The Hard Truth: Companies Don't Hire Unemployed

Guests

Scott Jones, account manager, Jones Networking
Catherine Rampell, economics editor, NYTimes.com

Millions of long-term unemployed Americans face a cruel dilemma: Many hiring managers look down on laid-off workers, and won't hire them. And employers can afford to be picky. There are currently five unemployed workers for every job opening available.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

For every job open in America, there are five unemployed workers anxious to apply. That means employers can afford to be picky. Some would-be bosses don't want to hire people who have been out of the workplace for too long, perhaps because their skills have gotten rusty or maybe because they assume someone out of work that long is flat-out unemployable.

Scott Jones places people in IT jobs in the Baltimore area and joins us from his office at Jones Networking. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. SCOTT JONES: (Account Manager, Jones Networking): Hi, nice to be here.

CONAN: And how do employers react when you mention a job applicant has been out of work, well, say, for a year or more?

Mr. JONES: You know, pretty much what you - the way you described it. They want to know what they've been doing for a year. And I don't - they don't generally come right out and say, you know, hey that person's unemployable, or I think there's just assumptions made as to their skill levels.

CONAN: What if you say they've been looking for work for the past year?

Mr. JONES: Well, and that's pretty much what we usually say, especially during '09, during the worst of it. And - but, you know, some people, you know, they'll say I was, you know, taking care of a sick parent or something like that, you know. But I think it's definitely harder if you've been out for any long period of time.

CONAN: How long is a long period of time, three months, six months, a year?

Mr. JONES: Longer than three months, you know, within three - I mean, there's lots of people that are lifetime IT contractors who've got three months in between projects. But six months and a year, definitely that's a long time.

CONAN: IT evolves rather quickly. Do people - is it legitimate to believe that people could be losing their skills?

Mr. JONES: Absolutely, you know, especially if you're a developer or a programmer, where, you know, today's skills, most people want Java skills or dot-net skills, and those folks who have been out of work for a year, they definitely want - I mean, they definitely should be taking some type of certification course or something like that during that time to, you know, show that they've been working on their skills.

CONAN: Is it possible to come back? I mean, are there exceptions, or have you placed people who have been out of work that long?

Mr. JONES: It's possible to come back, sure. You know, I just think it takes a lot longer time, and you've got to adjust your expectations and start taking temp work or project work to try to get your foot back in the door.

CONAN: And I wonder: What questions do employers ask you about prospective employees that they might, well, be uncomfortable asking somebody face to face?

Mr. JONES: I mean, I guess, you know, having to do with, you know, why they've been out of work so long. You know, I think those type of questions, they try to get to, you know, what have they been doing.

I don't know that they're going to say, and have that question in a face-to-face interview with somebody. They're much more comfortable coming to me and saying, well, what have they done? You know, how come they haven't been working?

CONAN: So they can be more skeptical to you than they might be to somebody face to face?

Mr. JONES: Absolutely.

CONAN: And if, as you say, there are whole groups of people in this IT part of the industry that - there are a lot of three- to four-month-long projects. Are those people better off or worse off than people looking for full-time work?

Mr. JONES: You know, I think what I've seen, the people that have had the most trouble getting back to work are the people that have spent a career as contractors, as long-term contractors or temps. And a lot of people have done that throughout their career because they can make more money taking those types of projects.

So they're being - I guess they're discriminating a lot more today and looking for people that have spent three to five years somewhere, and if they're presently working, they're definitely a lot more marketable than if they've been doing temp work.

CONAN: And one thing you said, '09, that was the worst. Is it markably(ph) better now?

Mr. JONES: For me it is. You know, when Q4 of '08, around, you know, right around the beginning of October, it's, you know, the job orders sort of just fell off a cliff. And '09 was very difficult. Up until Q4 of '09, I think what's going on is pretty much what's in the news.

The companies who have the money, they're sort of holding on to it and waiting toward the end of the year and saying hey, we've got this chunk of money. We can start hiring people. And it happened last year. It's happening again this year. But I think right now, it's gotten - you know, it's markedly better than it was in Q4 of '09.

