Commentary: Unemployed can tell politicians about the 'real world'

The Rock Hill HeraldJanuary 28, 2011 

After President Barack Obama said Tuesday night that the state of the union was strong and looking up, surely the rest of us could look up, too.

After hearing the Republican response say we could do anything with free enterprise and small government - that we are America - everybody had to be singing Wednesday, right?.

But it rained Wednesday straight through the afternoon. Nobody without a job was singing in the rain.

At the Rock Hill workforce center of the state Department of Employment and Workforce - the "unemployment office" to anybody there, because that is what they are, unemployed - nobody even smiled.

Nobody needed an egg-headed economist in a bow tie to tell them how, when housing doesn't sell or build, the rest who make a living in construction suffer.

Surely not Lorne MacKinnon, 40, a land surveyor whose steady work died when construction plummeted.

"Seventeen years I been doing this," MacKinnon said. "I go day by day now. If there is some work, I do it. If there isn't, I don't."

MacKinnon ducked into his car, out of the rain, tuneless.

Scott and Amy Hill had to walk through the rain, from the building where they get their benefits, to get to their car.

The state said Tuesday 15.7 percent of York County is unemployed.

Unemployment benefits are talked about by some politicians as if the benefits were gifts, and not earned over years and paid into with payroll deductions.

Politicians in South Carolina who have jobs and riches use the words "unemployment benefits" - barking about paying benefits and the cost to others - as if they will catch malaria from the unemployed.

Scott Hill was a warranty manager in construction. When there is little construction, there is little warranty work.

Amy Hill was a merchandiser for plants, but when people can't buy groceries, they don't buy plants.

The Hills have gotten to the point where they are selling stuff from their home to pay bills.

"The house, keeping the house, comes first," said Amy Hill. "We can't lose the house. We have too much into it. Years."

"Then the utilities, then the food," said Scott Hill.

Scott Hill takes work - painting, anything - where he can get it.

"We have kids," he said. "I didn't get to watch the politicians last night. They probably just said everything would get better if we all worked harder."

Yes, Scott Hill, they did.

The politicians talked of the national debt when people at the unemployment office talk of the family debt. The family debt is always worse.

In one corner inside the unemployment office there is a round table surrounded by chairs. A man translated Spanish to English for his brother-in-law, out of work in hanging drywall since July.

The brother-in-law had hard, cracked hands that said without words he had worked forever.

"No trabajo," said the brother-in-law. "No work."

The man went into the back when called, like the hundreds there any day to see the workers at the unemployment office, to see if they could survive as politicians talk of the "debt ceiling."

This guy who used to build ceilings knows a ceiling falling in on him when he sees one. He needs no politician to tell him to duck.

Then there was William Plyler, who lost his warehouse job when the warehouse had nothing to warehouse.

Plyler's kids are all grown, but to save money for the child care of his grandkids, the six grandkids get off the school bus at Plyler's home.

A home where Plyler has stopped using heat because he could not pay the bill. All he has is a fireplace. A pickup sits idle because there is no money for gasoline.

And when the bus stops, the grandkids pile out and come in - hungry.

"Nothing in the fridge some days but a light bulb," said Plyler.

In another corner by the door is another round table, with a black lady and a white man and a white lady talking amongst themselves.

"Repeal NAFTA," yelled the guy, who said he used to work in a textile mill.

He knows that trade agreements politicians bicker over benefit owners of mills and factories, but help almost no American working person - ever.

Strangers, making small talk. The word "eviction" was used three times, without regard for race or color or creed. Broke knows no color.

And into the back went everybody one by one, after long waits to hear their name called, hoping there was a job for them. In one pamphlet was a color advertisement looking for a deep sea diver. The ad was read 200 miles from the sea.

At the next table sat Elden Gardner, the poster boy for the state of the union. Gardner is 46, worked at a "yarn plant" for 28 years until the yarn owners decided that overseas yarn made for pennies was better than American yarn that paid his wages.

"I got my electric cut off; my daughter had to move in with friends," said Gardner. "It about makes a man want to give up, he can't keep the lights on for his kid."

Gardner knows how to lay ceramic tile, but almost nobody has any construction work for tilers, and side jobs are few because people who need tile are buying groceries if they have a job.

Gardner watched the politicians of all parties Tuesday night on television, as the politicians talked about jobs.

A man at Gardner's table piped in: "Easy for them to say; they are all rich and they all have a job, too."

But Gardner had something to ask about the economy and jobs and the politicians of any party who say their way will save him from unemployment.

"What country are they all living in? Not the same one I'm in."

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