Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Census jobs boost economy

The PG's Elwin Green brings us the story of Mike Jones, a South Fayette resident who's also a microcosm of a Census labor force unsure of what's next. The decennial US Census also gives a boost to unemployment figures -- and the gain was especially needed this past year. But what happens after everyone's counted?

By Elwin Green
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
June 29, 2010

For Mike Jones of South Fayette the 2010 Census has been more than a decennial ritual conducted by the federal government. It has been a much-needed break from a spell of unemployment.

Mr. Jones, 27, was let go from his job as municipal and state government reporter for the Washington Observer-Reporter a year ago. He began working in March, and still works, with the Beaver Falls office of the Census Bureau as a group quarters enumerator, tallying residents of hospitals, group homes and the like.

In so doing, he joined an army of temporary workers that signed on with the bureau in a hiring blitz that added 48,000 jobs to the nation's economy in March, 66,000 in April and 411,000 in May -- more than 95 percent of all jobs added that month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now those jobs have begun to disappear.

Read more about my census job...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Remembering a proud Mountaineer

The news about Sen. Robert C. Byrd's death early Monday morning quickly spread out of West Virginia and into the main stream media. But it was another proud West Virginian who died Monday that meant more to me personally than losing the longest serving senator in United States history.

Bob Kelly, the managing editor of the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail, died yesterday while rehabilitating from a brief illness in his hometown of Parkersburg, W.Va.

BK -- as most of us in the Daily Mail newsroom called him -- was more than just a boss with an ornery personality; he was a mentor who made me a better reporter and writer. That doesn't mean it was ever easy with Bob. He would poke and prod and force you to ask the next tough question and/or rewrite your copy to adequately immerse readers in the story. I used to hate when my phone rang on deadline because I always knew it was him sitting in his office and spying on my story moments after I tapped it onto the computer screen.

"Heeeeeey, Miiiiiike," he would say in his slow West Virginia drawl. "Did you ask (insert random name here) about (insert random question here)?"

"Well, no, Bob," I usually stuttered in response. "I was gonna..."

"Well, why don't you do that, OK?" he demanded.

"But, Bob..." I started again.


And that was that. If I still didn't do the job right, he would scold me that I could do better. "Details, Mike," he would often say. "Details." But damn if he wasn't right every time. In the end, the story would be better because of the followup calls he would push me to make and the revisions I would begrudgingly insert. Those journalistic virtues have stuck with me ever since.

That was the way it went with the entire Daily Mail crew. From the editor-in-chief who hired me (Nanya Friend) to my immediate editor who offered both a carrot and a stick with his supervision (Brad McElhinny) I would gladly have run through a brick wall for every one of them.

But BK just pestered us to do better. Although his ornery personality drove us nuts, he also made us laugh with his sometimes bizarre rituals. After suffering from leg problems in 2005, he walked around the newsroom with a fish slipper on one foot to soothe the pain. Other times, he offered me encouragement when I faced difficult problems.

Less than a year on the job, I wrote a story about a local motorcycle builder who killed his wife and himself in front of their two children. I felt sick after receiving several nasty e-mails and phone calls about my story. But there was Bob Kelly to crack a lighthearted joke to pick up me and my coworkers from a sad situation. He added perspective to the ordeal that helped me return to work the next day.

He was a great newsman.

In the end, the media will pay more attention to Sen. Byrd's death than to the passing of BK. But the most influential West Virginian I have ever known is Bob Kelly. My thoughts are with Bob's family and the Daily Mail staff.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The wasted year

Well, this has been a massive waste of time.

It was a year ago this morning that I strolled into the O-R newsroom and took a seat at my desk to begin my last real workday. I spent an hour working the phones trying to get some info on a local bull riding arena that would be opening in the coming weeks. Then I received an instant message that fellow reporter Amanda Gillooly had been let go. About a half-hour later, the "editor" asked to see me.

"What the (bleep)!?" I shouted in my head.

I explained the rest of the story on this blog a year ago, but I still chuckle when thinking about the "editor" and owner asking me if I wanted to finish my workday. Hell no! Instead, I asked for a box to pack my stuff. Then I greeted several of my coworkers in the newsroom and said my goodbyes. I found it ironic that a couple of them were crying and I was not. They had a job, and I did not.

