Amy Berson-Sayers has been unemployed since March of 2008. She recently admitted that shortly after her 99 weeks of unemployment benefits ran out, she stopped searching for a job. Even when she was spurred on to look for work, she did it “half-assedly.”

“It was ridiculous,” said Ms. Berson-Sayers, 52, an Upper West Side resident who worked for ad agencies and magazine publishers most of her career. “I’ve always gotten a job immediately, by circling ads in the want ads and calling a live person. That is over. Now you go online, fill out a frustrating application, there’s a lottery and if you win someone looks at your application.”

Recently, the 52-year-old ex-executive administrative assistant sees a change in the job climate. She described a more encouraging environment that may be compelling others in her situation to return to the job hunt.

“I’m building up steam now, big time,” said Ms. Berson-Sayers. “The last six months or so, it just feels more positive out there, like…getting a job is possible again.”

Discouraged workers returning to the work force is an important part of the economic recovery. No one knows exactly how many discouraged workers there are in addition to the 13.5 million Americans currently looking for a job. Experts do agree their return to the job hunt is a very positive sign – which can send off mixed signals in the form of a higher unemployment rate. Adding to confusion, the uneven nature of the discouraged workers returning also makes for uneven pressure on the rate, as was the case last month.

March’s 8.8% unemployment rate marks a new two-year low, and initial jobless claims continue to improve, dropping by 6,000 this week alone. Many economist’s have said the job market has finally begun to find its feet. In fact, the data shows that the local job market has been improving for over a year. In 2010 alone, the unemployment rate for New York City fell from 10 percent in January to 8.8 percent in December.

Overall, New York State has recovered 30 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, according to a March 9 report by the Department of Labor.

But today, as we focus on the latest unemployment numbers, labor-market experts are watching people like Berson-Sayers to see just how their return to the labor force effects the overall rate.

“The faster the recovery, the quicker you pull people back in,” said Jim Brown, labor analyst for the New York State Dept. of Labor.

Paradoxically, as the job market improves and people like Ms. Berson-Sayers become optimistic enought to start looking for work again, they drive up the unemployment rate.

The mixed signals are the result of a formula used by the Labor Department, which does not recognize a person like Berson-Sayers as unemployed. A person who is not actively looking for a job is not technically unemployed. In the eyes of the Labor Department, they have dropped out of the workforce.

Once “discouraged workers” actively search for a job, they officially rejoin the ranks of the unemployed and are counted in the monthly survey used to calculate the unemployment rate.

That’s why the unemployment rate ticked up in January – due to renewed participation, said Brown. He said their return, and the upward pressure they put on the unemployment rate, is another milestone on the road to full recovery.

“The recession officially ended in the middle of ’09 and the unemployment rate peaked in the fourth quarter of ’09, so this may be a fast one,” Brown said.

Berson-Sayers said the improvements she sees are subtle. “People are looking me in the eye during the interview, just small stuff, but it makes a different impression,” said Berson-Sayers. While she is fueled by the encouraging unemployment numbers and the new optimism she is encountering lately in her own job search, she doesn’t personally feel that the job market recovery has been in any way fast.

“This is the longest I’ve ever been out of work – by years.”

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