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Life in the unemployment capital of America

The sun is just starting to set on an August night on Main Street, Yuma, Arizona. It's still 95 degrees. There is not a single person in sight. Maybe it's the desert setting, and maybe it's that the town has deliberately given this four-block stretch of storefronts an Old West feel. Either way, the ghost town cliche comes to mind here in the summer.

Part of the reason Main Street is so deserted is that tens of thousands of snowbirds and farm workers leave the Yuma area each summer. Still, the town isn't really all that empty in August — plenty of people stay in the air conditioning when they can during the hottest month of the year.

If you know about the town's economic problems, the desolation takes on a deeper significance. The Yuma metropolitan area had a 28.2 percent unemployment rate in August, the highest rate in the country.

"Nothing is friggin' hiring right now," one man complained to me

Knowing that can make you notice new things on Main Street. Glance into one of the bars, and you'll find plenty of empty booths. A restaurant seems to have more staffers than customers. And in front of the movie theater, there are conspicuously few cars. You have to ask yourself: even on a Sunday evening, shouldn't there be more people out and about in a city of 90,000 people?

A car pulls up to the curb, and a man steps out on the passenger side. Leaving the door about halfway open, he turns and wedges himself into the angle between the door and the car body and pees into the gutter. The door mostly obscures him, but it doesn't matter. The city is dead right now. No one will see.

A 28.2-percent unemployment rate is outlandishly high. Even in bankrupt and blighted Detroit, the rate was 7.9 percent in August. Among the metro areas whose numbers the Labor Department tracks, there is Yuma, there is El Centro (just 60 miles away in California), and then there is every other city in the nation.


You might expect that this would, in Yuma, feel like an emergency. Indeed, for people who are out of work, life in Yuma is grueling. "Nothing is friggin' hiring right now," one man complained to me. Many of the city's leaders, though, insist the economy is nowhere near as bad as it appears on paper. They even wonder if the government's math is wrong. "It doesn't look like a 30 percent unemployment rate," said Julie Engel, head of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation. This disconnect between the unemployed and the people in charge is one of the most striking things about Yuma.

Maria Davalos moved to Yuma from nearby San Diego, California, in May, in search of cheaper housing. In San Diego, she said, she had been paying $500 a month for a room in a six-bedroom house she and her son, now five, shared with 15 other people. When the landlord raised the rent by $80 per month, she left. Davalos, now 47, succeeded in finding cheaper housing — her trailer in Yuma costs her $350 each month. But it cost her in other ways.

"I see the houses are really more cheap," she said. "But I also notice now that there's no job openings. Only for people who are really, really prepared and educated."

In San Diego, Davalos had worked for electronics manufacturer Kyocera operating large ovens and die machines. She quit, she said, to care for her son, who was often sick as an infant and toddler. They lived mostly on government assistance, child support payments from her young son's father, and occasional help from Davalos' other, 26-year-old son. A single parent, she eventually wanted to get back to work, but decided childcare combined with housing were too expensive in San Diego.

Though her housing costs are now lower, childcare is still unaffordable. Her first two weeks in town, the gas alone to drive to find job openings was almost more than she could pay. And bringing along a young boy just made it tougher.

"The first week I tried to take him to the library ... but it's hard," she said. "He was running all over. He was taking the stuff from the next people. He's not quiet. He needs to be playing."

"There are some places hiring. But by the time I find out about it, 20 other people have already applied."

Eventually, she took him to stay with relatives in Mexico for a week so she could get her affairs in order in Yuma — most importantly, government assistance. She eventually arranged for subsidized child care.

Now she's realizing there are other hurdles. She dropped out of high school in Mexico, where she grew up, and most jobs ask for a high school diploma. Most jobs also ask for fluent English, and while she speaks the language well, her English isn't perfect — she occasionally stops speaking to fumble for a word. Many jobs also ask for more experience than she has, even when a diploma isn't required. And though she's not picky — she's looking at retail, casino, laundry, and office jobs — pain in her hands prevents her from doing heavy field work, one of the easiest-to-find types of work in the area.

