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The Long, Winding Road Back From Unemployment


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. A little more than a year ago, NPR started to follow six people in St. Louis who started 2011 out of work. Among them, Casaundra Bronner, who joins us now on the phone. Casaundra Bronner, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

CASAUNDRA BRONNER: Hi. Thank you very much.

CONAN: And you're speaking with us from work?


CONAN: Congratulations. How long have you had a job?

BRONNER: I believe it was March of 2011. March of last year.

CONAN: So how long were you out of work altogether?

BRONNER: I was right at a year.

CONAN: Right at a year. And I understand it's not entirely hats in the air. You were not able to get a job in the same field that you'd been working at before.

BRONNER: Not entirely. I'm still in marketing, per se, but I was in consumer products, and now I'm with an event planner.

CONAN: An event planner - and obviously, marketing is one of those terms that covers a multitude of sins.

BRONNER: That is correct.

CONAN: But are making the same kind of money you were making before?

BRONNER: It's about half of what I was making before.

CONAN: Ow. So - and are these good benefits?

BRONNER: There are no - currently no benefits.

CONAN: So are you looking to move on?

BRONNER: I am. I'm not as aggressive as I was when I was unemployed completely, but I am still looking because I don't think this is something I'll be doing forever, and I do need benefits. My children are covered, but I am not.

CONAN: I see. Is there something that you're doing - I understand you're going to school?

BRONNER: I have completed school. I finished in May.

CONAN: Oh, so you got that other, next degree and moving on from that.

BRONNER: Correct.

CONAN: And as you continue to look for work, how is the market now?

BRONNER: I keep hearing reports that it's better. I don't know what they're basing it off of or if it's certain levels of employment or if it's certain areas. But I don't see much difference than before.

CONAN: And what did you learn in a year out of work?

BRONNER: Oh, I learned a lot. I learned, I guess, pretty much how to - I had to learn how to live off less money. I learned that there is kind of still kind of a stigma when people are unemployment. You know, some people think that, oh, you're just lazy. That's why you can't find a job. Or people are really opinionated about something, and it's usually people that aren't involved or haven't had this happen to them.

CONAN: How do you deal with that, when you know you're doing your best to find a job?

BRONNER: Just brush it off. There's nothing I can do about people's opinions. I could get on a soapbox and rah-rah and tell people it's not like this, and it's - you know, it's not really worth it. People are entitled to their opinions. I may have had those same opinions myself in the past. But their opinions don't change my reality. So I just kind of brush it off and move on.

CONAN: And from what you've said, after a year out of work, well, of course, you're grateful to get anything, but it's not exactly what you were looking for.

BRONNER: That's correct.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much, and we wish you the best of luck.

BRONNER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in our audience who have been or were unemployed for a long while. Where are you on the road back to work? Our telephone number: 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, we continue our Oscar docs series with Wim Wenders on his film "Pina." But first, NPR reporter Tamara Keith joins us here in Studio 3A. She provided all of our subjects with digital audio recorders and followed their stories. And it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Glad to be back.

CONAN: And is Casaundra Bronner alone in finding a new job?

KEITH: In fact, everyone is at least partially employed now, which is kind of amazing. As this project was going along, I was beginning to worry that it was just going to be oppressively depressing. And ultimately, everyone did find work. One of the surprises is that a couple of people who did find work then lost their jobs, and then now they're back working again.

BRONNER: There's just one person who is, I'd say, barely employed. And he's working the occasional weekend shift at a warehouse driving a forklift, which is a big change from what he had been doing before. He had been in auto manufacturing before, and had been a manager.

CONAN: And from listening to your stories, big change, that seems to be a theme.

KEITH: Absolutely, absolutely. No one is whole. No one has returned to where they were before this experience. They're making less money. They don't have benefits. There's - many of them - and I mean, I know there are only six - but several of them are in sort of temporary or contract positions, sort of have this feeling of unease, like, you know, they're not in a career. They're just in a job that could go away.

It's just been really tough on them, and I think that they are pretty representative of the larger population, that although we are on the road back to work and a lot of people are re-employed, in many cases, it's just not the same.

CONAN: Just not the same. So being employed for a job that you could support a family and buy a house, to a job where you're just hanging on.

KEITH: And asking the bank to help you reduce your payments and not going to the movies and never eating out and not going on vacation in four years.

CONAN: We should mention - or emphasize, rather - the technique you used, which has been used in other contexts, but giving people tape recorders - well, you know, they're not tape recorders anymore.

