Hope flickers for workers jobless for years

They are the ones left behind by a recovery that has created 8 million jobs since U.S. payrolls bottomed out in early 2010.

Nearly five years after the recession ended, 36% of the unemployed — a near-record 3.7 million people, according to the Labor Department's report Friday — are counted as long-term unemployed because they've been searching for work for six months or more. About 620,000 — close to the population of Boston, the USA's 21st largest city — have been looking three years or longer. Millions more have been jobless at least that long but have stopped searching.

The longest-suffering of the long-term unemployed are the dispirited faces of a labor market axiom: The more time someone is out of work, the harder it is to find a job. Skills erode or grow outdated. Job applicants with long gaps in their work histories are widely discriminated against by employers, studies show, a barrier to entry that rises as the years go by.

Hope flickers after years of fruitless job hunts. In interviews with USA TODAY, three people out of work four to six years described how they've adjusted to the loss of careers, incomes and lifestyles — a journey mixed with despair, hope renewed and appreciation for life's less tangible rewards.

An unemployed couple swallow their pride

"You get frustrated and you start fading back," says Diane Kopena, 60, of Lansdale, Pa., who lost her job in 2010. She has all but stopped looking for full-time employment and is seeking a part-time job. "Who's going to hire me now? I've been out of the workforce for (nearly four) years."

That's a sentiment Carl Van Horn, a public policy professor at Rutgers University, heard often when he surveyed long-term unemployed workers in 2011. Most of those out of work more than two years had borrowed money from family and friends and sold possessions. Four in 10 relied on food stamps or charities. Many suffered mental health problems related to their extended unemployment.

"It's usually a shock followed by a slow downward spiral to a lower standard of living and a radically changed life," Van Horn says.

The descent is painfully familiar to Kopena and her husband, George. They were living a solidly middle-class life when they were hit by a brutal one-two punch. In December 2009, George, 54, lost his job as a factory purchasing manager. Seven months later, Diane lost her position coordinating appraisals for a home foreclosure company.

Neither has held a job since.

For two years, the Kopenas got unemployment checks that covered about half their combined $65,000 in annual salaries. For a year, Diane's mother contributed $600 each month toward their household bills. But since their benefits ran out in 2012, virtually every day has been a struggle for survival.

The couple's state aid for medical costs was cut off last fall after George qualified for Social Security disability payments of $17,952 a year, less than a third of their former income. They still receive food stamps and federal assistance to help pay their utility bills.

"My husband feels ashamed he has to depend on these programs — it's a man thing," Diane says. "I don't like it, but I figure this is our time and we have to use it."

Another program that pays most of the mortgage on their small three-bedroom duplex will run out in less than two years, but Diane quashes that thought. Her strategy, "to emotionally and mentally survive, is not to look too far ahead," she says.

They also rely on helping hands. A local job support group donates gasoline gift cards, and a church supplies used clothes. The Kopenas also visit a food pantry twice a month. Keeping up with the aid and the stops and starts of their public assistance "is almost a full-time job," Diane says. "I'm worn out."

That has made looking for work tougher. When the Kopenas first were laid off, each applied for several jobs weekly. Diane sought administrative positions. George had decades of experience as a purchasing manager, but manufacturers were now seeking applicants with a college degree, which he lacks.

These days, the couple still apply for jobs but not as regularly. "Right now, it's like surviving day to day," Diane says.

She says her new plan is to land a part-time job, such as receptionist, hoping to use it as a springboard to full-time work. "I do feel I have to adjust," says Diane, who thinks her lack of a college degree has hindered her search.

Sometimes, she gets angry. "It frustrates me that (the recession) was caused by the banks and the government bailed them out. What about us?"

George and Diane each go to counseling to deal with issues related to their unemployment.

Still, Diane says she feels "blessed." The Kopenas kept their cable service after George negotiated a lower price with Comcast — "That's our entertainment," Diane says — and they seek out concerts in the park and other free events. "I'm amazed we've gotten this far — that we're actually in our home, we can pay the bills and we have our cars."

Jobless MBA asks: "What happened to my life?"

