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May 28, 2015

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‘I couldn’t believe that someone with my experience couldn’t even get a job as a busboy.’

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Julie Jacobson / Associated Press

Eight months after exhausting his unemployment benefits, longtime casino bartender Bud Meyers is in desperation mode after “meaningless attempts to find gainful employment.”

CNN story on Meyers

Bud Meyers, who spent most of his adult life working behind a bar, has become the unwitting face of the older jobless in America.

Meyers lost his job at the Riviera in January 2008, and has joined the ranks of so-called 99ers who are still idle after exhausting two years of unemployment benefits. Unlike the many Nevadans who have suffered and deteriorated in obscurity, Meyers’ mental, physical and financial decline is on display on the Internet.

For more than a year, his blog posts have become increasingly desperate, drawing the attention of CNN, the Huffington Post and Associated Press. Using the pseudonym Bud Meyers to avoid personal embarrassment, he writes about the lack of jobs and problems obtaining benefits.

In his blog, Meyers rails against “meaningless attempts to find gainful employment” as well as his loss of identity and self-esteem.

“I’m tired of being talked to and treated and looked down upon as a big loser because I’ve lost my means of supporting myself at the age of 55.”

After reading a particularly dire excerpt from Meyers’ blog, CNN correspondent Ali Velshi assured viewers last month that Meyers was OK.

“Bud, I think you’re listening to this so hang in there, you’re not forgotten by everyone,” Velshi said.

Meyers’ story isn’t just about one man’s disheartening job search. It’s also about a class of workers approaching obsolescence in a town much changed from the days when they first came seeking opportunity.

Older casino workers such as Meyers feel passed over in a job market that favors applicants’ appearance and personality over work history or local connections, say job placement and training experts. Las Vegas always has been driven by eye candy. That was a commonly heard complaint even before the recession. Yet age discrimination actions rarely advance far. Employees are mainly concerned about keeping their jobs rather than causing a stir.

In two years of unemployment, Meyers drained his life savings of $40,000. But the experience has taken more than a financial toll on Meyers, who picks at his once-manicured nails and chain smokes while he speaks.

His graying hair and pale skin reveal a different man from the bartender who appears in personal photos with a tanned, chiseled face and gleaming black hair. The employed Meyers had coifed hair and a wide, mischievous grin. The jobless Meyers has ragged locks he cuts himself and insomnia, reflected in the bags under his eyes and an expression of defeat.

Though he subsists on just one meal a day to save money, the once-trim body that rushed about behind a bar, slinging drinks for tourists, has grown thick.

Many of the long-term unemployed like Meyers are showing up at agencies like the state-run JobConnect.

Ben Daseler, who supervises the state’s largest JobConnect office in central Las Vegas, said older hospitality workers are having an especially tough time finding work. Like other job seekers, he said, they are told to “be flexible and learn new skills.”

That may be easier said than done for members of the hospitality unions accustomed to the security of seniority rights and healthy wages, Daseler said. Many casinos offer on-call positions where employees may only work one or three days per week, he said. Some workers, he added, aren’t called in for months at a time.

That’s why JobConnect counselors, he said, are steering many job seekers away from hospitality jobs and toward other fields, like health care, that haven’t been as hard hit in the recession. But other industries weren’t on Meyers’ radar.

After losing his job, Meyers figured his experience and a persistent, chatty personality would land a new gig. Optimism waned as the months wore on and he was rejected from multiple casino jobs, from assistant bar manager down to busboy and barback. The latter job meant washing glasses and stocking bottles.

“I couldn’t believe that someone with my experience couldn’t even get a job as a busboy,” Meyers said.

Still, he spent months applying online for similar job openings. But many casino companies prevent job seekers from applying for more than one job at once, requiring applicants to wait several weeks before they can reapply for something else. He also walked into bars and casinos, talking with bartenders, managers and human resources representatives to get a foot in the door. You have to apply like everyone else, they said.

