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Bumps On The Road Back To Work

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Part of an ongoing series.

Like some 14 million Americans, the people in our series The Road Back to Work started the year unemployed and searching for a job.

Back in January, we gave six people, all living in St. Louis, Mo., digital recorders and asked them to document their experience as they went through the process of looking for a job.

Working, Still Struggling

Nine months later, all of them are employed, but for many, their struggles continue.

Randy Howland, 51, has an entry-level customer service position. "It's certainly nowhere near where I want to be and need to be, but I am fully employed so there's a good thing there," he says.

Brian Barfield, 54, and his wife Jennifer, 47, are both in temporary positions, hoping they become permanent before the end of the year.

"I work the same hours, do the same job as everyone else for half the money, and if I prove myself I get hired as a permanent employee," Brian Barfield says.

He's driving a forklift at a warehouse for a major St. Louis company. His wife is doing IT work, also for a large employer.

"Things are very iffy because contract jobs' nature is, you know, get rid of them easily," says Jennifer Barfield.

Annica Trotter, 25, is working as a receptionist at an aerospace company.

"This is a permanent position," Trotter says. "This is for real."

Of the six taking part in the series, Trotter is the only one making more than she did in her previous job.

"I'm still doing contract work," says Ray Meyer, 55. He started working for a temp agency in March. "They have me going to a job right now and the job I'm told is going to last now until the end of October, but I think we're going to be done much sooner."

And finally Casaundra Bronner, 40, got a permanent position in July. She does marketing and a whole lot more for an event planning company.

"It's about half of what I was making before," Bronner says. "But it's more than I had been making when I was unemployed. So we're fine."

To review: that's three people in temporary positions. The other three are in permanent jobs, but only two of them are happy.

Finding Her Passion While Searching For Work

Bronner is a single mother with two daughters. She worked at Anheuser-Busch and went from an entry-level position to become a marketing manager with the company. She was laid off in March 2010 as the company downsized after a merger. And the first thing she wanted to do was be with her girls.

"When it was time for them to get out of school I was there and they were like, 'What's going on why are you here?'" Bronner says, recalling the morning she lost her job. "I just told them that mommy has to find another job. I'm going to get a new job or something. I don't work at that job anymore."

For a long time Bronner tried to get her old life back. She applied almost exclusively to large companies because she saw herself as a large-company person. She was looking for a job just like the one she lost. But slowly that changed.

It started when her mom suggested Bronner start a business selling cupcakes. Bronner has always loved to bake, but thought trying to launch a business would be more than she could handle. But she kept thinking about it.

"I started getting excited about it," Bronner says. "And I haven't been excited about anything in a really long time — in a really, really long time."

Bronner started to see herself differently. She interviewed for a job at a company called Events Above the Rest. It's a tiny company that plans parties and weddings — the kind of place that hadn't even been on Bronner's radar for most of her year-long search.

"I just received a called from Ms. Ellis at Events Above the Rest and she informed me that I have the job," Bronner says into her digital recorder.

Bronner is taking a real pay cut, and she doesn't get health insurance. But there are upsides. She goes to work at a place where she feels like she's an important part of the team.

Her boss is sending baking business her way with some of the events. And she's out of the eight-to-five rat race, which means she can walk her girls to the bus in the morning.

"You make more money in the corporate setting and there's more I guess perks on paper as you'd say," Bronner says. "My quality of life is much better."

Working, But It's Not Enough

For Randy Howland, the road back to work didn't lead to a better place.

"It's March 31st. This is Randy," Howland sounds defeated as he records an update. "Our mortgage was due today. And my wife's mother came up with a couple hundred bucks to help us meet that. I've got a job, but it's not enough at this point."

There was a time when Howland and his wife Lisa Howland would buy things for her mom. That was back when Randy earned six figures. They had season tickets to St. Louis Rams football games and went to 30 Cardinals games a year. That was back when they didn't have to borrow money from Lisa's mom.

"Asking her for money kills me," says Lisa Howland. "It kills Randy too. But thank God we have someone who can help us."

The Howlands had hoped that Randy's new job, combined with Lisa's work from home as a hairdresser would be enough to cover their bills.

On Memorial Day, Howland records another update.

"We had to borrow another $300 from my mother-in-law," Howland says. "My wife's hair salon business is not doing very well. She could really use some new clients, I mean really use some new clients."

Lisa decides to get a second job. The store where she buys her beauty supplies is hiring.

"I am happy for her, but at the same time, I should be the one that's got the good job," says Randy Howland on the morning Lisa is set to start her new job.

Howland makes her breakfast. Lisa is uneasy.

"I'm very nervous today," Lisa tells Randy. "Last time I worked for somebody else was when I met you, which was 24 years ago. Get today under my belt and I'm sure tomorrow will be better."

Two weeks later, Randy Howland is still stewing. He feels guilty that Lisa has to work.

"I work from 3:00 to 12:00 and my wife works during the day so we don't see each other," Howland says. "She is helping make ends meet and at least this month we don't have to borrow from any relatives or friends to do that."

Howland continues to search for something better, a job that will pay more than $10 an hour. He wants a job that allows him to be the bread winner again.

Still Gun-Shy

Ray Meyer is still searching for something better too. He was laid off from his job as a regional bank manager almost three years ago now. He finally gave in and started working with a temp agency. On the road back to work, a new job isn't the final destination. It's just a stopping point along the way.

"Good morning, this is Ray. I'm on break from the temporary job that I have," Meyer says in a recording made in the parking lot outside of his current workplace. "It's good to be out and about and it's certainly good to be in the morning traffic with everybody else."

Meyer is sitting in his purple Dodge Caravan. There's a rust spot on the door, and it needs repairs more often than it used to. When Meyer bought it 14 years ago he never imagined he'd still have it today. But he also never imagined he'd be working for a temp agency making $15 an hour.

"I just am finding that these temporary jobs that I'm working on tend to treat their temporary employees differently, and I guess because we're disposable," he says.

Meyer is still searching for a job in banking. He knows he won't make what he did before, and likely wouldn't even be in management. But it would still be so much better than this temp work.

"My job just dismissed out last Thursday night. But the job didn't tell me until I got home," Meyer says. "The people I'm working through called me and let me know that I didn't need to go back."

Meyer is disappointed, but there's something more. The uncertainty of temp work is gnawing away at him. It's like every few months he relives his layoff.

"I guess I am a little gun-shy," Meyer says. "I'm afraid everything is going to end up with me losing my job."

He says he takes his things home every night because he never knows if his key will work the next day. He'd never say it this way, but you can tell Meyer is still traumatized by the loss of his banking job back in 2008. He was working on a teller machine, when his boss called him into the office. Meyer had no idea what was coming.

"I don't know that I'll ever feel safe again," Meyer says. "Before, I felt like I was doing a good job and they pulled the rug right out from under me, and I just didn't see it coming."

Meyer's current temp gig is supposed to last through October, but he isn't counting on it going past September.

The temp agency has been good about getting him into new work quickly, but it isn't like having a permanent job. There are no sick days, no security, no health insurance or retirement savings.

Months after returning to work, all six of the people on the road back to work are still digging out of financial and emotional holes. Some are still behind on their mortgages, most need to catch up on other bill, savings is depleted and their wish lists are long.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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