CONAN: Scott Jones, thanks very much, and I hope you and all of your contractors have a happy Christmas.

Mr. JONES: Great, well, thank you.

CONAN: Scott Jones works at Jones Networking, a staffing agency in Baltimore.

We want to hear from those of you who may have run into this long-term unemployment wall, and employers, would you consider hiring somebody who's been out of work for more than a year? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the origin and purpose of the euphemism. But first, long-term unemployment. Catherine Rampell covers economics for The New York Times and joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. CATHERINE RAMPELL (Economics Editor, NYTimes.com): Glad to be here.

CONAN: And is it generally harder to get back in the game if you've been out for more than a year, as Scott Jones says?

Ms. RAMPELL: Absolutely. Lots of economic data has shown that the longer a person's been out of work, the less likely that person is to find new work in the coming month. Whether it's, you know, the difference between a week and a month or a month and six - excuse me, a month and six months or six months and a year, the longer you're out of work, for complicated reasons, the less likely you are to find a new job.

CONAN: For complicated reasons? It's not just that employers are skeptical that you're the kind of employee they want?

Ms. RAMPELL: Well, there is evidence that has shown that the longer you're out of work, the more your skills might atrophy, and that's not only true for very dynamic industries like high-tech, as you were just discussing. That's also true for salespeople, for example.

You know, your client base has dispersed. Your Rolodex is out of date. Even the people that you used to work with might have become displaced, and it's hard to know who to call up for a job lead.

So there are reasons like that. The longer people are out of work perhaps the less accustomed they are to sort of living on a regular schedule, getting up at the same time, things like that. And those small changes in your lifestyle can actually make it harder to transition back to the workforce.

CONAN: I wanted to read you this email we have from K.M.(ph) in Colorado: Over the past six months, I have read and heard from headhunters and HR managers that employers will not hire anyone who is not currently working, no one. But it doesn't end there.

Employers will hire applicants who are currently working at the same job at another company. If you're a professional who has had to take a low-level job or a job unrelated to your career to make ends meet, employers will not hire you.

I have also heard that employers and HR departments won't consider an application if the person doesn't live close-by, no relocations, or even if they are seen driving to a job interview in a car that needs washing.

Honestly, these are real comments from HR people. One HR manager said he throws a resume in the trash without looking further if he sees the applicant has been out of work for a year or more.

So is it that dire, do you think?

Ms. RAMPELL: Well, I think it's unusual for employers or even recruiters to be that open about a bias against the unemployed. Certainly, when I've done reporting on this subject, employers are very reluctant to admit that they, you know, outright exclude people who have been out of work for some significant period of time.

But they still suggest, well, you know, the last person I hired who had been out of work for a year didn't really fit in, didn't last that long. They're not as good in the interview process.

So, you know, even if an employer is trying to be open-minded, the actual experience of unemployment can be so psychologically damaging and so destructive to a person's self-confidence that those types of workers might not interview as well and therefore might have a harder time getting a job.

CONAN: And is it accurate to say that employers would rather hire someone away from another company, somebody that's already working now, than take somebody off the unemployment rolls?

Ms. RAMPELL: Yeah, I mean, even if they don't explicitly say that, again, in a job ad, of course someone looks more attractive when they're valued by other people. It's true in romance, and it's true on the job market.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We want to hear from those of you who have run into this long-term unemployment wall. And employers, will you consider hiring somebody who's been out of work for more than a year? Paul's(ph) on the line, Paul calling from Winston-Salem. Paul, are you there?

PAUL (Caller): Hello, I'm here.

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead.

PAUL: Well, thank you very much. I have been unemployed for over a year. I am looking at what I consider, quote-unquote, "age discrimination," as well as running into the factor that there are no longer personal interviews. Most applications are filled out online, and the opportunity to actually speak with a person that can identify me doesn't exist.

CONAN: So you don't get, even after you fill out an application online, you don't get a call back to come in for an interview?