Davalos can't take just any job, either. If it doesn't pay enough, she can't afford childcare — the level of state child care subsidy is determined by income level. So a job that is relatively low-paying but still high-paying enough to disqualify her for the subsidy won't work.

Norma Harris, who helps people find work at the Yuma Private Industry Council job center, said Davalos's problems are common. In much the same way that many employers nationwide are asking for college degrees where once they did not, employers in Yuma, understanding they have their pick of a sea of unemployed people, are asking for high school diplomas more than they used to.

"I've seen restaurants asking for a high school diploma for dishwashers," she said. "The way the economy is, whatever the employer asks, they're going to get."

And employers aren't always paying enough for people to be incentivized to work, she said. The maximum unemployment payout in Arizona is $240 per week, according to the state's Department of Economic Security, with an average of around $220. That means a minimum wage job being offered for less than 28 hours per week wouldn't make sense for someone earning that average level.

At the very least, Harris said she has seen an improvement. In mid-August, there were around 50 people per day coming in to ask for job help. Last year, she said, it was at least 100 people per day.

Still, demand for help of all kinds is high. At 8:30 am, just half an hour after the Yuma Department of Economic Security opens, there are around 75 people lined up to get a variety of services — food stamps, child care assistance, job search help.


Mobile homes in Yuma (Danielle Kurtzleben)

Two of those people are Jake Schmidt and Leah Thompson, a young couple. They are 27 and 23, respectively, and with their two kids are dependent on the money she gets from her waitressing job. Since she was 16, Leah has worked at Daybreakers Cafe, outside of town, near the interstate. She took the job for extra money when she dropped out of high school to start on an associate's degree at nearby Arizona Western College. She said she has no regrets about not sticking around to get her high school diploma.

"I needed to work more than I needed to go to school," Leah said.

Jake, meanwhile, was looking for any type of work.

"I suppose there are some places hiring," he said. "But by the time I find out about it, 20 other people have already applied there."

Even when it comes to getting a low-level restaurant or construction job, Jake and Leah said, it's not what you know; it's who you know. It helps enormously to have a connection in order to even hear about job openings, they said. But persistence doesn't hurt, either — Leah said she visited the cafe "every day for two weeks" in order to get the waitressing job.

Davalos told a similar tale: she said she has heard of friends lining up for days on end just to get a job in the fields. Field work is plentiful, but there's still only so much to go around.

For all the trouble that job-seekers have in finding work, employers said they struggle to find qualified employees.

"We're kind of an anomaly in terms of labor markets. We're very isolated," said John Morales, executive director of Yuma's Private Industry Council, a local nonprofit that provides services to job-seekers. "It's hard to attract talent when you're isolated."

John Haydock, vice president of sales of DatePac, a facility that processes and packages most of the region's date crop, has experienced this as he's tried to hire workers.

"The problem that we run into is Yuma. We'll be on the phone with somebody, you'll be telling them about the job, and [they'll say], ‘Yeah, yeah, where is it?' and I'll say, ‘Yuma,'" he said. "You can hear them do that" — he drummed his fingers on the table rapidly, as if doing a Google search — "and they're like, ‘Eh, no thanks.'"

"Yuma needs to do a better job of selling Yuma," Haydock said.

I told the executive director of the local visitor's bureau, Linda Morgan, that I was writing about unemployment in Yuma. Before I could ask a question, she told me she thinks the number is "misleading."

"You'd think that there's tumbleweeds rolling in the street, and that's not true," said Morgan. "There are new buildings, new growth."

Several residents and business leaders I spoke with took a similar view: it's bad, sure, but it couldn't be that bad.

"I would think if our unemployment rate was really that high, our population would be decreasing," said Engel, the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation director. "We would see homes abandoned ... businesses boarded up and closed."

City Administrator Greg Wilkinson described the nearly 30-percent rate as sounding like a "Depression-era" figure — to him, it seems unbelievably high in a city that doesn't appear all that depressed.

