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A report on work: Many still searching

Those who found jobs earn less than they did before.

Donna Oxford, with grandson Michael, 3, found a new, lower-paying job but faces foreclosure on her house. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Donna Oxford, with grandson Michael, 3, found a new, lower-paying job but faces foreclosure on her house. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Jobless, his family home lost to foreclosure, Michael Wilkinson's choices boil down to hard and harder.

"With no paycheck or unemployment, paying the rent plus utilities each month has been such a struggle," Wilkinson wrote in an e-mail. "Now, with the holidays here, I struggle with giving the twins Christmas or paying rent."

In January, The Inquirer began a series of profiles of the unemployed - interviewing 100 people, 60 in 60 days in the newspaper and the rest weekly online at

Thirty-nine are still looking for work, and most of the 54 who found jobs now earn less or work part time. Seven could not be reached.

Together, their stories portray a middle class pushed to the precipice of poverty, with some falling over the edge and losing homes. One now lives with her boyfriend in a car parked outside a thrift store in Las Vegas.

"The only reason we are eating is because I still had some food stamps left. If it wasn't for that we would be starving right now," she wrote in an e-mail. Embarrassed, she asked that her name not be used.

Yet, she and the others cling courageously to thin threads of hope.

"We can't give up, not with 11-year-old twins," Wilkinson wrote from the family's new home, a Levittown rental not far from the home they lost to foreclosure.

"Our son is autistic. Santa Claus asked my son what he wanted for Christmas. He said, 'Please give my daddy a job and our house back.' "

In the midst of financial and emotional devastation, they keep faith through family, friends, or religion.

Their experiences are not rare - not when 13.3 million remain unemployed, and one in six Americans is either jobless, forced to work part time, or too discouraged to regularly look for work.

The people profiled by The Inquirer reflect the findings of research by such groups as the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and the Pew Research Center.

The Rutgers study has tracked one group of unemployed people since 2008. In a recent update, only 30 percent describe their situation positively. The rest are either "downsized," "devastated," or "totally wrecked."

The hundred people profiled by The Inquirer are male and female, city dwellers and suburbanites, a mix of ages, races, and ethnic groups, but by no means a demographer's statistically balanced sample.

The group skews older, partly because the newspaper gave preference to those out of work the longest. Statistically, the long-term unemployed tend to be older, even though unemployment is higher among the young.

The average length of unemployment is nearly 41 weeks, the U.S. Labor Department reports.

Many profiled have been out of work much longer, drifting in and out of periodic employment, usually underemployment with lower pay, fewer benefits, and less security.

Just over a third of them - 39 - have full-time work or will soon begin a job. One started Wednesday, after a year of unemployment.

All but a handful have taken substantial pay cuts, usually 30 percent to 50 percent. Donna Hardy Johnston, a public-policy analyst, will start her job in February, working as a Vista staffer in Florida at a third of her former salary.

"Rents are inexpensive there," Johnston said.

Since being laid off in 2008, she had occasional work as a canvasser for advocacy groups. Her home in Lansdowne went into foreclosure, but at least, she said, the new job includes health insurance for herself and her husband.

Also earning less is Donna Oxford of Coatesville, who still has custody of her toddler grandson, now 3. Her poignant poem about joblessness prompted an outpouring of help and a job offer from Martha and Bernd Heinze, owners of Accolade Management L.L.C., which she accepted gratefully.

Even so, "I don't think I'm going to be able to save my house; foreclosure proceedings have begun," she wrote.

"I've given myself permission to focus on the holidays," she wrote, describing her grandson's love for Santa. "I have to coax him off his lap because he holds conversations with him. After four visits, I don't think he's told him what he wants for Christmas."

Many now hold temporary positions, a growing trend as nervous employers will not fully commit themselves to rehiring in a shaky economy.

Among those on a temporary assignment is Alfred D'Souza, an information-technology engineer and adjunct professor from Malvern. He was laid off in December 2009. In April, he landed a contracting job working in his field, servicing the Sunoco oil refinery in Marcus Hook.

Now workers are shutting the refinery down and hoping for a buyer to save their jobs.

Contract legal work has provided a steady, if insecure, living for lawyer Michael McGinley, laid off from his law firm in 2009.

McGinley, of Philadelphia, says the insecurity of contract work stifles consumer demand. "It has occurred to me that this arrangement is one that likely contributes to the lack of consumer confidence currently afflicting the economy," he wrote.

At least McGinley still practices law. Many of the others now work outside their fields.

Eighteen months after being laid off in July 2008, civil engineer Vincent Tricome began to work at a Wawa not far from his home in Chester Springs. In the interim, he has had some engineering work, balancing shifts with full-time hours at Wawa. Lately, the engineering work has dried up.

He hopes a recent interview will allow him to return to his field. "Sometimes I feel like a leper that no one wants to touch," he said.

Two of the 38 who are working full time describe themselves as self-employed. One, a former legal secretary, walks dogs. A former marketing manager bought a window-washing franchise.

Thirty-nine of the 100 remain unemployed, with several, such as Wilkinson, having gained and lost a job over the course of the year. An employer hired Wilkinson, a truck-parts salesman, after his profile appeared in The Inquirer.

After what seemed to be a mutual-admiration society, the job mysteriously and abruptly ended, breaking Wilkinson's heart and pushing him into poverty.

Willard Coefield, of Bristol, retrained as a phlebotomist after he lost his warehousing job in 2009 but has not found work. A single man, he says he thinks he will be able to pay March's rent, but that is it. "It's getting kind of scary," he said.

Many say their age and experience are barriers, asserting that employers prefer younger, perhaps more malleable, employees who are used to earning less. The longer they are jobless, the less likely they are to get hired, exacerbating the problem.

Many are working part time. Some, like public relations professional and event planner Jeff Adam Baxt, have two, three, and even four jobs.

Ashton Jones, an unemployed urban planner who has been renovating houses, now also buses tables, in part so he could move out of his parents' home and back to West Philadelphia.

Even though it is not his field, Jones finds some satisfaction in his restaurant job. "New people, new situations," he said. He hopes to enter graduate school next year.

Several wrote of the generosity they had experienced.

Now happily employed as an outreach manager, Patricia Thieringer, of Haddon Township, and her family were "adopted" by a kindhearted Inquirer reader, who dropped off gift cards.

Her "gifts truly made our family's Christmas this year," wrote Thieringer, who had been unemployed from August 2010 to April 2011. She recently changed jobs to a better-paying position closer to her expertise, but she is still earning 30 percent less than she did before she was laid off.

"It has been tough with us getting behind in the mortgage and our utility bills," Thieringer said.

Alayne Green wrote that she had "found much beauty and inspiration in the goodwill and strength of others."

Green, an operations manager from Elverson, Chester County, now has contract work after nearly two years of unemployment interrupted by occasional consulting stints. Her husband has also been out of work.

She described a roofing crew that charged nothing for needed repairs. Handy neighbors helped her husband fix their cars.

"It will be another lean Christmas," Green wrote, "but we have adjusted and realize that family, friends, good health, and a roof over our heads is all we really need."

For the blog entries that give a face to the region's jobless, and more coverage, go to