I thought it would be easy to find a new job. I have the education, experience and work ethic that a new employer would cherish. Damn, if I wasn't mistaken. From blogging to freelancing to campaigning to enumerating, it's been the most bizarre 365 days of my life.

And now we begin Year 2 in the unemployment line with little hope of finding sustainable work. Some might say things will turn around. We shall see. But there's really nothing else to do except keep blogging and plugging away.

So I present to you Vol. 2 of The Bread Line Blog

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The squeaky wheel...

If only I knew a year ago. If only I knew that all I needed was for my mommy to call Tom Northrop at the Observer-Reporter and demand that I keep my reporting job. If only I knew that whining and moaning gets you exactly what you want in America.

That's what happened with the breadlining Pittsburgh piergoi just days after the Pirates fired him for insubordination. Rather than taking his punishment like a man, his "helicopter mother" swooped in and saved the day. She whined to the Post-Gazette, prompting a dismal media buzz that forced the Pirates to rehire the 24-year-old. The baseball club now claims the disparaging comments about the team on his Facebook site were not grounds to be fired, but I suspect that the bad publicity caused the quick turnaround.

If only I knew a year ago.

Although I still doubt the initial termination is news, I most certainly think the rehiring is newsworthy. It shows that hard work means very little nowadays as long as you stomp your feet until you get your way. It shows that you can trash your employer (the people who sign your paychecks) and get away with it as long as you're a cute and lovable pierogi.

So maybe that's the answer. Maybe I've been looking at the wrong career all along. I performed as The Wild Thing several years ago while interning with Washington County's minor league baseball team. Maybe next year I can find a teflon job as Sauerkraut Saul.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Not even fake news

By now, you've probably read about the heartbreaking tale of a Pittsburgh pierogi runner who lost his $25 per race job during this savage recession. The poor 24-year-old kid (who still lives at home) just wanted to run the pierogi races at Pirates games. What yinzer wouldn't love that gig? Unfortunately, this kid ripped the team on his Facebook page after it announced contract extensions for the GM and field manager. Then he was surprised when management canned him the next day for insubordination.

Somehow this turned into a front page story in the Post-Gazette when his mommy called the media to complain. What the heck compelled the P-G to run this "story" above the fold? This isn't news. It's not even fake news.

First of all, the kid made $25 per game. That's barely a part-time job. I'm sure he can make more money flipping burgers at a fast food joint. Second, not many companies take kindly to employees posting nasty comments on social networking sites. Anyone who thinks otherwise is sadly mistaken. Plus, this guy was suspended by the Pirates earlier due to a scheduling gaffe.

But my main complaint is with the P-G. When a helicopter mom calls you complaining that her son lost his barely part-time job for ripping the Pirates, that doesn't make it news. The fact that the P-G made this a story -- let alone a front page story -- is insulting for those of us who have lost real jobs for doing absolutely nothing wrong.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A shameful hiring policy

I already knew that every time I submitted a resume to a company, it would be competing against numerous other worthy candidates. What I didn't know (although suspected) was that I also was competing against myself.

A new CNN report shows that some companies are immediately discarding resumes from unemployed applicants. If it's true, that is a shameful hiring policy. How dare these companies turn away from willing applicants who have the audacity to seek a job. How dare they force us to trudge through the unemployment line, accepting welfare checks when all we want is a decent-paying job with a side of health care benefits.

"Making that kind of automatic cut is senseless; you could be missing out on the best person of all," said Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project. "There are millions of people who are unemployed through no fault of their own. If an employer feels that the best qualified are the ones already working, they have no appreciation of the crisis we're in right now."

I couldn't agree more. It makes you wonder how many applications were immediately chucked in the trash because the resumes don't include a current job. I seemed to have solved that problem by freelancing for the Tribune-Review and working as a census enumerator. However, I'm beginning to wonder if that U.S. Census Bureau position is a red flag that I'm without a full-time job.