PAUL: No. There is - believe me, I have filled them out for a year. I have had two responses from the applications I have sent in, and they both say, well, we received your application, and I have never heard from them again. There's never been a face-to-face interview.

CONAN: Catherine Rampell?

Ms. RAMPELL: Well, I was going to say: This speaks to the idea that employers might be using your resume, and the gap in your resume in particular, as sort of a sorting device. You know, that they're overwhelmed with applications, a lot of employers, given the fact that you have about five unemployed workers for every single job opening in the United States.

And when you have that deluge of resumes, you know, how do you know how to winnow it down, to know who to talk with? And again, one sort of signaling device that employers can use is say: OK, I'm not going to take anyone who has been out of work for longer than a month or six months.

And while it doesn't seem to fair to you, you know, I think that's kind of the mentality that's going on here.

PAUL: Would you consider that a person who is a senior citizen may possibly be discriminated against?

Ms. RAMPELL: I hear that complaint a lot from workers. Certainly, if you look at the data, and a person who has lost his job who is older is likely to spend a lot more time on the job market than a person who has lost his job who is younger.

PAUL: And what would you consider older?

Ms. RAMPELL: Sorry?

PAUL: What do you consider as older?

CONAN: Under the law, I think it's over 50 is the way the law puts it.

PAUL: What about those of us that are over 60 that have a successful track record, that are physically well and healthy? And I keep hearing that they are interested in hiring older people because they're experienced, and they're loyal. Where does that focus come from?

Ms. RAMPELL: Well, certainly when I talk with younger workers who are out of a job, they say, well, nobody wants me because there are all of these more experienced workers. When I talk with older, more experienced workers, they say nobody wants me because I'm older.

I think the real problem is there aren't enough jobs out there.

CONAN: Paul, good luck to you.

PAUL: Well, I appreciate you listening to me. And I am one of those older, experienced workers, but I don't hear - that's the big disappointment is nobody calls me back.

CONAN: Good luck, Paul, thanks very much.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about why it's so hard to find a job when you're out of work and have been out of work for a long time, and it gets harder and harder. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Millions of unemployed face a cruel dilemma in this economy: Many managers will not hire them because they don't have a job. With the unemployment rate still hovering over 9 percent, that's a huge number of people stuck in long-term unemployment.

We want to hear from those of you who have run into this long-term unemployment wall. And employers, would you consider hiring somebody who's been out of work longer than a year?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Catherine Rampell covers the economy for The New York Times as economics editor at NYTimes.com and recently wrote a story "Unemployed and Likely to Stay that Way." And Catherine Rampell, it must get incredibly frustrating, and I think we heard some of that in the voice of our last caller, as you realize that the longer you are out, the less likely you are able to get back in.

Ms. RAMPELL: Absolutely. You know, I hear a lot of complaints from employers that maybe workers just have expectations that are too high, they're expecting that the job that they lost will be comparable to the types of jobs that they're offered.

But I think that as the longer people stay unemployed, probably the more desperate they become and the more they're willing to take lesser-paying and, you know, jobs with fewer benefits. And the fact that they're getting rejected from even those types of positions is particularly discouraging.

CONAN: Let's get Robin(ph) on the line, Robin calling us from Sacramento.

ROBIN (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

ROBIN: I love your show. I'm very happy to be on here. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Thank you.

ROBIN: I've been a stay-at-home mom for the last two-and-a-half years, and I was just wondering what Catherine has seen in the pattern of mothers who are trying to get back into the work field after staying home and having that gap on their resume.

Ms. RAMPELL: Well, even in good economies, it's true that people who have taken time off of work, for all sorts of reasons but parenting included, have a much harder time getting back into the workforce.

There have been lots of studies looking at why there might be a pay gap, for example, between what the typical woman earns and what the typical man earns. And a lot of that has to do with time taken off from work.

In today's economy, when employers can afford to be particularly picky about who they hire, that can be especially damaging to have, you know, that lack of experience. Even if it's for a couple of years and you are extraordinarily experienced and well-paid before that, that can still be held against you.

