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Drop in black unemployment rate stirs hope, anxiety


The latest unemployment figures are music to Usama Robert’s ears. Out of work more than two years, the Riverside, Calif. manufacturing supply chain manager is among the 243,000 Americans who found work in January 2012 — far exceeding expectations of about 150,000 new jobs. Nationally the unemployment rate dipped to 8.3 percent.

The United States Labor Department reported unexpected news that the black unemployment rate dropped from 15.8 to 13.6 percent in January, the lowest unemployment rate for African Americans in almost three years.

The report sent a hopeful sign that unemployment among black men declined from 15.7 to 12.7 percent. Similarly, the unemployment rate for Black women dropped from 13.9 to 12.6 percent.

Much ink has been spilled covering America’s job recovery but there is little talk about the recovery’s downside: return to work anxiety.

Dressed in a navy pants suit, gold accessories, pumps and a perfect shade of red lipstick, Usama Roberts, who is African American, is rehearsing her return to a 9-to-5 existence.

“I’m a woman with a college degree, incredibly well networked, congenial, flexible and determined,” she announced in her hairbrush turned microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, Usama is back in the game.”

The night before the married mother of three went to Facebook and updated her status.

“I wanted my friends to know my nightmare of 25 months is ending — finally.”

But behind the grin was a mixture of joy, sadness, anxiety and relief.

Roberts says she’s sad that the harmony her family established during her involuntary unemployment will be lost when she returns to work.

“We desperately need the income but I worry about the trade off,” she explained. “I’ve got three young children and a full-on job. They want me to take them to school and collect them afterwards. They want me to listen to them reading, kiss their scrapes, help with their drawings, go on school trips and turn up at their plays. In short they want my time and attention.”

For millions of families trying to make ends meet, being around a lot can be difficult. Stay-at-home mothers are now in a minority because up to 70 percent of women with children under the age of two go back to work.

Returning to work means the kids will spend long hours in day care. “We’re bracing for more television, fewer sit-down meals and family outings,” Roberts said. “It’s unsettling.”

She is also anxious over what to expect when she returns to work.

“Sometimes processes have changed, staffs have changed,” she said. “You feel like an outsider. You question your competence, are my skills as sharp as they once were?”

Surprising as it sounds, Roberts’ combination of feelings is not uncommon, say career experts and mental health professionals.

Being out of work is hard, but returning to the workplace can be harder, says cognitive behavioral psychologist and life coach Lena Otieno. She says getting back into the fast lane has its own set of challenges.

With more technology and fewer workers, people may be fearful that their skills have deteriorated to the point that they will not be able to function in a new position. They may worry so much about losing another job that they self-sabotage. Or workers may grieve for a lifestyle they had developed while staying at home with family.

Otieno said life after someone is downsized or made redundant, can feel like you’re starting right back at the bottom of the pile again. This can be harsh and unexpected, especially for those who normally feel confident. Otieno advises not to panic.

Ask for help. Find someone you trust —  a mentor, a supportive partner, a colleague at work or even your line manager or boss. Discuss your concerns about re-integration.

Then there’s the feeling of “once burned, always shy.”

“Nothing can erase the distrust and anxiety that develops when a loyal employee is dumped by an employer and left to drown,” said Otieno. Nearly 10 million jobs were lost during the Great Recession. “That’s a real punch in the stomach,” she said. There’s a lot of repressed anger in the workplace.”

Otieno advises workers to stay emotionally ready by networking, reading trade publications, and taking classes during prolonged unemployment.

“Reinvent family time concerns. Think about the things that concern you — if it is going back to work with a team who may have gotten used to life without you, then why not organize a social event outside work.”

Roberts admits the road back to work has been a roller coaster of emotions.

“It’s extremely hard on the family,” she said. “Finding the confidence to return to work can be daunting. You have to develop a plan of action and talk through fears and concerns. Understand that you are not alone in this experience and that there are ways for you to succeed on your own, or with help of a professional.”

Roberts is cautiously optimistic calling the big drop in black unemployment a hopeful sign. Still she insists there’s a lingering distrust and perception that black employees are last hired and first fired.

She recalls two years ago when her former employer began downsizing  she was among the first to go, despite 14 years of experience and loyalty.

“There’s a perception that people of color, blacks in particular, have to be twice as good as the next worker — even then your position is not safe. I guess if you have a job without any aggravations, you don’t have a job,” she says.

“I’m taking this one day at a time, trying to, stay positive, keeping my resume current and rationing everything, including my red lipstick.”

Black Voice News