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NPR is following six people in the St. Louis area who started 2011 unemployed and searching for work. They are keeping audio diaries to document their experience.

Returning To Work: The Satisfaction Of Having A Job

Ray Meyer researches potential employers at the library near his home in Kirkwood, Mo. Meyer recently started doing temp work but is still searching for a job in banking.
Tamara Keith
Ray Meyer researches potential employers at the library near his home in Kirkwood, Mo. Meyer recently started doing temp work but is still searching for a job in banking.

Part of an ongoing series

The Labor Department reported on Wednesday that first-time claims for unemployment benefits jumped by 27,000 last week. That's a setback for a labor market that has been improving in recent months.

Ray Meyer, 55, is a sign of that improvement. He landed a job after more than two years of searching. But it's not what most would consider a good job.

"The hours are 11:45 p.m. to 7 a.m.," Meyer says.

It's a temporary gig, doing data entry overnight.

"This particular job, I'm thankful to have, but it's pretty crazy," Meyer says.

Before losing his job in a round of budget cuts in late 2008, Meyer had spent a 30-year career in banking. He'd get up early and work long days but he says he always got seven hours of sleep. In this temporary job on the graveyard shift, he has to sleep during the day, and it's a struggle.

The lack of sleep is really getting to him. He's falling asleep at his desk at work and worse.

"I'll be sitting at my desk, and I'll be to the point where I'm ready to fall over. And I wake back up and catch myself," Meyer says. He describes it as being like a mini-blackout. "It happened last Saturday on the highway. And it's kind of scary, I'll be quite honest with you."

And it's dangerous. All this for $10 an hour — a huge pay cut from his previous job as a regional bank manager.

Then, just two weeks after it started, Meyer's crazy temporary assignment ended. But the truly crazy thing is he says he'd do it all over again.

"I can't say it was a bad experience," Meyer says. "I've been out of work for two years and I am so tickled to have had an opportunity to work for somebody and to be out of the house and to feel like I was contributing for something else."

So, a few days later when the temp agency called with another data entry position — this one a day shift — Meyer jumped at it. His wife, Gail, a schoolteacher, says working is part of her husband's character.

"You know, throughout these two years, he's never stopped working, whether it's for money or not money," Gail Meyer says. "That's him. That's his makeup."

'It's Better For Us'

Randy Howland, 51, is back to work too after a 17-month job search. He's answering customer service calls for a major telecom company.

That means Howland is back in an industry where he once thrived. In 2002, he was making more than $100,000 a year working for WorldCom. Then the company went bust. He's been through a series of career disappointments since and is now making $10 an hour.

"Yes, I have settled," Howland says. "But when I look around I'm not alone. As terrible as it sounds, it makes me feel a little bit better when I know people are worse off than I am."

His new job is pretty stressful. When one call is over, the next one starts right away. His performance is constantly being monitored.

"I typically am just going so fast, that I don't go to the bathroom. I mean, it sounds kind of strange," Howland says. "I worked until 11:00 last night, and I didn't take my lunch until 9:30."

The pay isn't enough to cover all of the bills he and his wife, Lisa, have to pay each month. A few weeks ago, they had to get money from Lisa's mother to cover the mortgage. And yet, Randy is feeling positive about the job. Lisa says he's smiling again.

"Just having a job — and I don't care how much he's making — is really important to me," Lisa says. "I know for his self-esteem and for who he is, it's better for us."

Everybody knows the jobs Randy Howland and Ray Meyer landed aren't ideal. For Lisa Howland and Gail Meyer, though, those jobs mean some of the emotional pressure is off, even if the financial strain isn't over.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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