"I was in a dark place … feeling that everything was placed on my shoulders with no light at the end of the tunnel."
That's how Karen Watson felt during the recession, which began 10 years ago this month. The darkness hung on, stubbornly, years after economists announced the recession's official end, even as millions of people — 15.4 million at the worst of it — lost their jobs.
"I was angry at being unemployed for so long," emailed Watson, an executive assistant. It took her four years, lots of rejection, and, in the end, a bit of moxie to find a similar job at SEPTA, which she loves. "To say that it feels good to be working again is an understatement."
These days, the economy is booming, the job market is tight and the unemployment rate stands at 4.1 percent. In 13 out of the last 24 months, the nation's payrolls expanded by more than 200,000 jobs a month, including 228,000 in November.
"It's steadily heading in the right direction," said Adam Ozimek, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics, an economic research company in West Chester. "There's growth everywhere."
What a contrast to the dark days of the recession, when companies shed jobs at a horrifying rate. For a 23-month stretch in 2008 and 2009, there was not even one month of positive job growth. In March 2009, payrolls shrank by a staggering 823,000 jobs.
After two huge brokerage houses collapsed — Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers — the misery worsened until at one point, the official unemployment rate hit 10 percent. Worse, one in six working-age Americans, 17.1 percent, couldn't find work, were too discouraged to look, or managed to snag only part-time hours when they wanted full-time jobs.
Back then, the wreckage included human resource counselor Jeanne Page-Soncrant, of Haddon Heights, and her then-husband, Bob, in security. Both lost their jobs.
In Jacobstown, Burlington County, financial analyst Mike Bruni hung on for a while but ultimately got pink-slipped.
When her factory closed in Downingtown, manager Karen Jones, who was in charge of closing it, turned the keys over to the new owner. It took her two years to find another job for less pay.
Media buyer Nate Greiner, of Exton, couldn't find work, and no wonder. He bought radio and television time and print space for advertisers, but who needed to advertise when no one was buying?
Coming out of prison, it would have been hard enough for Rob Hill, of Philadelphia, to get a job, but why hire an ex-offender for even a minimum-wage job when the desperate workers with clean records were lined up around the block for a chance to greet shoppers at Wal-Mart?
The Inquirer profiled them and others — 100 in all, 60 in the "Looking for Work" series published daily in the paper in early 2011, and an additional 40 that ran online after that. The goal was to show the lingering devastation of the recession, the way it affected all kinds of people, not just the poor in rundown rowhouses, but also the wealthy in suburban cul-de-sacs.
Black, white, Hispanic, young, old, women, and men — truck drivers, retail managers, quality-control experts in pharmaceuticals, fledgling teachers, stone-setters, camp directors, construction workers, paralegals, and plant managers: They struggled to keep their homes, pay their children's tuition, and prayed for a little extra for holiday gifts. Their houses were cold — the temperatures that winter were brutal; hope was elusive.
Some landed jobs after the stories appeared, some got encouraging emails, and others found themselves harassed by people trying to make money on the vulnerable.
"I'm happy to hear from you," wrote landscape designer Samuel Jimenez, now of New York, one of about a dozen "alums" who responded to a request for an update. "Those times were so trying. I look back at those times with a lot of animosity and confusion."
Most of those who responded landed jobs. For the most part, they haven't completely recovered financially, although they are catching up, and are at least stable. Many are earning less than they did before at jobs with less status. Mostly they are a brave bunch, talking about the value of positive thinking and the importance of gratitude in the face of daunting odds.
"Physically, I'm still standing," wrote laid-off communications pro Jeff Adam Baxt, on his second round of downsizing since he was interviewed in 2011. "I can still function despite the ongoing stress of finding work."
At one point, Baxt, with all the news-generating instinct of a publicist, stood on a Center City street corner wearing a business suit and sign: "Not homeless. Just hungry for a new career opportunity."
"I often feel that giving up the search despite the challenges — age, dysfunctional job hiring process — would mean giving up my soul," he said. "I may as well hide under the covers if I stop looking."
Economist Ozimek said it's not surprising that certain groups are still feeling the recession's pain despite the growing economy, describing much of the last decade as "a traumatic experience" that left both companies and people risk averse. Household debt is low, because consumers are hanging onto their money, and companies, he said, are doing the same, sitting on cash and reluctant to invest.
"As the labor market tightens," he said. "employers will become less picky and it will be easier for those people to find employment."
On Tuesday, Joseph's People, a church-based support group for the unemployed, held its annual Christmas party for the jobless at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Downingtown — lots of food, treats for the kids, and, special this year, a ukulele band from the parish school.
"We're seeing people get jobs," said Cheryl Spaulding, who cofounded the group in 1995 during an earlier recession. "That's the good news. But a third of the people who are still out are 55 or older. They've got great backgrounds and good degrees, but that group is extremely difficult. Nobody wants to talk about age discrimination, but it's there."
Over the years, Spaulding said, unemployment would come in waves, sector by sector. Pharma folks lost their jobs; factories closed and blue-collar types came to the meetings. "At this point, it's all across the board," she said.
The last recession taught companies an important lesson. "They set up a template of how to make money and that's to use as few workers as possible," she said. "Fewer and fewer people are doing more and more work," leaving little room for hiring.
In New Jersey, public policy professor Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, has been studying the long-term unemployed since the start of the recession.
"There are a lot fewer jobs with benefits. These trends have been underway in the U.S. economy," but the use of temporary workers accelerated in the recession, Van Horn said. "Employers learned they can survive this way. You don't have to lay [temp] workers off and pay them severance. It lessens the psychic pain" for the employer.
In 2015, alarmed by the number of long-term unemployed (even now, one in four laid-off people have been jobless for at least six months), the Heldrich center in New Brunswick inaugurated the New Start Career Network, offering free services for older, long-term unemployed people. About 300 volunteer career coaches have helped 3,050 members polish resumés, learn about hiring algorithms and practice online job search techniques.
"The vast majority of these folks take a significant pay cut and they aren't likely to get a permanent position," Van Horn said, who also cited widespread age discrimination as a barrier to employment. "The stigmatization of long-term unemployment is still a big deal."
One participant once worked in pharmaceutical market research, Van Horn said. Now he drives a forklift at an Amazon warehouse. And he's lucky. Because he drove a forklift in high school, he didn't have to take work as a lower-paid order picker. "He's not going to make $70,000 a year," Van Horn said. "But he's happy that he's making $35,000 to $40,000."
In Philadelphia, Rob Hill, who yearned to be in sports management, never got that chance, derailed by drug charges that happened 13 years ago. After low-wage jobs like delivering pizza, he landed steady employment with decent wages and benefits as a government worker. But then his boss left the office, and the job ended. Now he's training to become a truck driver.
"Today I'm not in the best of spirits," Hill wrote. "It's been really hard, really really hard. Some days I don't want to get out of bed. What keeps me going is my son, my family and my girlfriend. I'm truly blessed to have them."
So what happened to Watson?
After her benefits ended, she moved in with her mother. Rejected again for a job at SEPTA, she sent a personal email to SEPTA's general manager. "I figured the letter would possibly be read and discarded, but God had other plans," she wrote. The GM routed her resumé to Human Resources and Watson tested into the Administrative Assistant pool. She began as a temp worker, and after a year, landed her current position, assistant to SEPTA's chief rail transportation officer.
"The people here at SEPTA have been nothing but supportive and I consider them a second family," she wrote. "Financially, it is a bit of a struggle, because at 53 years of age, I am starting from scratch. However, I wouldn't have it any other way. If I have to share a life lesson, it would be to always be grateful and to never take life for granted, for tomorrow is never promised."