KEITH: There's actually no tape anymore.


CONAN: I know. But asking them to document their own lives, and it sometimes can reveal a moment of intimacy. And I wanted to just play a piece of tape from one of the people you profiled, Annica Trotter, who has a history of cardiovascular problems in her family. She, too, got chest pains, but because of her financial situation, her work situation, she held out from getting it checked as long as she possibly could.

ANNICA TROTTER: As soon as I think that I'm getting my ducks in a row, something like this happens. And I know that I put this off for a really long time. I feel like I can't ignore it right now. So I know I just have to go.

CONAN: That's heartbreaking.

KEITH: It is. And there - so this tape came in - and not tape, but these recordings came in...

CONAN: Digital audio file.

KEITH: These digital audio files would come in, and I'd start listening to them, and then something like this would come into my headphones. And I'm, you know, I'm, like, sitting in my cubicle, trying not to cry, listening to some of this tape. It was just - I felt incredibly lucky that these people were willing to share their lives in this way with me and ultimately with all of our listeners, too.

It was just sort of an incredible view into parts of people's lives that you don't get when you show up with a big microphone and the headphones, and you're, like, I'm here. You just don't get that same sort of feel and that same sort of intimacy.

I mean, we were in the car with a married couple as they're driving around town, basically, fighting. You know, we're just in places where reporters typically can't go.

CONAN: Can't get on the phones often, either. So we're asking our listeners to call and tell us where they are on the road back to work. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. We'll go to Chuck, Chuck with us from San Antonio.

CHUCK: How are you doing, Neal? I just wanted to make a comment. I had been unemployed for less than a year, and I was in mortgage banking. And as you all know, the bottom fell out of the mortgage banking industry. At that time, I went ahead and got a degree to teach.

I couldn't get a teaching position in the school district. So I took part-time work as an after-school enrichment teacher. And in another school district, I actually work in the cafeteria. Now, I've not been promised employment full-time at either district, but they are looking that I was willing to come in and do that.

And then I took an officials position in the evening, also, officiating basketball, football. There is jobs out there for people who want them. Unfortunately, there's a lot of people that think that it's beneath them to take - you know, can you imagine a gentleman like myself, 45 years old, working in a cafeteria - degree? But you know what? You have to swallow your pride, and if you don't do that, then basically you've got a long road to recovery.

CONAN: And swallow your pride, I mean, that's not what you expected when you graduated.

CHUCK: No, not at all. Not at all. And I don't know of too many people that have done it. I can tell you that I'm being looked at by that school district. They're saying if this gentleman's willing to work in a cafeteria in meager conditions, then we should consider him. And I think it's just a matter of time. In fact, I've heard saying that by next year, I will have a full-time teaching position in one of the districts because they're looking at my achievements.

And the way I look at it, if a person stays idle too long, I get the feeling that an employer will actually, you know, say, hey, why were you idle so long? There are jobs out there. It's not what you were trained for, but at least you took something to not - to be idle. Wouldn't you agree?

CONAN: I think so, Chuck. Congratulations, and hang in there.

CHUCK: OK, thank you. Yeah, appreciate it. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Lyle in Fremont, California: I've been unemployed or underemployed since I was laid off at the start of the economic collapse in December of '08. To say it's been hard times is an understatement. I know my age - I'm 60 now - has been a major factor in my not getting hired. The law against age discrimination in hiring is not being enforced.

And Tamara, as you go through the demographics, the highest percentage of those out of work are the youngest in the workforce, but older people having a lot of problems, too.

KEITH: Having a very tough time. I will say that among the people in this series who participated, the men who were in their 50s struggled a lot harder. They're having a much tougher time getting back to where they were before. I mean, Randy, who we heard from earlier, was making six figures. He's now thrilled, thrilled to have a $15-an-hour job.

He had been making $10 an hour in a job he took just because he didn't want to be idle. And Ray Meyer, who is another one of the people in this series, he's in his mid-50s. He worked in banking, lost his job in 2008. And he really felt that there had been age discrimination when he came in to interview for jobs, and they're like: Why do you want to be a teller?

CONAN: We're talking with NPR's Tamara Keith about her series "The Road Back to Work." If you are or were unemployed for a long time, where are you on that road back to work? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Over more than a year, six un- and underemployed people from St. Louis submitted audio diaries about their ups and downs to NPR's Tamara Keith, among them, Brian Barfield and his wife Jennifer. This January, after a year or so of recordings, she said that she'd expected both of them would have had full-time jobs by this time around.

