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July 18, 2009 / sadhbhanu

From New York to new work – come join the $405 club

See Original Article in the Irish Times405 club

OPINION: Jobless Manhattanites have formed a group named after the top dole payment possible, writes SADHBH WALSHE .

NEW YORK city native Groucho Marx famously declared that he did not care to belong to any club that would have him as a member. I imagine many New Yorkers feel this way about becoming members of one of the fastest-growing clubs in the city – the 405 Club – named for New York’s maximum unemployment benefit of $405 a week.

The 405 Club is the brainchild of three recently pink-slipped Manhattanites who want to provide a support network for the growing numbers of jobless in New York. Their goal is to share tips on how to live within their drastically reduced means, offer each other moral support and ultimately help each other find jobs.

The club’s first live event, the “Project 405 Party: Race to Place Challenge” was held at the Galway Hooker Pub on March 25th and attracted up to 200 405ers and over 20 recruiters. The recruiters were challenged with being the first to place one of the 405ers in a permanent job.

More recently, the state labour department reported a jump in the city’s unemployment rate to 8.1 per cent from 6.9 per cent in February. This is the highest recorded monthly increase. There are now 335,000 unemployed people in the city. Of the unemployed, only 40 per cent are claiming unemployment benefits.

Benefit amounts are calculated at about half the applicant’s previous salary with applicable maximum and minimum payouts of $405 and $80 respectively. To qualify for the maximum payout, the applicant must have been earning at least $43,000 a year.

A sum of $405 a week may seem generous compared to the average dole in Ireland. In fact, the payout is due to a temporary rise to $430 a week due to provisions in the stimulus Bill. But with the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan starting at $2,500 a month and health insurance premiums for one individual starting at $300 a month, the payout doesn’t meet the basic expenses of many 405ers.

José González (31), one of the clubs co-founders, laid off in January from his lucrative position at an asset management company, told me the $405 doesn’t even cover his rent. José is fortunate because he received a generous severance package and his wife still has her job. But the fear it may be a long time before he finds work again has forced him to make drastic lifestyle changes. A few months ago, he was honeymooning in Africa and partying with the jet set. These days he finds himself cutting coupons and eschewing even the smallest of luxuries like a Starbucks coffee.

His friend and co-founder Garret Dale (28) is in a similar position. Garret was let go in mid-December from his radio promotion job at Epic Records. The $405 just about covers his rent but if he doesn’t find a job before his severance payments are exhausted, he will be relying on his girlfriend to help with food.

One expense that neither guys are willing to forgo yet is their gym membership of $162 a month. They both declare it’s the only thing keeping them sane. Despite an impressive resume and an aggressive job search, Garett has had only one phone interview in over three months. Still, the sad truth is José and Garett are among the unemployed elite. Others like Jennifer Berns (31), who lost her job as a pilot, are less fortunate. Jennifer only netted about a $190 a week in benefits and had to move in with her parents.

And then there’s the group who account for approximately 60 per cent of the unemployed in the city who are not eligible for any unemployment benefits. This group is comprised of freelancers, new entrants to the workforce, retirees returning to the workforce and people like Yvonne Fitzner (66) who have exhausted their benefits. Yvonne lost her job as an assistant in a psychologist’s office in June 2006. Because of her age she now qualifies for a social security payment of $898 a month which leaves her short $79 for her rent. She gets about $6 a day in food stamps. To cover household essentials, she has to dip into her savings so she now only brushes her teeth once a day, uses deodorant every other day and is learning to live without toilet paper.

So, tough and all as life is in the 405 Club, in the current climate it is a club that even an unemployed Groucho Marx would be happy to join . . . if it would have him as a member.

Sadhbh Walshe is an Irish writer and film-maker and former writer for CBS drama The District . Her pieces have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the Guardian 

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

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