Some think we should boycott the companies that use this practice, but who knows which employers are doing it? Most of us send our resumes into the tubes of internet, never to be heard from again. It's becoming increasingly clear that the cards are stacked against the unemployed. Unfortunately, it's worse than I previously thought.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Help wanted

Constituents loves to complain about their elected leaders and government. In fact, it's probably the thing we do best. So a couple local state representatives decided to launch an online "suggestion box" to channel the frustrations of Pennsylvania citizens.

Jesse White and Matt Smith, both Democratic representatives from Western Pennsylvania, uploaded the website,, that asks for budgetary suggestions and posts them on the homepage for viewers to rate. Who knows if any of our ideas will be enacted in this year's budget, but I applaud White and Smith for giving us a platform to express our opinions. Hopefully they are reading them and taking notes on what their constituents want.

The site is easy to use and the suggestions appear online in just a few minutes. It's very interesting to read what others are thinking.

As for the most popular opinion? Reduce the size of the General Assembly.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Gather your armies!

Democracy is a wonderful mechanism to run our government. It allows "We The People" to choose our elected leaders, and challenge them at the ballot box if we disagree. But some of those People are just plain stupid.

Case in point: Rick Barber, a tea party candidate running for Congress in Alabama. His internet ad entitled "Gather Your Armies" is becoming a viral sensation. It is set in a dark tavern as he explains modern-day tax policies to George Washington, Sam Adams and a fellow who appears to be Ben Franklin. It opens with Barber calling for Congress to impeach President Obama (too bad for Republicans that the president has never been caught with an intern in the Oval Office). By the end, Barber is whipped into a frenzy and asks the three ghosts if they are with him in opposing this "tyrannical" government.

"Gather your armies," George Washington responds.

Unfortunately, Barber is skewing his history by railing against what he perceives as unfair taxes. It was during George Washington's presidency that the Congress enacted the Whiskey Act excise tax in 1791 as a way to pay for the Revolutionary War debt. Rural western Pennsylvania farmers, who distilled and sold their own whiskey, felt this tax was unfair and rebelled against the Act three years later. A few months after the Whiskey Rebellion in July 1794, President George Washington led 13,000 federal soldiers into Allegheny County and quickly quashed the revolt.

Barber's commercial shows a fictitious Washington hanging out in some dank basement bar and calling for Americans to turn against the federal government. But history tells us that the real George Washington likely would have encouraged the federal government to gather its armies and put down the revolt Barber is suggesting.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Golden Mouse

Congratulations to Scott Beveridge in earning The Golden Mouse award for achieving 100,000 unique page views on his blog. Mr. Beveridge, a local newspaper reporter, just recently passed the 100k mark on Travel with a Beveridge after launching it three years ago. His former newspaper colleagues, Michael Jones and Amanda Gillooly, presented Mr. Beveridge with The Golden Mouse over beers and pizza Tuesday night.

Mr. Beveridge, who earlier in the day doubted the existence of the prestigious Golden Mouse, was too shocked by the appearance of the award to offer any semblance of a speech.

"Oh my God," Mr. Beveridge said, slapping his hand against his forehead as the presenters pulled the award from a brown paper bag.

The plaque, the first in a series by Mr. Jones, a local blogger and novice woodsmith, cost less than $8 and prominently features a gold spray painted computer mouse that hadn't been used in a decade. Mr. Beveridge said he plans to display the award on a wall in his home, although it can also be used as an over-sized beer coaster.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Trolls have their say

It took only a few minutes after The Wall Street Journal published an online story about unemployed census workers when the trolls started coming out to play. They immediately began bashing the three of us featured in the story because we were unfortunate enough to get canned from our professions and have to find alternative jobs. But rather than rage against these anonymous idiots, I chuckled. I mean, they're hilarious!

Bill Trask said: "Oh drat... now these out of work ACORN enthusiasts may have to go out and get a REAL JOB... but wait... they don't have too, Obama will give them more money - (they just have to wait until their census counts are tabulated.)"

Now I'm an ACORN enthusiast? Well, that sounds about right considering my mom's maiden name is ALCORN. And what would you consider to be a "real" job?

Shrini Kulkarni said: "The salaries for the Census workers are paid by the Federal Government which goes on the national deficit. How can this be a good thing for the economy? It seems that this census is just another white elephant Obama wants to showcase in his radically left winged vision of the nanny state."