CONAN: This email we got from Maya(ph) in Oakland, speaks to exactly the point you raised, Robin: The pitfalls facing the unemployment are familiar to me, as a woman going back to work after a period spent as a stay-at-home mother.

Being out of the loop with networking is already a hurdle. Then you have to overcome the perception that you've not been doing anything - she put that in quotation marks - for years.

ROBIN: Yeah, I wish that I could say raising a child on my resume, but that doesn't usually go over very well.

CONAN: Yeah, the skills are not often transferrable, though you would be amazed if you are in a lot of office situations exactly how transferrable they are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Patience is called for in both occupations. Robin, good luck.

ROBIN: OK, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Matt(ph), and Matt's calling us from Charlotte.

MATT (Caller): Hi there, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

MATT: Fantastic. Enjoying the conversation. I'm an employer and just going to throw two cents into the mix, and hopefully, it helps somebody.

I think it's really difficult in the current time, when I put out word to recruiters, people over the Internet, that I'm looking for somebody, the influx of applications is so overwhelming that when you start looking through them, you have 50 people with a steady job history and, you know, 20 people without.

By default, those things just start falling off the end. I mean, you have to choose, and you have to say, hey, there's a percentage chance that maybe they're just unemployable or due to a lack of aggression in the work field, maybe they're just not going to be as aggressive an employee for me.

CONAN: And what sector of the economy is your business?

MATT: I'm a restaurant operator.

CONAN: Restaurant operator. So you're looking for people who would be waiters or cooks or dishwashers?

MATT: We're speaking more in terms of management, you know, management-level positions.

CONAN: And there are loads and loads of those people who have managed restaurants in this country.

MATT: Yeah, and unfortunately - I think unfortunately for some, it's one of those industries that's easy to get into. It's also easy to get out of and cross-utilize your skills.

But again, when we see people that are maybe jumping in and out of the food service industry to go manage maybe another somewhat retail concept, it looks like perhaps they weren't as successful in this particular industry, and maybe there's a reason for that.

And again, you know, you're doing 50 phone interviews. You're doing 20 live interviews down to, you know, maybe the possible work experience. It just becomes really difficult. And so you just factor people out.

CONAN: And cross them off the list without really thinking about it.

MATT: Exactly.

CONAN: All right, Matt, thanks very much for the call, and good luck to you.

MATT: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye. And I think, Catherine Rampell, that's exactly what you're saying: People like Matt, they've got a lot of choices.

Ms. RAMPELL: Right. And, you know, there might be some truth to the fact that at least some of the workers who are in that long-term unemployed pool are lesser-skilled workers than the people who already have jobs.

You know, we're looking at people who have been unemployed for let's say two years. That means that they were amongst the first employees to be let go when the economy turned sour. You know, that's not random in many cases. Employers don't like to fire workers, and when they do, you know, they try to let go their least productive workers first.

So it's possible that employers are saying, well, maybe there's a reason you were let go first.

CONAN: Well, here's an email to that point from Dana(ph) in Denver: Two months before I was laid off due to budget cuts, I got an outstanding performance review and a 17 percent raise. One month before I was laid off, my boss told me my work was more valuable than his; therefore, my job was more secure. One week before I was laid off, I was told I would be starting an exciting new project. Top performers aren't unemployed? Please.

Ms. RAMPELL: Well, I didn't say that's true for everyone. I think that what happens is that when you're amongst a pool of workers that if are not universally less skilled are perceived to be less skilled or in some way less productive, that can kind of stigmatize you as a worker.

You know, it's kind of the lemons problem that you have with used cars. Everybody's suspicious about every used car that's on the lot because you know that there are so many lemons out there. And it's very hard to distinguish which used car might actually be the good catch, right?

And it's sort of the same thing. You know, you could be a top performer, but when you're lumped in with a pool of people who might be less attractive, whether it's because they were worse workers, maybe they just interview worse, for example, that can hurt you.

CONAN: Let's go next to Karen(ph), Karen with us from Grand Junction in Colorado.