Part of their surprise can be explained by the way unemployment rates are calculated. The Yuma metro area includes the city itself along with a couple of nearby towns. The rate in Yuma proper was around 15 percent in August. In the nearby border town of San Luis, however, it was over 68 percent. So Yuma itself is only partially responsible for the area's uniquely high unemployment.

But there are other factors at play as well. One reason people gave when they said the unemployment rate is off is the city's heavily seasonal economy: the slow summer season inflates the figure, the theory goes.

The city's jobless rate tends to improve significantly in the winter. But it never looks healthy.

There may be something to that. According to the Yuma Visitors' Bureau, the city's population is around 100,000 in the summer months. It then balloons to around 190,000 in the winter, thanks to people who come down to escape the winter. Adding to the seasonal swing are farm workers. The city boasts that it supplies 90 percent of the nation's leafy vegetables between the months of November and March. In the offseason, though, the fields are empty, and most farm workers either leave town or go on unemployment until work picks up again. (Both of those transient populations also make Yuma the US city with the second-highest concentration of manufactured or mobile homes, at 29 percent as of 2009-2011, according to the Census Bureau. Many of those mobile homes fill up with seasonal residents and farm workers in the winter.)

I met several of these seasonal workers in a date-palm field outside town on a sweltering August day. (This is the only farm work available in Yuma this time of year — dates are the sole major crop grown around Yuma that has a summer harvest.) One of the workers was Olivia Borges, a 50-something woman who said she's been doing farm labor around Yuma for 25 years. Date-picking is hot, she said, but she enjoys it — it's the lettuce-field work that's backbreaking.

Borges said she does farm work around seven months out of the year. The other five months?

"Desempleo," she said — unemployment. She and many of the other workers I spoke with were direct about the fact that they go on unemployment several months out of every year.

This is one way that unemployment in Yuma is unique. Unemployment insurance is a way of life for Yuma's seasonal workers — a sort of subsidy for low-wage jobs that can't last year-round. Farms often hire the same workers year after year, so for many workers, unemployment isn't a stopgap during an uncertain time. To the contrary, many know exactly when their next paycheck is coming. It just sometimes happens to be four months away.

As Yuma changes from a sleepy summer farm town to a bustling winter destination, the city's jobless rate tends to improve significantly — agricultural workers earn wages, and tourists pack local restaurants. But even at its best, the unemployment rate never looks healthy. The lowest Yuma's seasonally unadjusted rate has been in the last year is 22.6 percent.


Another theory from the unemployment rate skeptics is that the government isn't calculating the unemployment rate correctly.

The question comes up often, said Tom Krolik, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's in part because the BLS is constantly listing the same two areas as having by far the worst unemployment: Yuma and El Centro. The BLS has studied the question, Krolik said, and the department doesn't think the number is incorrect. However, he does think something about the huge number of farmworkers is sending the jobless rate up.

Krolik's hunch is this: because Yuma is the farthest-south of a string of agricultural areas stretching through California, farm workers based in Yuma travel north, following winter farm work through the season. If they don't find it, they file for unemployment — and those checks come to Yuma. And because unemployment insurance data is the main basis for the metro area unemployment figures, those checks coming to Yuma mean the city also gets a higher unemployment rate.

There's also a rumbling about problems with unemployment fraud in Yuma. Engel, for example, believes unemployment fraud is "absolutely" worse in the city than anywhere else in the state.

"I think if they ever came out of the [state] capitol and really got into the field and did some research, they'd be astonished," she said.

Five local workers, including Davalos, told me this fraud is common, though they all said they've only heard of it happening; neither they nor anyone they personally know do it. Some said people work in Mexico but collect unemployment in the US, or that they know of former US residents, now living in Mexico, who lend or sell their Social Security numbers to others who want to fraudulently collect benefits or get work. The Economist also wrote in 2009 that fraud may be one reason why El Centro's similar economy faces perpetually high unemployment, positing that Americans work in Mexicali but collect unemployment in the US.

The state denies that the problem is unusually bad in Yuma, saying it has only caught a tiny number of fraudsters. According to a statement from the Arizona Department of Economic Security, claims of fraud in the Yuma area are overblown, in part because people misunderstand who is eligible for services.

