a day, sharing tips on everything from benefits and job hunting to relationships and debt management.

Hong, a married mother of three who lives in Columbia, S.C., spoke with Need to Know about what people are saying on the site and what she’s fighting for.

Mona Iskander: Why did you start this website?

Jenny Hong: I was unemployed for over 2 1/2 years and it was very isolating. I decided to start a website to create a forum for people like me. When you’re unemployed, it’s hard to talk to people who are employed. The aim is to lift peoples’ spirits up, but we’re also doing a lot of campaigning on behalf of our members.

Iskander: How many visitors do you get? And do you have a sense of who they are?

Hong: We get approximately 5,000 unique visitors a day and we have 4,000 registered users. We have a lot of highly educated people with master’s degrees and Ph.Ds who just cannot get jobs. But we also have a broad range of people in skilled labor and manufacturing, human resources, paralegals and attorneys, accounting and IT.

Iskander: Have you noticed any increase in members getting jobs?

Hong: There are a few members who have found work, but most of it is due to the temporary Census hiring which is not full-time work, so the situation for a lot of people is still bad, if not worse, than back in 2008. Statistically, there are still about six people on average competing for one job.

Age discrimination is another problem. A lot of people might have advanced degrees, but they are in their 50s and 60s, so that makes it harder.

Iskander: Any sign of people trying to refocus their careers or try a different path?

Hong: The health industry seems to be on the upswing, so some people are retraining in that field. I have friends who have gone to school recently and have been able to get jobs in nursing, but that takes time and money. There are a lot of people in our forums who are on the verge of homelessness. When you’re in that dire of a situation, it’s hard to do that type of switch.

Iskander: What’s the biggest hurdle for the people on your forum?

Hong: The ongoing issue for a majority of our members is that they have exhausted all of their unemployment benefits and are still trying to find work. It’s really hard out there. Many people are worrying how they are going to pay their rent this month, whether they will lose their home, be able to feed their families.

Another problem is that people are applying for jobs and not even getting to the interview stage because they’ve been unemployed so long, and there is usually a credit check involved in applying for a job. Many people have accumulated bad credit from being out of work. There is one bill sitting in Congress that would stop credit checks on new hires. We’d like to see that addressed.

Iskander: You mentioned earlier that you are working on behalf of the people in your forum. How so?

Hong: Our site and others are continually campaigning for Congress and the Obama administration to extend benefits until jobs become a reality. A majority of the people on our board have extended their unemployment benefits all the way to the end. We want Congress to take note. There are so many people living by a thread.

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