Increased demand putting stress on programs to aid unemployed workers


Organizations helping workers cope with continuing high levels of unemployment report that the recession is taking a high toll on workers and their families. At the same time, the increased need for help from workers experiencing long-term unemployment is straining the resources and testing the capacity of programs designed to help workers through short-term economic emergencies. “The biggest challenge we have is lack of hope,” said Kent Lehnen, director of account services at TEAM – Total Employee Assistance Management. “Union members are resourceful, they’re resilient, but when they start losing hope… all challenges become magnified.” 

TEAM offers employee assistance programs for many union building trades workers as well as other union members.

“Already this year we’re at 60 percent higher call volume over this same period last year,” Lehnen reported the first week of June. “That’s not going to bode well.”

And, Lehnen noted, TEAM typically sees a higher volume of calls in the last few months of the year.

With the economic slow-down, people are losing their jobs, they’re losing their health care, and they’re losing their homes to foreclosure. They’re over-extended on their credit cards. At the same time, cuts to public social services, including social services available through the schools, mean fewer resources are available to help struggling workers and their families.

“It’s the perfect storm of the economy,” Lehnen said.

“I got started in this work as a union representative seeing people going through everyday problems,” said Lehnen, who worked for the Machinists union for 22 years before joining TEAM two years ago. “I’ve never seen it this bad with people so disconnected.”

“People are being unemployed for longer periods of time, which leads to increased stress and anxiety about the future… and loss of hope,” reported Joe Boyle, a social worker with 20 years’ experience who counsels clients for TEAM.

People who are working, Boyle said, may be seeing their responsibilities increased due to short staffing, or they’re seeing hours and income cut and taking on part-time work – or multiple part-time jobs – to make ends meet.

All these changes, he observed, add to stress and produce “increased conflicts at work and at home.”

The financial stress, Boyle said, is coming out “sideways” in the form of relationship conflicts, depression and anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic abuse.

“Before it gets to the explosion point, let’s bring it to an employee assistance program,” Boyle advised. “We’re not an agent of management. We’re not an agent of the union. We’re neutral. We can help facilitate getting people the right help in a timely fashion.”

TEAM’s Lehnen emphasized that asking for help is important.

“You take help when it’s offered and you give it back when you’re strong again,” Lehnen said. “That’s what union membership is all about – we look out for each other.”

A resource for all local AFL-CIO union members is Working Partnerships, the community services program of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.

Working Partnerships can help union members with referrals to other community resources as well as provide limited emergency assistance to help pay for basic needs such as rent, car insurance, or groceries.

“One thing we’re seeing is people who are unemployed for long periods of time. That’s what’s going on everywhere” and across all unions, reported Doug Flateau, Working Partnerships director. “Now we need to think about how to help people for a longer period of time.”

That’s a challenge for Working Partnerships and many social service programs, he noted, which are designed to help people through short-term crises.

“There’s a lot of things that happen right away when people lose a job,” Flateau said. But, he continued, “when does the emergency stop?”

Flateau reflected: “If we have limited resources, how do we make a decision to help someone we’ve helped once or twice before as opposed to someone we’re seeing for the first time who has just been laid off or had an emergency?”

“We would love to see many more unions contribute to help their members who come to see us,” Flateau said.

Steve Share edits the Labor Review, the official publication of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at