JENNIFER BARFIELD: We've found some things, just not exactly as solid as I had really expected.

BRIAN BARFIELD: Recording's not making me more depressed. It's just reminding me that I am. I mean, it's kind of hard not to be depressed after this long. Gosh, you just face it every day.

CONAN: Jennifer now works in IT support, in a job she was - says she was hoping for. She landed the job when things could have gotten much worse, right after her unemployment insurance ran out. If you've been unemployed and in the hunt, where are you on the road back to work? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Government support, unemployment insurance, that sort of thing, absolutely vital to many of these people.

KEITH: Absolutely. All of these people, at some point along the way, were on unemployment insurance. In the case of Ray Meyer, it ran out. In the case of Jennifer, it just about ran out. Her husband Brian is in this sort of position where he's only working occasional weekends, and so other times he is getting unemployment. But his is also about to run out.

And the threat of unemployment insurance running out, you know, it's tough to say whether that lit a fire under them more or less. I think that the fire was pretty hot all along. They were hustling. They were - you know, Randy would send me these spreadsheets where he listed every contact he made with a possible employer and every application he sent in and every letter. And it was just, like, reams and reams of spreadsheets.

They were working so hard to get work, but they would have been basically on the street without unemployment insurance at points along the way.

CONAN: Let's go next to Sam, and Sam's on the line with us from Jacksonville.

SAM: Yeah, hi. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

SAM: I'm calling - I recently - well, actually, about a year ago in a month - separated from the Army. And when I was getting out, you know, we kind of had the impression that, you know, once we were on the civilian side, they would kind of throw jobs at us, pretty much. You know, they're oh, you're the most employable people in America.

I moved down here, back down here to Jacksonville and wasn't able to find a job in the first, you know, couple months outside of maybe part-time at McDonald's or something, which there's nothing wrong with that, but it was a real step down from my standard of living.

But after a few months of that, I was able to get a few interviews, but it seemed like the employers were a little - they had a little bit of a misconception towards military members who had been out of work, thinking that - all the news about PTSD and soldiers, things like that, it seemed like they almost thought that if you hadn't had a job when you got out, it was probably because you were unemployable due to your service, you know, you had some sort of...

CONAN: They thought you were going to Rambo on them.

SAM: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And it - from other people that I've talked to that have separated since, they kind of get the same impression from employers all over, not just in Jacksonville. But, you know, I've got friends in Cincinnati and places like that that are going through kind of the same thing. And it makes it really hard.

I mean, I was - I had to take that step and go in for the unemployment payments not too long ago, and it was kind of a punch in the stomach, so to speak.

CONAN: I bet. Are you getting any prospects now?

SAM: I have a few. Actually, I recently applied to business school here in Jacksonville, and they have a very good, you know, employment or career opportunity section that's been helping me a little bit. So...

CONAN: And what do you hear about - from your buddies who are still in the service?

SAM: The ones that are still in the service, they're actually a little hesitant to leave. One of them was actually looking at separating and decided instead to re-enlist solely because he didn't think the job prospects were looking that great.

CONAN: All right, Sam, good luck to you.

SAM: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. I don't think any of your people in your series were veterans.

KEITH: No, none of them were veterans. But I do know that there are a lot of efforts out there to try to help veterans with the job market, but there's a lot of disappointment out there, too.

CONAN: I was unemployed for over a year and a half, writes Jason in St. Paul, though during that time, I did contract work. I would say that aside from the money, the biggest issue was the social stigma. Time and time again, I would hear people on the radio or TV saying things that made me say to myself: If you were unemployed, you would never say that.

Even now that I've been employed for over a year, the money problems from being unemployed so long still affect me today. Stigma, we've talked some about that, but the hangover, financial problems, it takes forever to catch up.

KEITH: Absolutely. I mean, every single person who participated in this series - well, I guess for - aside from Ray, everyone who participated in this series is still trying to catch up on their bills. And many of them have been employed for six or eight months now, and they're just still behind, because it's just - the hole gets so deep.

And they all dug into their 401(k)s if they had them, burned through whatever they had. They reduced their lifestyles, but still, it's - going from making decent money to making virtually no money is - you get behind.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jennifer, Jennifer with us from Cincinnati.



JENNIFER: I was unemployed for two years. I have - unemployed from hospital work. I went back to get my bachelor's and tried to get hired on at a hospital. And they told me because of my experience and my degree that they could not pay me what I deserved in the position that I was applying for.