KAREN (Caller): Good morning.

CONAN: Good afternoon where we are, but go ahead.

KAREN: OK. I was laid off at the end of 2009 as a part of the big layoff. And I was, after three months, I just took any job I could find. I'm in sales. And I'm still at that job at 40 percent of what I was making.

CONAN: And do you think that that was the right decision to make?

KAREN: Yes, because I've interviewed, you know, while I've had this job, and I've gone into some interviews where the headhunter says you are the best candidate. And the minute I go in and they see my age, it's as if a shutter has gone down.

CONAN: And your age is older than they might like?

KAREN: Yes, yes.

CONAN: And it's - so that's a discouragement, even though a lot of people say that older employees are more loyal, more experienced, more stable than younger people.

KAREN: Well, and it was obvious that the interviewer had instructions, if they are past a certain age. But they didn't know my age when I went into the interview because the resume doesn't really, you know, pass that on. So now I very rarely go out on any more interviews.

CONAN: So you're feeling like you're going to be stuck in this job that pays, well, almost half as much as you used to make.

KAREN: Exactly. I really, you know, think I'm just going to have to tough it out until retirement.

CONAN: Karen, good luck.

KAREN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And again, Catherine Rampell, you've said there are stories that you hear from the other side of that divide as well, that young people say no, they just want experienced workers. They're not hiring young people.

Ms. RAMPELL: Exactly. I think every worker who's unemployed is struggling with this issue of how come nobody wants me. You know, I'm such a great candidate. Everybody thinks they're a great candidate or that they have something to offer. And everybody has something to offer.

And I think there's this perception that people must not want me, at least in part because I don't have some almost arbitrary demographic characteristic that the employer wants.

Young people say that, oh, no, they want older people. Older people say, no, they want younger people. White workers say no, they want minorities. Minorities say no, there's discrimination against minorities. Women say they want men, and men say they want women, vice versa.

And I hear this a lot. I think part of it might be that just sort of economic stress can bring to the fore a lot of those sort of - that racial or ageist angst in many cases. And there may be some truth, at least for some of those demographic groups.

But I think part of the problem is just that there aren't enough jobs. And it's very hard to justify why nobody wants you, but it's not necessarily that there's a bias against your type of worker. It's just that there are no openings.

CONAN: In general, do you think our last caller was wise to three months after she was out of work to accept that job at 60 percent of what she used to make?

Ms. RAMPELL: You know, everybody has to make choices themselves, obviously. I think that there are a lot of people who would not have done what she did and would have found them and would have found themselves in a very bad situation. I talked with lots of workers who said that they were holding out at the very beginning of their unemployment period for a higher-paying job or at least a comparably-paying job. And they have found nothing. And as a result, again, the longer they're out of work, the tougher that struggle becomes to find new work. So even though it might be discouraging to take something that seems almost beneath you, you know, that may be the safest bet for a lot of people.

CONAN: Here's an email from Andrew(ph) in Salem, Oregon. As the owner of a small business, I don't see what having a gap in employment has to do with a person's skills and drive. Personally, I think somebody who has been out of work for some time would be happier to have the job and more motivated to work than someone who is currently employed.

So there's an argument for the other side. This is from Steve(ph) in Virginia, Minnesota. I look for volunteer time if someone is unemployed. It shows so much about a person. Do you think that could factor in?

Ms. RAMPELL: Absolutely. I think that there have been actually some state programs attempting to encourage the unemployed to volunteer and that's for multiple reasons. You know, one is that everybody likes the idea of community service, especially when there's so much hurt out there. But the other is that it sort of keeps people connected to the workforce. They're on a schedule. They're getting up and working with people. They're networking through their volunteering. You know, they're doing good for the community as well as keeping their skills somewhat fresh.

You know, there has been data looking at how unemployed people spend their time versus how employed spend their time. And generally, it looks as if people who are out of work and who are looking for work spend a lot more time watching TV and sleeping than people who are employed. And those aren't necessarily the most productive activities or at least the most the activities that are most conducive to, sort of, getting back into the rhythm of looking for a job.

