Out of Work (and Hope)—Construction Laborers' Great Depression

Out of Work (and Hope)—Construction Laborers' Great Depression

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LOS ANGELES—The day David Martinez found himself living in a car with his wife and infant daughter, storing the child’s milk in a small cooler with ice and asking local churches for food, he experienced a shame so deep that the remembrance of it still causes him to choke up.

"The worst thing was seeing my daughter, so little to be in that situation," he says. "It wasn’t so bad for my wife and I… we’re adults. It’s not that my daughter was suffering, but I just couldn’t stand to see her in that situation. I felt so irresponsible, and I was carrying all the weight on my shoulders.".

Prolonged unemployment made Martinez depressed to the point that he even contemplated ending his life.

Unfortunately, he is not alone.

The construction industry has had one of the highest unemployment rates throughout the current economic downturn, and its effects have been especially felt in California and Las Vegas, where the highs of the real estate boom were once as extreme as the lows now being experienced in the industry.

Marco Frausto, who represents the Iron Workers Union (Local 433) in Los Angeles, said that among his members, unemployment rates range from 30 to 40 percent. But if you count those who work only two or three days per week, the rate increases to 55 percent.

"I’ve spent 15 years in this industry and have never seen things get as bad as they are now,"  Frausto says. "Terrible things are happening. Families have to move out of their homes, families move in with each other or with their in-laws, and other people have had to live in their vehicles."

Six local members have committed suicide over the past two years, Frausto says.

"In any industry there are deaths, but in this case it is people who have taken their lives because they simply don’t have work," he says. "It's very difficult when a person can’t support his or her family. They begin to think of themselves as a burden rather than a source of support."

Martinez, an eloquent 25-year-old who boasts of "always arriving earlier, leaving later, working harder and studying more than anyone else," found himself at a loss for words when trying to explain the frustration he felt at seeing his world crumble in this way.

Not long before the hard times, work had been plentiful and prosperity seemed to have no end, he recalled with nostalgia.

"There was a time when I was working 50 or 60 hours a week, when I was able to save and I had no debts. After the crisis began, my work hours dropped to 40, then 32, then 24 and then, if I was lucky, one or two days a month. Eventually I couldn’t find anything, and I was out of work completely for five months," he says. "So that’s how I eventually lost all my money. I fell into debt and we had to survive for some time off credit cards."

Finally, the small family found themselves homeless. For two weeks, they lived in their car in a private parking structure belonging to the union, where other families would occasionally seek refuge in the absence of anything better.

"Sleeping in the car on public streets is illegal," Frausto says. "So at times our union has had to open up the garage to some families. We’ve also had to open a food bank. What is happening is unprecedented for our members."

Martinez is now back at work, but not like before. His family managed to move into the home of a friend who split his property in two, so their rent is low. His wife is now working. But Martinez is still sick with the thought of how quickly he could once again find himself out of work and back on the street with his family.

"I get a lump in my throat," Martinez says. "I went from having everything to having nothing in the blink of an eye. I don’t want to see my family in that situation again."

Increased rates of depression and suicide are common in times of economic recession. The United States reached its highest rate of suicides in 1933, during the Great Depression. The official U.S. unemployment rate reached 25 percent in those years, and the suicide rate rose to 17 per 100,000 people, versus 11.3 suicides per 100,000 people in 2007.

Even in times of economic prosperity, men commit suicide more than women, according to a study released this year, because they feel more responsible for family finances.

While no specific data exist nationally to connect suicide with unemployment, there are two known facts do correlate with the personal stories of Martinez and many other construction workers.

One is that real unemployment numbers in construction are the highest of any industry and still rising. A report released by the U.S. Department of Labor showed yet another increase in September, to 17.2 percent, versus 9.6 percent for the country as a whole. In 12 months, the U.S. construction industry has lost more than 200,000 jobs.

What's more, in the past suicide rates have generally doubled or tripled during recessions, and the mortality rate among men who have lost jobs has increased from 15 to 20 percent over the ensuing 20 years. The emotional and mental impact of economic recessions is most lasting for workers and their families.

Confirming those historic trends, suicide-prevention hotlines across the U.S. have seen a dramatic increase in calls in recent years. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which operates 24-hour crisis help lines around the country, reported an increase of 18 percent from January to May 2010. AOL reported. The number of calls more than quadrupled from 13,424 in January 2007 to  59,500 in May of this year, AOL reported.