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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.

When The Road Back To Work Detours

Randy Howland works in his small office in March, shortly after he began a work-from-home job with a call center earning $10 an hour.
Tamara Keith
Randy Howland works in his small office in March, shortly after he began a work-from-home job with a call center earning $10 an hour.

Part of an ongoing series

For the long-term unemployed, getting a job isn't always the end of the story.

Randy Howland spent most of this past year working at a $10-an-hour customer service job. He used to make six figures. With this job, he was settling, just so he could have the satisfaction of working. It was essentially a call-center job.

At times, Howland struggled with the pace, taking too long on the calls because, he says, he wanted to make sure the customers were happy. So, it wasn't entirely a surprise when Howland got a call from his boss in late August.

"My boss just said I was on the list to be cut, and that was it," Howland says into a digital recorder he has been using to document his job situation for NPR's Road Back to Work series.

It takes him a few days to get around to recording an update.

"Well, it's Saturday the 27th of August, this is Randy, and I got laid off, so back where we started," Howland says.

Again, he brought out his job search spreadsheet documenting every application, every contact, every interview. He went to more job fairs and had more interviews. And then, after 2 1/2 months of searching, he got a job offer with a company called Express Scripts. They help companies and government agencies manage health benefits, specifically prescription drugs. Howland will be doing customer service, and he's excited about the company's emphasis on customer satisfaction.

"Is it still a third of what I made about 10 years ago? Yeah. But it's also 30 percent higher than what I was just making at a job I wasn't too thrilled with, so it's a good day," he says.

The Rug Gets Pulled Out ...

It's been almost a year since the Road Back to Work series started, and like Howland, the other five unemployed St. Louis residents profiled in our series ultimately did all return to work. And Howland isn't the only one of the six to also lose a job during the year.

The Barfields, Brian and Jennifer, who met in a networking group for unemployed professionals, both had temp positions earlier this year. In September, Brian was let go. Then in November, it was Jennifer's turn.

She turns on her recorder as she drives home at 3:30 in the afternoon on a Friday. She had a meeting with her boss at 3.

"I'm sure you can surmise what has happened. Today was my 7-month-to-the-day anniversary, and I was let go. My boss basically said it wasn't working out," Jennifer says.

Barfield was doing IT work. Now, both she and her husband are essentially in the same unfortunate spot.

"Brian is basically unemployed, and my job was holding us down, and I'm a little concerned of what the future holds," she says.

She's afraid she may have to sell her engagement ring or maybe the house.

"I don't know. I never thought life would turn to this for me, and I'm feeling kind of gypped right now," she says.

Gypped, but not alone. In 2010, there were 19 million people like the Barfields and Howland who at times worked but also experienced unemployment. Put another way, a whole lot of people know that feeling of having the rug pulled out from under them — again.

... Again

"Thanksgiving 2011. This is Randy. New job is going quite well. Two weeks into my five-week training, so far I think everything is good. I got A's on everything, except for one B so far," Howland says.

There is a lot to learn, so new employees have to take tests. Howland is confident in a way he never was with his last job. He's upbeat and thinking about things he hasn't entertained in years.

"We are considering taking advantage of employee benefits at my new job at Express Scripts," he says.

It's been about a decade since Howland and his wife, Lisa, had health insurance. It either wasn't offered or was a luxury they couldn't afford. Less than a week later, before he even has a chance to sign up, Howland is let go after he fails to get 90 percent correct on a final exam.

"Retook it. I was still in the 80s. I don't know what I missed. I was just escorted to a room, told to turn in my information, and then escorted to the door," Howland says.

He blames test anxiety. That Sunday, he's listening to country music, in what's almost become a ritual after a job loss. He decides to write a letter to the company CEO, describing his situation.

"Pleading for my job back and to help get our holidays back where we were feeling good about things. So it's a long shot, but boy, I really wanted this position," Howland says.

Howland hasn't heard anything back yet. He's not even sure his letter will make it to the CEO. His job search is well under way again.

Just this week, Jennifer Barfield started a new job at a law firm doing IT work. It's a lot like the job she lost more than two years ago, though with less pay. But she's still uneasy. She's learned the hard way that no job is forever.

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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