Editorial from Working Wardrobes CEO, Bonni Pomush

As the CEO of Working Wardrobes, I see first-hand how joblessness in Orange County affects individuals, families, and communities. Employment numbers in Orange County are rising, and yet the county still faces serious unemployment and underemployment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although many entry-level positions are available, job seekers needing sustainable, livable wages continue to face barriers to reentering the workforce.

 Joblessness in Orange County

Sometimes, the barriers are not always obvious. A job seeker must have their basic needs met first in order to perform their best for an employer. If a person cannot afford the necessities to find and keeping a job,  joblessness in Orange County becomes more prominent. The four most critical needs are:

  1. Access to affordable housing: Wage increases have not kept up with the skyrocketing housing prices. Roughly 50% of Orange County’s most prevalent occupations earned less than the minimum required to afford a one-bedroom apartment prior to the pandemic¹. The COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act, enacted to help individuals affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to no longer accept new applications on June 30, 2022.
  2. Affordable childcare availability: The pandemic took women out of the workforce in droves when female-heavy, hospitality industries shut down. Mothers now find themselves without work and without a way to afford childcare. 47% of parents cite increased family responsibilities as causing performance issues at work. This increases to 52% of parents with children under the age of five².
  3. Reliable Transportation: Gasoline prices have been rising dramatically and are closing in on $6.00 per gallon³. Rising gas prices and a lack of investment in public transit have made it increasingly difficult for low-income individuals to commute to work.
  4. Access to Technology: In a rapidly evolving workforce, technology is critical to finding and applying for work, but 29% of households do not have adequate access to the internet and 41% do not have enough connected devices⁴. 

The job market in Orange County has been fluid; we expect this. We witnessed the great resignation, the great retirement, and the great reshuffle. Yet, the barriers to employment remain, thus limiting the options to regain self-sufficiency and the empowerment of working and earning a livable wage. Most job seekers don’t want a handout, but they desperately need wrap-around services that meet them where they are: we need to provide a hand up.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with two women who both formerly struggled in the job market. They came from different backgrounds — one had served in the military, another had been involved in the justice system. Both women faced the same feelings of loneliness in their job search. At Working Wardrobes, we were able to provide that hand up by helping to first address their basic needs, including transportation and housing, but there were additional, emotional barriers. I was delighted by how quickly the situation changed for these women after working with our team to update their resumes. Both ladies gained the confidence to pursue new careers through the process of identifying and demonstrating their individual skills and experiences that serve as valuable assets to employers. 

Unemployment is tied to the growing mental health crisis. In January 2021, 43% of unemployed people nationwide had poor mental health⁵. Employment eases this crisis by providing independence and empowerment. High-wage workers do not face choices such as “Can I buy groceries this week? Will I be able to make rent?” but instead focus on things like “Which route should I take to work? What kind of person or employee do I want to be?” The emotional barriers of fear and stress can sometimes be just as much of a hurdle as the financial ones.

Additional barriers make it difficult for job seekers to begin getting help and are not always obvious. Supportive services such as government programs can not be accessed if an individual does not have their birth certificate, government-issued identification, or social security information. Veterans missing their DD214 form may be barred from receiving the benefits they are entitled to and which we owe them as a debt of gratitude for their service. As the only providers of the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program (HVRP) Grant in Orange County, Working Wardrobes helps Veterans seeking by providing supportive resources for successful employment, including job training, resume building, or networking.

Job seekers need support at every level, both immediately and in the long-term. They need a comprehensive range of career development services, including certifications, workshops, critical needs assistance, and wrap-around services like help with transportation, technology access, childcare, and affordable housing. It is imperative that we provide specific programs for underserved communities, to include Veterans, seniors, women, young adults, and the justice-involved.

With job seekers, corporations, and nonprofit service providers working together, individuals can gain the tools to overcome the seemingly endless barriers that come with finding meaningful employment at a livable wage. Working Wardrobes is creating a catalyst for that partnership. I invite you to become a part of the change we all seek in our community: help empower individuals to gain self-sufficiency through employment by joining the Coalition. Our Rebuilding Careers Coalition is a giving collective of individuals and corporations that will prepare Orange County’s workforce to return to the workplace. By bringing the pipeline to jobs, the career readiness programs, and the funds to provide wrap-around supportive services together, the Coalition is funding the initiatives job seekers need the most. Let’s realize the influence of our collective giving power to improve our community: it’s time to bring The  Power of a Paycheck™ to Orange County, one job-seeker at a time. 

Learn more about how you can help solve the problem of unemployment in Southern California here: https://www.workingwardrobes.org/rebuilding-careers/

About Working Wardrobes

Working Wardrobes is Orange County’s foremost workforce readiness nonprofit, providing the tools to at-risk men, women, young adults, and Veterans so they can achieve the dignity of work. Founded in 1990 by Jerri Rosen, Working Wardrobes has been serving Southern California for over 30 years by providing assessments, job training, career placement, and wardrobe services to almost 115,000 clients to overcome barriers to employment and achieve The Power of a Paycheck™. For more information, please visit www.workingwardrobes.org.