So there are actually legitimate reasons to think that keeping someone in, sort of, an unpaid job as - at least as a placeholder could be beneficial to their future career prospects.

CONAN: Catherine Rampell is economic editor at NYTimes.com. And we're talking about the plight of the long-term unemployed. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Tom(ph), Tom with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

TOM (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

TOM: Hi. Yes. My name is Tom. I am a well, I'm a contract video game developer. I work I started doing contract work after I was laid off from a from another smaller gaming company back in 2006. My first contract work was with a company, Activision Blizzard in California. I worked in a game for six months with about 100 other developers. The company went on to make about $1 billion in sales from selling one video game. And they didn't hire, you know, they didn't hire me and pretty much most of the other contract developers. And since then I've been in contract hell pretty much.

I've been working for smaller video game companies and none of them hire me because when they look at my resume they say, yes, I see that you work for, you know, Activision Blizzard. It's a very, very (unintelligible) gaming company. And I see you did contract for them. And then they ask me why didn't they hire me and I feel you know, I don't want to tell them they didn't hire me because the company wanted to save money or they didn't hire me for whatever reason. I think I feel that that would be a bad thing to say in an interview. But you just the company just keep hiring me as contract worker and I think it's because that's all I've been doing. And I really don't know how to go from contract I don't know why companies are not hiring me or other contract workers permanently.

CONAN: That's a difficult transition to make as well. And Catherine Rampell, I think there's some indication that temp workers well, they're often less expensive contractors than full-time employees.

Ms. RAMPELL: Right. With so much uncertainty still about the state of the economy right now, a lot of employers are turning towards temporary workers as kind of a tie to tide them over. They have a just-in-time workforce, as a lot of employers have called it. The idea being that in case things fall off a cliff, in case sales drop off again, they don't have to worry about the continued expense of a staffed employee.

And I think this is something that's true not just in high-tech but really across the economy. The hope is that as the economy gains strength, as things start to pick up and gain a little bit of momentum, employers will start becoming ready to take that plunge and hire more -a more permanent work force.

CONAN: Tom, good luck. And here's an email from Nell(ph) in Clearwater, Florida. I have a small bakery there, writes Nell. The problem is that young people who the people who apply are all very young, under 30. And the ones I hired spent a lot of their time texting. Their attitude was snarky and rebellious. If they were sincere, there were inept. I would love to hire older workers, but I'm caught in the Catch-22 of having to be so careful as to not discriminate against age group. Plus, I can't pay very much. Of these six people I had working for me this past year, I would not hire any of them again. They were culinary school grads, but they were inept. So what's an employer to do?

Ms. RAMPELL: Well, it's certainly the case that employers can be very picky right now. And the slightest slip up, whether it's texting on the job or getting an order wrong, I don't know, can be held against a worker in a way that may not have been true when the economy was booming.

As for hiring you know, what so one other thing that was interesting that this woman mentioned is that she doesn't pay a whole lot.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAMPELL: Those are the types of jobs that, historically, are more appealing to younger workers, right? If you're an older worker, you're more likely to own your own house, to have a mortgage, to have kids, to have greater responsibilities and more expenses. And so that's another problem that I think a lot of older workers are running into, that to the extent that there are jobs available, they're not paying enough to allow them to continue their current lifestyle and even prepare for retirement.

CONAN: And finally, Catherine Rampell, Scott Jones told us things are picking up or at least nowhere near as bad as they were a year ago. In just a couple of seconds, is that what you're seeing as well?

Ms. RAMPELL: We've gotten a lot of mixed reports. Today, there was some good news on consumer spending front through retail sales and a few other reports. But it's still anybody's guess what's going to happen in the next few months.

CONAN: Catherine Rampell, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. RAMPELL: Thank you.

CONAN: Catherine Rampell from our bureau in New York, economics editors at NYTimes.com.

Coming up, another thingamajig about you know what. What euphemism do you use and why? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. It's euphemania, next on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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