Five years after recession, American workers are scared, cautious, and worse off

Anthony Reynolds lost his job in 2009. The replacement job he found at Philadelphia International Airport pays half as much and does not include benefits.
Anthony Reynolds lost his job in 2009. The replacement job he found at Philadelphia International Airport pays half as much and does not include benefits. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 02, 2014

When the phone call came, Anthony Reynolds, a big man with a ready laugh, cried like a baby.

His ex-wife, living in Texas, had taken their son, 7, to a hospital for an important but minor procedure, and the hospital had turned them away. No insurance.

She called. He cried.

"When I lost my job, I didn't have the heart to tell her that my benefits had been cut," he said.

"I was so ashamed," he said. "I'm 1,800 miles from my kids, and I can't do anything for them."

By the statistics economists gather, the recession officially ended five years ago, in June 2009. Reynolds lost his job in October 2009. He now cleans airplanes at Philadelphia International Airport, earning half what he once did, in a job with no benefits and no future.

"The recession is over?" Reynolds said. "I didn't get the memo. I've been struggling."

Five years after the recession, so much has changed in the world of work - celebrated, or at least noted, on Labor Day.

Hiring is up, with 209,000 jobs added in July, pulling the nation's total payrolls ahead of where they were when the recession began in December 2007. The stock market has also risen, with the S&P 500 index breaking a record to close above 2,000, a key benchmark.

Even so, there is growing pessimism among the nation's workers, with Americans in all walks of life worried about the future. Financially, they are worse off, as wages have stagnated and many jobs created since the recession are in occupations that pay less.

"These are all patterns we saw after the Great Depression," said Carl Van Horn, a public policy professor at Rutgers University and co-author of a study, "Unhappy, Worried, and Pessimistic: Americans in the Aftermath of the Great Recession," released Wednesday by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers. The center has been studying worker attitudes for nearly 20 years.

"When these patterns go on for a very long period of time," Van Horn said, "some of these new expectations get settled in."

Americans, Van Horn said, see limited prospects for their children, and they describe their fellow workers as highly stressed and insecure in their jobs.

They believe the pre-recession world of work as they knew it is gone or won't return for many years. The availability of good jobs at good pay for those willing to work - gone. Workers taking jobs below their capabilities - that's the new normal, the study said.

But, Van Horn and others said, there is an even more pernicious danger that threatens the whole economy and that stems from workers' diminished outlook.

Afraid for their futures, workers are unwilling to take risks for themselves or their companies.

People who have decent jobs may be unwilling to leave them to create something new, such as a company or an invention.

People unhappy at work, for whatever reason, will "grin and bear it," Van Horn said, thwarting opportunities for others. Or, to save their jobs, they may step on other's efforts, heightening insecurity for coworkers.

"It breeds an individualism rather than a group effort," Van Horn said.

People who don't have jobs may stop looking. Why risk feeling bad when a job search seems fruitless? An economic statistic, the labor participation rate - people working or actively looking for work as a percentage of the working-age population - augments the story.

"We have the lowest labor participation in 30 years," Van Horn said. "There's . . . people being discouraged and giving up and not feeling they have any opportunity after trying for a long time."

"I don't think anybody feels secure," said Sue Price, a career counselor in Oreland who has led groups of laid-off pharmaceutical workers.

"It stifles innovation because people are unwilling to take any risk because of what may happen," she said. "If things don't work out, the next step is out the door."

"Here is what corporate America has lost," said Cheryl Spaulding of Downingtown, co-founder of Joseph's People, a network of church-run support groups for the jobless.

"If you went to work and worked hard, you were rewarded," she said. "People were willing to take chances at work. They were willing to try to make changes.

"Now, if you go to work, you aren't going to take any chance at all. You are going to do exactly what they tell you to do, no more, no less. You'll just be happy to be not knocked off your feet."

People insecure about their prospects are also less likely to spend, said University of North Carolina sociologist Arne Kalleberg, author of Good Jobs, Bad Jobs. "This will not bode well for the economy."

In the pharmaceutical world, where salaries and educational levels are high, Price said, some ex- employees of big pharmaceutical companies who have been laid off as the sector sheds jobs find themselves "rebadged," doing the same work for other companies at lower pay.

Working for less is typical, but it beats not working, which is why Catie Hughes of Holland is looking forward to going back to work. In two weeks, she starts a new banking job after nearly a decade of trying to stay employed in the mercurial field of mortgages and foreclosures.

"It used to be when I was laid off I could find a job immediately," she said. "Since 2011, I've been struggling to find a job that would pay me [enough] money to live."

Maybe her new job eventually will pay what she once earned, she said, but "I'm lucky I have a job."

On Friday, Vincent Tricome, 51, of Exton, a civil engineer who was first laid off six years ago, opened his company e-mail to good news.

His temporary job with a former employer would turn into a permanent one, effective this week.

Over the six years, he had some temporary engineering jobs, alternating them with stints manning Wawa's coffee bar or helping customers at Home Depot. In that time, he depleted savings accounts, managing with his family's help to keep his house.

"I'm optimistic, I guess," he said. "Everything is changed. I feel like I lost six years of my life. It will take a while to get back to normal."

Five years ago, Reynolds had what he considered a good job, stocking supplies at Pennsylvania Hospital. He earned $16.80 an hour and put his children on his benefit plan.

After losing that job in October 2009, he survived on unemployment benefits, moving through temporary jobs. A year ago, Prospect Airport Services hired Reynolds, of Wynnewood, to clean airplanes on the overnight shift.

Reynolds, 51, now earns $8.50 an hour and no longer thinks about the future, just about getting by. He juggles bills, careful at the grocery store.

In his report, the Rutgers professor, Van Horn, quotes survey results indicating the majority of Americans - 84 percent - believe their children will have fewer job and career opportunities than they did.

Reynold's take? His four children will definitely surpass him. "I keep hoping that somehow, this world will be better."

Then he laughed and added, "They'd actually have to try to do worse."


jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769 @JaneVonBergen

www.inquirer.com/jobbing

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