Even well-educated Americans have struggled to escape the quicksand of long-term unemployment. Chris Maher, 46, of Chicago, hasn't found a full-time job in his field for five years despite his master's in business administration. Just as the recession began in late 2007, he was laid off from his $75,000-a-year position as a project manager for the American Medical Association.

With a nine-month severance, unemployment benefits and a new inheritance, Maher waited more than a year before starting his job search to recover from the death of both his parents and his own health problems.

But when the former actor rejoined the workforce in mid-2009, "The whole economy had crashed around my shoulders."

For two years, he applied for about 50 jobs a month at associations and non-profits. But coming out of the recession, many organizations had consolidated middle-management jobs like the one he had at the AMA, and there were fewer openings.

Although he often was among the top three finalists when he snared interviews, many employers picked an internal candidate or withdrew the position. "There was just this overwhelming sense of futility," he says. "It really does a number on your own sense of self-worth."

By 2011, Maher had exhausted his jobless benefits, and his inheritance was dwindling. So he gave up his employment search and began working part time and full time as a doorman for $9 an hour, a job that still generates about $10,000 a year. He ditched his landline phone and diversions such as two-week cruises and going to the theater.

Since his state aid to pay the $1,000 monthly mortgage on his high-rise condominium expired, Maher has drawn down his savings to $5,000, hoping not to tap his $30,000 retirement account.

"All the time, I say — what has happened to my life?" he says. "I was a good student; I was a golden boy; I had everything, and then I was shot down to nothing."

Some good things have happened. From 2008 to 2010, Maher founded and led a non-profit drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for gays and lesbians, called Rec Room Chicago. Although he drew no salary, "It was probably the most rewarding experience of my life," he says, noting he developed leadership and fundraising skills.

Several months ago, Maher renewed his job hunt, targeting positions at social service agencies based on his rehab center experience. "The economy is starting to turn around. I just said I've got another 30 years to live. I can't (be a doorman) for 30 years. I've got to get back on my feet again."

So far, he says, the landscape for middle-manager jobs seems just as bleak. But, "I've got a little bit more faith. I am in kind of do-or-die mode."

He's certain he's faced bias against the long-term unemployed, some of it valid. He concedes his project-management skills — leading, setting targets, meeting deadlines — have slipped, but he says monthly fundraisers he organizes for a rehab-related volunteer group have helped combat that decline.

Maher recently took skills tests to identify possible alternative occupations. But he has resisted getting retrained for a growing field such as nursing. "I'm obstinate to the point of — 'Damn it, I'm an MBA. What more do you expect from me?' "

Savings sustain former executive after paychecks dry up

Some of the very long-term unemployed are easing into retirement.

In 2008, Glenn Reifinger, now 60, lost his $97,000 job as chief information officer for a distributor of motorized wheelchairs in Daytona Beach, Fla., when the company shut down.

He sought similar jobs for two years while living off his unemployment insurance and siphoning $36,000 annually from savings. Reifinger previously earned more than $175,000 a year as a CIO in Connecticut and made a significant profit from the 2006 sale of the house owned with his now ex-wife. They divorced in 2009.

In 2011, he landed a nine-month computer consulting gig that paid $600 a day and covered his expenses for two years. He savored "the stimulation of being back with intelligent adults in a good work environment."

But no other consulting jobs followed. Now, he says, "I find myself less aggressively looking" for work. "You get tired of no response."

He's downsized his lifestyle, dropping a country club membership, forgoing health insurance for now and limiting his penchant for $150-plus dinners-for-two to a monthly indulgence.

Reifinger figures he can live off his savings into his 80s, noting he'll get Social Security benefits in two years at age 62. The idea of being unemployed initially troubled him, but no more. "I put my mind at ease that this is the way it's going to be."While he could seek lower-paying jobs, "You get to a certain level and it's hard to go back," says Reifinger, who rents a two-bedroom condo on a golf course with his girlfriend.

He enjoys being free from stress "to get things done at a certain time." And he finds his days are easily filled by going to the beach, watching TV and running errands.

"Nine months of the year, I can hang out at the beach, read books in the sun and boogie board when the water is up," he says. "That's not a bad life."


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