Not so long ago, they would roar out on a motorcycle trip to Yellowstone, or ride a helicopter down the Colorado River. In 2007, Bob put half the money down on a new pickup and paid cash for a new motorcycle.
Losing their jobs changed everything for the couple from Prior Lake. Bob now drives a school bus for $13 an hour, one-third what he earned when he designed tools to test hard drives for Seagate. Liz, who works in IT, has found new jobs, but she makes less than she did in 2008.
“We don’t go out. We don’t travel,” she said. “We’re figuring out if I can even retire.”
Millions of Americans have moved on from the recession with careers and finances mostly intact, but large groups have fallen behind, perhaps for good. The difference is whether they were able to hang on to their jobs.
Those who remained employed through the downturn endured anxious moments, lost value in their homes and may have forgone pay raises. But people who were laid off gave up months or years of earnings, lost homes, raided 401(k)s, went into debt, and now more often than not must take jobs for significantly less pay.
Even as the economy has added jobs and unemployment has fallen below 7 percent, today’s unemployed are more likely than at any time since the Great Depression to stay that way for a prolonged period and far more likely to end up in part-time jobs. At last check, 38,400 Minnesotans and more than 4 million people across the country had been out of work for more than six months, not counting the millions who have given up looking.
“Many of them are still paying the price by having a job that’s not as good, or only a part-time job, or maybe not a job at all,” said Henry Farber, a Princeton economist who studies displaced workers. “The labor market never really recovered from the Great Recession.”
If and when job-seekers do find work, a majority make less money. A third suffer a 20 percent pay cut or worse, according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
They are ushered into a new life with lesser prospects and no clear path to reclaim what they lost.
“When you run out of unemployment, you’re desperate,” said Liz McLean, 60, who grew up just north of Duluth. “If someone hasn’t been laid off, they don’t really understand this whole thing.”
A downward spiral of wages
About a quarter of American workers say they lost a job during the recession, according to a 2013 survey by researchers at Rutgers University.
The number of workers unemployed long-term — six months or longer — shot up during the downturn from 1.4 million in early 2008 to 6.7 million in early 2010, and remains historically very high at 4.1 million.
More than half of those who were laid off and eventually found a new job are earning less, the analysis at Rutgers showed.
“For the unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed, they get caught in that vicious downward spiral of wage and salary,” said Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers.
A worker’s value to a new company will almost always be less than at one where they’ve worked for several years, Van Horn said. They may not have up-to-date skills, and companies have the freedom to bid down wages.
“This is a buyer’s market, and that buyer’s market has been going on for almost five years now,” he said.
Newly unemployed workers usually come out swinging, expecting to equal the wages they lost and shunning lower-paid work. Six months later, he said, that impulse is beaten out of most folks.
“It completely evaporates after they exhaust their unemployment insurance,” he said.
The McLeans met at a house party in Duluth, got married and moved to the Twin Cities in 1974, when their oldest son was an infant.
Bob had a two-year degree in mechanical design and landed a job at what is now Seagate Technology, where he worked for 27 years. Once the couple’s three boys were old enough, Liz earned a couple of two-year computer degrees for herself and landed a job she loved, working on the IT help desk at Fabcon, a concrete company in St. Paul.
Bob, 65, lost his job first, in January 2009. It wasn’t a huge surprise — he was among the oldest in his department, he said. He took a year of severance, went to the state’s dislocated worker program, rewrote his résumé, took classes in computer-assisted design programs and started looking for jobs.
A month later, Liz lost her job. She worked stints on the IT help desk at Pella Corp. and Mystic Lake Casino. Now she works for a company that sells books to colleges. It’s interesting work in a good department, but then, “every job since I got laid off at that other place has been lower in pay,” she said.
Bob McLean worked a three-month contract at another manufacturer, which wasn’t renewed. Now he drives a school bus in Chaska. The job starts early and ends late. Bob wishes it paid more, but he gets a kick out of the slow-moving kindergartners with their giant backpacks.
“They’re harmless, but it’s hard to control them on a bus,” he said.
There’s a good reason people who lose their jobs take lower-paid positions: That’s what’s available.
The median hourly wage in the United States fell 2.8 percent from 2009 to 2012 after factoring in inflation, according to analysis by the National Employment Law Project. Some 43 percent of all U.S. job growth in the recovery years of 2011 and 2012 was in the generally low-wage categories of food services, retail and temp agencies.
This is not unusual after a recession, according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, but it’s also a long-term trend.