Meyers, a bachelor who lives alone, depended on his paychecks. Every month, he spends $855 on rent and $490 for his 2007 Chrysler Sebring.

Before the big Las Vegas casinos adopted the online application process of corporate America to filter thousands of applications at once, they often hired workers based on a few words of recommendation from another casino — or a smile and a handshake with the boss. That’s how Meyers moved around.

Those days are over, said Greg Abate, who runs the city’s oldest and largest bartending school, ABC Bartending.

“The days of getting jobs through the buddy system are gone,” he said. “This is new Vegas, which is pool parties and nightclubs. You think a casino wants to hire someone who’s 50 years old serving drinks to 21-year-olds?”

Long resumes are viewed as more of a liability than an asset in today’s economy, he said.

Sherry Cummings sees many people like Meyers in her line of work. She instructs bartenders-to-be in checking IDs and handling drunks for the agency Techniques in Alcohol Management, or TAM, that certifies all working bartenders in Las Vegas. Besides her day job, Cummings spends time boosting the spirits of unemployed service workers. Her advice: smile like you mean it and be flexible.

That’s harder for the long-term unemployed, especially men whose identities are mostly wrapped up in their jobs, she said. A shellshocked demeanor can derail a candidate’s job prospects, as casinos want happy, confident and optimistic people in service jobs, she said.

“Women are used to having multiple identities, but there’s an ego thing men have,” Cummings said. “Losing their job takes the wind out of their sails. When they’re interviewing for a job they don’t have the same energy about themselves.”

After applying for a busboy job, Meyers received a notice from the casino saying he had failed the psychological questionnaire following the formal application. Meyers figures his truthful answer to a question about his level of optimism for the economy cost him the job.

Meyers has lived in isolation since he lost his work.

He is estranged from his mother and from the rest of his family. Most of his friends were co-workers with their own pressing concerns. Some are out of work as well. Those still working, Meyers said, want little to do with him since he became unemployed — a feeling of survivor’s guilt, perhaps.

“They give me this look like I’m a dead man walking,” he said. “They’re afraid that what happened to me will happen to them. Or that they will catch it from me.”

It wasn’t until Meyers stopped looking for work last fall, becoming even more cut off from the world, that he received national attention.

“I have pondered the absence of relevance in my past life, and the lack of significance my passing will be to the world,” Meyers wrote.

As a white man over age 50 who also lacks a support network, Meyers fits the profile of people most vulnerable to suicide.

With homeless shelters full and social service agencies focused on families with children, more people are calling the statewide suicide hotline for help such as financial assistance with rent and food.

Statewide, the Crisis Call Center received 3,931 calls for help with various needs — employment, food, shelter and transportation — a 17 percent increase from 2009 and a 48 percent jump from 2008. This doesn’t include the greater number of hotline calls from people who were suicidal and did not openly request financial assistance.

Since the downturn, more hotline calls are coming from unemployed men in Las Vegas between ages 50 and 60 who are too young for Social Security and too old to appeal to employers, said Debbie Gant-Reed, crisis lines coordinator for the Reno-based Crisis Call Center.

In many cases, callers have exhausted their savings and feel hopeless about their job prospects as companies seek people at entry level wages, favoring younger, less experienced people, Gant-Reed said.

“They feel like they can’t recover” financially, she said. Unlike those from society’s fringes, they tend to be middle-class people “who have lost everything and who aren’t used to going without.”

The Crisis Call Center also receives suicidal letters addressed to the White House and expressing frustration with the poor local economy and a lack of jobs.

There’s some hope for Meyers, though. A Henderson woman who read his blog and lost her own job offered to take him in.

Meyers said he’s too polite to refuse a stranger’s help. While fearing he will only be a burden, the tone of his voice lifts as he mentions her.

“I don’t know how I’m going to be of any help. But she keeps telling me, ‘We’ll make it work.’ ”

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