"The degree to which it is happening throughout the state and in Yuma is miniscule," the statement said.

I asked Yuma's mayor, Doug Nicholls, if he's worried about the city's jobless rate.

"I don't know if ‘worry' is the right word," he said. Broader economic development is his main goal, he said — figuring out new ways to attract new businesses and jobs to town.

"We don't in and of ourselves create jobs, but we help create the environment to create jobs, and that is quite a bit of my effort as mayor."

None of the town's political or business leaders exactly think the local economy is healthy. And their quibbles with the unemployment rate don't stem from an insensitivity toward the plight of the jobless. They genuinely don't believe the rate could possibly be that high, and they're frustrated that the city has been called Worst in the Nation for so long.

But in this tough labor market, the people looking for jobs aren't having that sort of debate. Being unemployed is painful, whether unemployment is 8 or 28 percent.

I asked Yuma's mayor if he's worried about the jobless rate. "I don't know if ‘worry' is the right word," he said.

So even while some, like Maria Davalos, come to town in search of a cheaper life, many others have decided to pack it up. Talking to my waitress after dinner one night, she tells me she's hoping to eventually leave town to live in Phoenix with her husband. Right now, she just doesn't have the money to move.

Other people say they want out as well. Jake and Leah, who have built a life here with their two kids, feel no allegiance to the city. Leah is working on an associate's degree in radiologic technology at the local community college. But the call for x-ray technicians in Yuma isn't big, she said.

"People are like, ‘Are you going to get a job here? Are you going to quit the restaurant?' and I'm like, "No, no. There's no jobs here for what I'm doing," she said. "We're probably going to end up moving."

Maria's luck has turned around since August. She not only found a job, but one that is fantastically convenient — she serves food at Happy Trails Day-Care Preschool, which her son now also attends.

Speaking in late October, she told me she is earning $8 an hour and working around 35 hours per week. That new income, in addition to some state assistance, helps her pay for her son's preschool.

"I'm so happy I found this job, because everybody is looking for a job," she said. "It's really, really hard to get a job here in Arizona, especially in Yuma."

Not that life is perfectly easy now — her son's father has stopped paying child support, she said. He's also left the US for Mexico, where she cannot reach him to try to get him to restart the payments.

And while she is ecstatic about the job, she also said the learning curve was steep. Feeding 100 kids, all of whom have different allergies and sensitivities, is harder than it sounds: "Every single room has to have a different milk," she said.

Still, she talks about the hard work with a distinct sense of pride. With her new job come lots of responsibilities — not just cooking but serving food, delivering snacks to rooms, washing dishes, and record-keeping. "After you finish feeding the kids, you have to go and write who's eating and who's not eating," she said.

Meanwhile, she's starting to work toward her GED, adding one more layer to her already-hectic life. The ultimate goal, she said, is to go back to school to take classes that will allow her to do "office work," like being an administrative assistant.

Maria talks about the hard work with a clear sense of pride. With her new job come lots of responsibilities.

Since we spoke in August, Jake has also found a job, as a cook in a local restaurant. Leah told me he "loves it." The new income lessens the pressure on her to provide for the family, but she knows it could be temporary.

"He'll probably get let go for the summer, because it's a slow season," she said.

Leah expects to obtain her degree in radiologic technology in May. After that, she's hoping she can find a job in that field, but she knows the competition with her fellow graduates will be formidable in such a small city.

"It's really hard to get a job in what I'm going to school for because there's so many of us," she said. As for whether she and her family still plan to move, she said it's a possibility. For now, it's more of a long-term plan — finding a job here would be tough, but uprooting and finding a home and a job in another city would be challenging, as well.

"Right now it's an up-in-the-air kind of thing," she said. "I don't see myself moving in the next three or four years. It would be tough to stay but tough to go."

Editor: Eleanor Barkhorn
Lead image: An irrigated wheat field in Yuma, Arizona (Jeff Vanuga, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Source)

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