The economy has for decades been disproportionately shedding middle-skill jobs that command middle-income wages, researchers at Duke University and the University of British Columbia have shown. The most recent decade was the worst of three bad ones in a row for the middle class. Between 2000 and 2011, the economy shed 11 percent of its middle-skill jobs, according to the researchers’ analysis, while low-level employment increased 16 percent.
“We’re just seeing more of what we’ve been seeing over the last 20 years, but it accelerated over the recovery,” said Mike Evangelist, an analyst for the National Employment Law Project. “The real net job growth has been in these lower-wage occupations, in retail and food services, so I think those jobs are indicative of what’s available.”
That is part of the reason why people like Bob McLean, who used to earn good money, are earning less. And it helps explain why one in six people in the Twin Cities surveyed by Country Financial in 2013 said they will never recover from the recession.
A tactical shift
Bruce Hanson is more optimistic than that, but he understands the feeling.
“In our culture, your job is pretty much your personality — if you don’t have one, you’re not a valuable person in the world,” Hanson said, describing what he believes is a widespread view.
He was IT director for Minnesota Wire and Cable in St. Paul. It was a good job, but the company restructured in 2011 and said he could either take a $40,000 per-year pay cut or a severance package. He took the severance and started applying for jobs. Nothing happened. He raided his 401(k) to make house payments.
“I was pretty well down to my last few dollars,” he said. “Had to take a job that paid about a quarter of what I’d been making before to just make ends meet.”
Then he made a tactical adjustment and offered to work a trial period for a company he liked, managing its data center. He proved himself, got hired full time and has been working there almost two years.
He still thinks and talks a lot about the job search, though. He’s been facilitating Twin Cities job transition groups since 1999 — through three of his own layoffs — and compiled a go-to comprehensive list of job transition groups around the metro.
Too often when people get a phone number to call or a contact to e-mail, they don’t follow up, Hanson said. They might be scared, afraid of rejection, or not ready to take lower-paid work.
“They say they’re going to call, but a lot of times they don’t,” he said.
Part-time jobs and wage cuts
This leads to more trouble because the longer people are out of work, the less they are likely to make when they find a job.
People lose earning power after a layoff because they can’t find full-time work, a problem that’s been especially pronounced in this recovery, said Farber, the economist at Princeton.
In every recession since 1980, 12 or 13 percent of people who lost full-time jobs ended up in part-time work. The Great Recession was different, with the share of people ending up in part-time jobs rising to 20 percent.
“The earnings losses are huge, but mostly because the people can’t find full-time work,” Farber said.
Meanwhile, many companies are still cutting wages. During and after recessions, employers try to cut costs without hurting employee morale too much, so they freeze wages, a phenomenon economists at the San Francisco Fed call “pent-up wage cuts.”
“The fraction of individuals receiving no change in their wage has been larger in this recession than in past recessions,” Daly said.
These wage freezes cut into people’s standard of living over time, have been especially severe in this recovery, and have held on longer because inflation is so low, she said.
“Employers traditionally let inflation erode the value of the real wage in downturns, but in a low-inflation environment that’s less possible,” said Mary Daly, an economist at the San Francisco Fed.
A harsh reality
Keith Cushman’s workload had been waning and a manager from Philadelphia was in the office, which he did not take as a good sign. She said hello as she whisked by his cubicle.
“I knew something was going to happen,” he said. “I was hoping it wasn’t going to be me.”
Fifteen minutes later she called Cushman into a conference room.
It was the end of 2009, and Cushman, then the father of two, had been writing policies and procedures for Wells Fargo Auto Finance. The last time he had been laid off he found a job right away. This time, it took almost two years. He studied accounting, hoping to switch careers, but he needed work badly so he took a temp job processing mortgages for Wells Fargo.
“I was down to my last three weeks of unemployment when I got a job,” he said.
The mortgage market has been slow to recover since the downturn, and he lost the new job in 2013.
Cushman and his wife now have four children, including twin sons born in 2012, and they live in Cologne. His wife used to work, but now she takes care of the little boys. He applies for jobs, helps her make breakfast, tries to connect with people on the phone, attends two networking groups a week, and is hoping to take a CPA exam in the spring.
He feels like the job market is improving — better jobs are available, and job clubs he goes to are shrinking. But everything depends on him finding the right job, one that pays “what he needs to live” and offers good health insurance. So far he hasn’t found it.
“That reality seems to be a little harsher than I thought it was going to be,” Cushman said. “Until I get a job, I won’t know how harsh it is.”