And I was in a situation where my unemployment had run out, and, you know, I had to get something. So I went back and eliminated my degree and some of my work history and turned in the application again, and within a week, I was hired.

So it's a situation where, you know, like, I actually got reprimanded after being on for a year and applying to another position that my degree fit, was reprimanded for not disclosing that information when I was hired.

CONAN: I think we've all heard of resume inflation. That's the first time I've heard of resume deflation.

JENNIFER: Yeah. And when I explained to my boss why I had done it, you know, he was like, well, I understand that, and we're just going to put you on probation for a week because we have to give you some kind of reprimand. But, you know, it's a situation where, you know, what do you do? I've got student loans. I've got kids I've got to feed. And I know if I don't have the experience, then I'll get hired. So I lied.

CONAN: Well, and I assume there's some part of that application where you say I hereby swear and avow that this is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but...

JENNIFER: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: ...I think everybody can understand.

JENNIFER: So it's gotten me into a little trouble, but I have a job. So I'm really - you know, I'll take the week's probation. At least I have the job, you know.

CONAN: And what's the possibility for the other job that your degree does qualify you for?

JENNIFER: Well, there's one other person that's up for it, but they have less experience and less - they don't have the same degree, level of degree that I have. So I'll probably end up getting it.

CONAN: Well, good luck with that.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Madonna in St. Louis: Thanks to our savings and unemployment, we were able to make it through nine months of employment. Now thanks to the federal stimulus program, my husband's back at work on a large construction project for a new police station in the town next to us.

It took 527 resumes, nearly 40 interviews for him to get a new job, though that job pays 20 percent less. Even though you'll never catch us complaining, we had a much happier Christmas giving gifts in 2011. We're currently taking bids on a new roof. So we're going to be putting someone else back to work, too. So that's a nice story.

Let's go next to - this is Amy, Amy with us from Pinedale in Wyoming.

AMY: Yes, hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

AMY: I was unemployed for - gosh, it was well over a year and a half, maybe even closer to two years. And during that time, not only was I, of course, frantically applying to any and every job that I saw available, but I was also volunteering with a local nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

And they ended up accepting me in a full-time AmeriCorp, full-time volunteer position, and I'm now starting my third year as an AmeriCorp member at this nonprofit. And it's just been wonderful.

CONAN: Those are not easy positions to get.

AMY: No, no, they're not. And, you know, it's - I'm living on a federal living volunteer stipend. So it's certainly not what I hope to be making when I - fully employed as a staff-person, but not only is it better than nothing, but it's, you know, the most fulfilling and the most wonderful work I've ever had the privilege of doing in my life.

And through this work, I've made some really incredible contacts in our community. So the maximum length of the contract as an AmeriCorps is four years, and once that's up, I'm hoping that my job search will be a different experience than it was before, if the nonprofit can't find funding to keep me there full-time.

CONAN: Pinedale, Wyoming, booming because of the natural gas boom in that part of the country. So there could be other prospects.

AMY: Yeah, that's what I'm hoping for.

CONAN: And just let us know: How much snow on the flat?

AMY: Gosh, we just - we were just hit with, I don't know, probably close to a foot in some parts of the town. And out of the town, they got several feet. But it's kind of getting close to 40, so it's starting to melt a little.

CONAN: All right. Well, hang tough. Spring will eventually arrive.

AMY: Thank you so much. Have a good one.

CONAN: Here's an email from John: I'm 61. I moved to California, living with my son and his family. I have temporary work doing computer work, but still no hope for full time, even in Silicon Valley. I got an associate's degree in 2008, but it's not helped. I moved from East St. Louis, Illinois. My wife does not understand why I cannot get a job and thinks I'm not doing enough to get a job. I don't know what to do. I know I can never go back home, and I will not be a burden to my son and his family for much longer. Boy, those are very sad stories. A lot of people, though, like this emailer, did go back to school and tried to get more qualifications. Though, as we heard from one caller, sometimes, that doesn't work out so great either. You said you've heard other stories of resume deflation.

KEITH: Absolutely. I have - in fact, including some of the folks participating in this series, I think a lot of people are doing resume deflation, taking years off of their resumes, simply to try to make it through the initial screening, to hope that they can get in for an interview and then win them over with their personalities. I've heard of people coloring their hair - not just women, men, too - coloring their hair to get rid of the grays.

CONAN: And not Blue, we're talking here.