The Census is Obama's white elephant? Haven't they been counting Americans since our founders wrote the Constitution? And I guess the Bush Administration had nothing to do with the planning during the first eight years of the decade.

David Shellenberger said: The headline has it wrong: ending employment of government workers cannot come fast enough. The funds spent on government employment deprive taxpayers of better use of their own money.

Well, thanks for your vote of confidence, Dave. Nothing like kicking an unemployed man when he's down!

Andy Dulina said: I find it ironic that the people chosen to be interviewed for this article all came from "blue" states. Hey folks, how's that change y'all voted for workin' out for ya??

What would you say if I told you that I live in a "red" congressional district. And if he read the story, he would have noticed that the first interviewee lost his job in January 2008.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Quoted in The Wall Street Journal

So after 50 weeks of unemployment, here's my 15 minutes of fame. The Wall Street Journal quoted me for a story today in its online edition about the unemployed working for the Census Bureau. My prose was buried in the bottom of the story, but it certainly seemed like the least worrisome out of the three tales. Click on the headline to read the entire story, or check out my section below.

Census jobs end all too soon

By Joe Light and Justin Lahart
The Wall Street Journal
June 4, 2010

Since losing his job as a newspaper reporter last June, South Fayette, Pa., resident Michael Jones, 26, has landed interviews with only three companies and hasn't yet received an offer. Last November, Mr. Jones read an ad for census jobs and took the qualifying test on the Monday after Thanksgiving, earning a perfect score. In early March of this year, he got the call letting him know that he had been hired as an enumerator, at $15.25 an hour.

"If I hadn't gotten that job and my unemployment benefits ran out, I'd have to take drastic measures," Mr. Jones said. "The first day of work, I couldn't wait to drive to training. It had been so long since I had a 9-to-5 workday."

Mr. Jones's census job is scheduled to end in mid-July, depending on how quickly his team finishes its work. If Congress doesn't extend unemployment benefits again, his benefits will run out in mid-August. If that happens, and Mr. Jones still hasn't found a full-time job, he plans to start looking at jobs driving train crews around for a railroad company or working in retail.

Another journey to Oz

Another Journey to OZ from Dana Kerkentzes on Vimeo.

By Michael Jones
For the Tribune-Review
June 3, 2010

Dana Kerkentzes of Elizabeth Borough wasn't quite sure what would happen when she focused her video camera on a local children's production troupe for her college senior project.

What Kerkentzes found was an inspiring story that landed her 15-minute documentary, "Another Journey to Oz," in a British film festival.

The recent Westminster College graduate spent last summer following the Petite Players as they prepared an offbeat play of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Grand Theater in Elizabeth. The fact that she grew up just a few minutes away from where the group performed made the film a bit more personal.

"I wondered what these kids did and what it was like," said Kerkentzes, a 2006 graduate of East Allegheny High School. "I thought this would be a great opportunity to tell the story about kids doing something they love."

Kerkentzes, 22, immersed herself into the production and slowly introduced the video camera to the 46 school-aged performers and their parents. She spent months with the group that led to goofy moments during rehearsals.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Wide reach of the Web

I shouldn't be surprised anymore when a wayward reporter contacts me about something I wrote on my blog. But it still stuns me upon reading an e-mail from a scribe who wants to know more about one of my blog entries.

This time, the e-mail came from a Wall Street Journal reporter ... cue jaw drop.

The newspaper wants to report on the jobless who turned to the U.S. Census Bureau for a temporary paycheck. It appears the WSJ wants anecdotal stories as it reports on how those census jobs might be skewing unemployment figures. Apparently, this blog caught the reporter's attention.

We set up an interview for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday -- just as severe thunderstorms rolled through Western Pennsylvania -- and we spoke for about 40 minutes about my unemployment and subsequent federal job. The interview ranged from the day the Observer-Reporter let me go to what my job duties are as a quality control enumerator.

And it so felt good telling that story.

Whether any of it ends up in the newspaper, it still was worth the time. This is why I began blogging two days after receiving my pink slip. I want people to know what happens to the unemployed after their severance checks and compensation benefits run dry.

Hopefully, the stories of this blog's unwilling participants will reach a national audience.