Evans: Unemployment is not the same for everyone

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Volunteer with box of food for those in need. Photo from iStock.

The boss told Gus Malzahn on Sunday that he was no longer needed. His employment was ending immediately.

With that blunt conversation, Malzahn became another statistic of 2020. He took his place next to the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs this year — a year when unemployment, at times, rivaled those dreadfully dark days of the Great Depression.

But Malzahn is not in the same boat as most of the others. 

He won’t have to be up before dawn to get into a food line. He won’t have to spend hours waiting for a cardboard box filled with canned goods, a loaf of bread, a couple of boxes of pasta and a bag of oranges.

Randy Evans

STRAY THOUGHTS

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register. Opinions are his own.

Visit the Iowa Freedom of Information Council website at: http://ifoic.org/

He won’t have to worry about applying for enough jobs each week to remain eligible for unemployment benefits. He won’t lose sleep like so many others have, wondering whether Congress and the White House will put their differences aside long enough to approve more federal assistance for people struggling to cope with the effects of being without a job during the pandemic.

Malzahn won’t be like those worrying about how they will keep their heads above water financially. For those individuals, those bread winners, those young workers trying to get their careers launched, or those older workers hoping to make it to retirement, unemployment is filled with great anxiety and much misery.

Malzahn’s firing illustrates how America deals differently with the poor and middle class when they lose their jobs and how the haves are treated when their jobs are taken away.

None of this economic disconnect is Gus Malzahn’s fault. But his unemployment experience will have nothing in common with what most people experience when they lose their jobs.

While most Americans land with a thud when their jobs end, Malzahn’s employer, Auburn University, provided a gigantic feather pillow to cushion his unemployment.

Malzahn has been the Alabama school’s head football coach since 2013. He just finished the third year of a seven-year contract extension.

(Two pieces of Iowa trivia are worth mentioning here: Malzahn’s contract extension was negotiated and signed under the leadership of Auburn’s president at the time, Steven Leath, formerly the top Cyclone at Iowa State University. Malzahn was hired after Auburn fired Gene Chizek following the 2012 season. Chizek was the former Cyclone head coach.)

The “buyout” clause in Malzahn’s contract means the school will pay him $21.45 million to not coach at Auburn for the next four years. Half of that total must be paid within 30 days, the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser reported. The balance will be paid over four years in annual installments of about $2.6 million each.

Too few of us will bat an eye at the size of Malzahn’s unemployment cushion.

But it’s important to remember that he was fired because Auburn officials did not think he was measuring up. They believed he was not effectively doing the job he had been hired to perform. His teams compiled a record of 68-35 over eight seasons and finished 6-4 this year.

Likewise, too few of us bat an eye when thousands of everyday Americans lose their jobs, get a couple of months of “severance pay” from their employers if they are lucky, and qualify for state unemployment benefits that average about $400 per week for 26 weeks in normal times.

Something is out of whack with our priorities.

Instead of Congress recognizing that ordinary folks who lose their jobs because of the coronavirus deserve to have the federal government help keep them on their feet until the health crisis abates, we hear supposed leaders saying that people will have no incentive to look for another job if unemployment assistance is too large.

For most of the unemployed in America today, there is constant worry about how they will be able to pay their rent, keep food on the table, keep their utilities turned
on and their cellphones functioning, and keep internet service so their kids can continue to Zoom in to school classes during this pandemic.

Yes, how will they feed their families?

We have seen the evidence on television — the lines of cars stretching for miles outside food distribution sites, the grateful people fighting back tears when volunteers from churches and charities drop off hot meals to fill the bellies of the working poor.

“The needs are beyond what we can comprehend,” Lawdia Kennedy, who oversees a weekly food distribution effort in Atlanta, told the Washington Post.

Forty percent of the people showing up at America’s food banks this year have never turned to them before, the Post reported. Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, the chief executive of Feeding America, a network of local food banks across the U.S., said the increased unemployment and poverty could cause “food insecurity” to rise from 35 million people at the start of 2020 to 50 million people by year’s end.

One of those wondering where his meals will come from is Peter Sharma, who owns Seasons Florida Resort, located about 12 miles from Walt Disney World. The tourism business has dried up, and the motel has been closed since March. Sharma laid off his employees and put his house up for sale. He’s planning to move into his motel until the tourists return.

For now, his parking lot is a weekly food distribution site, like countless other sites across the nation. But the federal money that had been paying for the food being distributed there and elsewhere has run out, and unions, churches and other organizations are trying to fill the void with modern versions of care packages Americans sent to the needy after World War II.

“These people, they’re not the homeless,” Sharma said of the crowd of people waiting outside his motel for boxes of food. “They’re your neighbors.”

That’s how tens of millions of Americans are trying to get by while Congress and the White House try to find something they can agree on for an emergency pandemic relief bill.