WILLIAMSTOWN >> When I read that Oprah Winfrey lost $24 million in the stock market, I did not shed a tear. After all, Oprah's net worth is $3.1 billion.
My sympathy goes to the unemployed, including two members of my extended family.
This year began with encouraging news on the economic front. The federal unemployment rate dropped to 4.9 percent in January, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is the first time the unemployment rate has been lower than 5 percent since 2009, when it had ballooned to 10 percent.
Republicans and Democrats are arguing over whether the unemployment rate gives a true picture of the economy. A candidate for the nomination for president of the United States went so far as to say that the figures are "phony."
For the jobless, the unemployment rate may seem irrelevant. Whether the figures are high or low , THEY need to find work, earn a living and, in some cases, provide for their families.
Price Chopper no more
Here in this neck of the woods, Price Chopper in North Adams shuttered its doors on Feb. 27, leaving a total of 57 part- and full-time employees without jobs.
I regularly shop at Stop & Shop as it is the supermarket nearest to my home in Williamstown, but no one food store can satisfy all my needs and wants — I am very picky about what I eat. Thus, I liked having Price Chopper as an alternative.
Besides, I believe consumers benefit from competition between grocery stores.
On Feb. 24 making what would be my final visit to Price Chopper, I was aware that if the employees failed to adhere to an agreement with Price Chopper to not speak to reporters, they would forfeit a severance package.
So, I only wished the workers I happened to see "Good luck." One frowned as he said, "I'll need it. I haven't found a job yet."
Another clerk had already lined up a new job. "I don't know if it will work out," he said. " It pays less, and I have a family to support."
Quandary for shoppers
Customers held no qualms about telling me how they felt about the store ceasing to operate.
"I'll miss Price Chopper," said Cecilia of Clarksburg, who has been a customer since the store opened in 1959. "I grew up in North Adams, and when I was first married, we lived on Brooklyn Street. I raised my children on Price Chopper food," the 77-year old said. "I always check the supermarket circulars. Price Chopper had good prices."
The loyal Price Chopper customer has not decided where she will shop after the doors close. "The nearest supermarket is too big, and (a certain store's) prices are high." she said.
Pam of Braytonville patronized Central Market before its name was changed to Price Chopper. "I have been coming to this store for 58 years. A lot of the workers have been here a long time," Pam said. "It's a shame that they're losing their jobs. But there's nothing we can do about it."
Some customers were concerned about how the closure will affect people living in nearby subsidized and affordable housing. "Most of them don't have cars and walk to Price Chopper. What will they do now?" was a typical comment.
At the Berkshire Mall, Macy's will close permanently on March 27. The company is providing employees with professional assistance in finding new jobs.
It seems reasonable to assume that the number of jobs lost due to the closure of Macy's and Price Chopper may only have an infinitesimal influence on the federal unemployment rate.
But whatever happens the jobless are not statistics; they are human beings with hopes and dreams as well as material needs. And unlike Oprah Winfrey, they do not have oodles of money to draw on whenever they wish.
Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown.