“I was in a dark place … feeling that everything was placed on my shoulders with no light at the end of the tunnel.”
That’s how Karen Watson felt during the recession, which began 10 years ago this month. The darkness hung on, stubbornly, years after economists announced the recession’s end, even as millions of people — 15.4 million at the worst of it — lost their jobs.
“I was angry at being unemployed for so long,” said Watson, an executive assistant. It took her four years, lots of rejection, and, in the end, a bit of moxie to find a similar job at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which she loves. “To say that it feels good to be working again is an understatement.”
These days, the economy is booming, the job market is tight and the unemployment rate stands at 4.1 percent. In 13 of the past 24 months, the nation’s payrolls expanded by more than 200,000 jobs a month, including 228,000 in November.
“It’s steadily heading in the right direction,” said Adam Ozimek, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics, an economic research company. “There’s growth everywhere.”
What a contrast to the dark days of the recession, when companies shed jobs at a horrifying rate. For a 23-month stretch in 2008 and 2009, there was not one month of positive job growth. In March 2009, payrolls shrank by 823,000 jobs.
After two huge brokerage houses collapsed — Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers — the misery worsened until at one point, the official unemployment rate hit 10 percent. Worse, 17.1 percent of working-age Americans couldn’t find work, were too discouraged to look, or managed to work only part time when they wanted full-time jobs.
Back then, the wreckage included human resource counselor Jeanne Page-Soncrant, of Haddon Heights, N.J., and her then-husband, Bob, in security. Both lost their jobs.
In Jacobstown, N.J., financial analyst Mike Bruni hung on for a while but ultimately was laid off.
When her factory closed in Downingtown, Pa., manager Karen Jones, who was in charge of closing it, turned the keys over to the new owner. It took her two years to find another job –– for less pay.
Media buyer Nate Greiner, of Exton, Pa., couldn’t find work, and no wonder. He bought radio and television time and print space for advertisers, but who needed to advertise when no one was buying?
Coming out of prison, it would have been hard enough for Rob Hill, of Philadelphia, to get a job, but why hire an ex-offender for even a minimum-wage job when the desperate workers with clean records were lined up around the block for a chance to greet shoppers at Wal-Mart?
The Inquirer profiled them and others — 100 in all, 60 in the “Looking for Work” series published daily in the paper in early 2011, and an additional 40 that ran online after that. The goal was to show the lingering devastation of the recession, how it affected all kinds of people, not just the poor in rundown row houses, but also the wealthy in suburbia.
Black, white, Hispanic, young, old, women, and men — truck drivers, retail managers, quality-control experts in pharmaceuticals, fledgling teachers, stone-setters, camp directors, construction workers, paralegals, and plant managers: They struggled to keep their homes and pay their children’s tuition, and prayed for a little extra for holiday gifts. Their houses were cold — the temperatures that winter were brutal; hope was elusive.
Some landed jobs after the stories appeared, some got encouraging emails, and others were harassed by people trying to make money on the vulnerable.
“I’m happy to hear from you,” wrote landscape designer Samuel Jimenez, now of New York, one of about a dozen “alums” who responded to a request for an update. “Those times were so trying. I look back at those times with a lot of animosity and confusion.”
Most of those who responded landed jobs. For the most part, they haven’t completely recovered financially, although they are catching up, and are at least stable. Many are earning less than they did before at jobs with less status. Mostly they are a brave bunch, talking about the value of positive thinking and the importance of gratitude in the face of daunting odds.
Economist Ozimek said it’s not surprising that certain groups are still feeling the recession’s pain despite the growing economy, describing much of the past decade as “a traumatic experience” that left both companies and people risk-averse. Household debt is low, because consumers are hanging onto their money, and companies, he said, are doing the same, sitting on cash and reluctant to invest.
“As the labor market tightens, employers will become less picky and it will be easier for those people to find employment,” he said.
In New Jersey, public policy professor Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, has been studying the long-term unemployed since the start of the recession.
“There are a lot fewer jobs with benefits. These trends have been underway in the U.S. economy,” but the use of temporary workers accelerated in the recession, Van Horn said. “Employers learned they can survive this way. You don’t have to lay (temp) workers off and pay them severance. It lessens the psychic pain” for the employer.