AMY: No, we are talking about getting rid of those grays so that they'll look younger when they go in for that interview, in hopes of landing a job and proving themselves, because guess what, lots and lots of people are incredibly talented even if they have giant gaps in their resumes.

CONAN: Let's go next to Joseph, Joseph with us from Long Island.

JOSEPH: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

JOSEPH: I got to tell you, just listening to that story, you know, talking about resume deflation, maybe in a slightly different way. I found - I'm 43 years old. I have 20 years of business management experience in pharmacy, which I can no longer get into because of some new New York State laws, which I now need a degree for the job that I used to have without a degree. And I found that I've applied for well over 100 jobs, and I've had responses such as, we hired this person over you because they have cash register experience, or other things that I would definitely be able to do. But you're overqualified and we know - and a few honest potential employers have told me this - you'll stay here for two or three months until you find your niche and then you'll be gone, so we're not really interested. I found myself between looking for the same professional work I used to have, which I can't get, and pretty much downgrading my resume to saying I can use a cash register.

CONAN: That's discouraging, Joseph. How far are you on unemployment at this point? Two years. It should be gone.

JOSEPH: Well - oh, no. I'm not on unemployment anymore. It's well gone. It's been since 2008 that I've been employed and unemployed on and off. But certainly, never making the money again that I used to make before I lost the job back in 2008.

CONAN: So what are you going to do?

JOSEPH: I wish I knew. I'm sort of at an impasse. I'm not really sure. That's what I'm doing now. My strategy is just change my resume, and I'm not as experienced as I used to be.

CONAN: Well, Joseph, we...

JOSEPH: I'm 43 years old. And I'm not as pretty as I used to be. I lost a tooth. I haven't been working. I put on some weight.

CONAN: Well, go take a walk and buck up. Something will come through.

JOSEPH: Well, I'm still happy.

CONAN: Oh, good. Good.

JOSEPH: OK. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking with Tamara Keith about her series, "The Road Back to Work," where she followed six people over the course of the year. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And toward the end of that time, you got back in touch with all six - they must be friends by now.

KEITH: Yeah, it's not getting back in touch. It's - we're in touch almost - on a very regular basis. I think I'm going to start going through withdrawals now that the series is over. I do feel like I gained - my friends, who I normally would call are probably wondering where I've been for the last year because I, you know, when I wasn't at work, I would - in off hours, check in with the folks in St. Louis to see how they were doing and, you know, to encourage them to keep recording.

CONAN: Of course, yes. I suspect you've been nice to your editor too. But I know you asked each of them to reflect on their year, recently, and here are brief excerpts of some of what they had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This whole year of recording that we have been doing, just bring us back the painful memory that I'm not getting that regular paycheck, a decent paycheck. And recording and just talking about all the things I'm going through and the trials and tribulations and stuff, has just been - it's hard. It's not fun.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm making $14 an hour at my full-time job, and I'm making $9.50 an hour at my part-time job. My part-time job averages about 18 to 25 hours a week. I'm tired. But it's totally necessary. Like yesterday, I got paid.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, I've learned not to have any expectations. I'm unemployed and look to be for a long time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I'm glad that I finally found something and then now I'm in a position where I can do like I've always done and try to get better and seek more - get more, more and grow. It wasn't about growth this time last year.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And this year has been a rollercoaster. And - but right now, the high part of the rollercoaster, so hopefully it won't go back all the way down again. But I'm on a very, very emotional high right now.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It's been a real bumpy road, a lot more bumpy than I thought.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I've hoped all along that I would be back at a bank. If it's, you know, it's doing what I know how to do, you know? It's like second nature to me, like breathing, you know, so I know what I'm doing when I go to a bank. The jobs that I've had on – that Manpower sent me to has been anything but second nature and had been quite interesting to say the least.

CONAN: Six people that Tamara Keith and all of us followed over the past year as they filed their audio diaries, and all of them, in one way or another, back at work after that time. Interesting, we saw figures again out today, showing that the number filing for unemployment for the first time was very low for the second week in a row. So those numbers are getting better. But as we're learning, Tamara Keith, they may not be people getting the kind of jobs they were hoping for.

KEITH: No. It's just a different reality. I mean, it's cliche now, but - the new normal. For the folks that we were following in St. Louis, it's a new way of living. It's leaner.

CONAN: Tamara Keith, a reporter for NPR. There's a link to her series "The Long Road Back to Work" at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks very much for being with us today.

KEITH: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, we'll talk with Wim Wenders, director of the final film in our Oscar docs series for this year: "Pina." We'll be right back. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.