Nov. 25, 2012 at 10:55 AM ET
For Kathy English, it was bad enough to get laid off the first time. Then, it happened again.
The two layoffs in the past six years have set English on a veritable employment roller coaster: Between bouts of unemployment, she's worked several different short-term jobs and taken steep pay cuts. When she is working, she often worries about whether she will end up unemployed again.
“I think you have to be extremely strong-minded to endure these circumstances,” English said.
The good news for the approximately 12 million jobseekers out there is that the employment market is slowly improving.
The unemployment rate remains relatively high, however, meaning jobs are hard to come by. That’s left many of the millions of people who were already laid off and then found a job worried they could be unemployed again.
Their feelings are justified: Experts say that if you are laid off once, a combination of factors makes it more likely that you will be cut again.
“Once you’ve lost one job, even when you’re re-employed, you’re kind of set up to lose (a job) again,” said Ann Huff Stevens, an economist at UC Davis who has researched the issue.
Stevens used data from the major recession in the 1980s to evaluate why people who are laid off are likely to still be earning less money than before they were laid off, even years later and after they have found other work.
A major problem she found was that the workers who had been laid off once were more likely to have lost a job again.
Stevens said workers who lose a job will have lower tenure in their new job, making them more susceptible to layoffs. Another issue is that they tend to have been re-employed when the economy was still weak, meaning the new employer also may encounter problems and need to cut costs.
A person who is unemployed also is likely to take the first – or only – job they get offered. That means they may give less thought than they normally would to whether the job is a good fit for them.
“You may get a new job, but it just may not be a good match for your skills and your personality,” she said.
Those and other factors mean that even people who do find a new job after a layoff also are likely to be earning less for years to come.
“It takes a very long time to recover your earnings level,” Stevens said.
Angela Kelley lost a job she’d held for eight years in January of 2008. It took her six months to find a new position as a purchasing agent, and she ended up taking a pay cut.
Then just six months later, in January 2009, she was laid off again.
By then, the job market seemed even tougher. She and her husband, who have a young son, ended up moving from Austin, Texas, to East Texas. He took a new teaching job and she took a position as a teachers' aide in the school suspension room.
It was a severe pay cut, but she stayed in the job until December of 2011, when they moved back to the Austin area for her husband’s job. That left her again searching for work.
“I can’t tell you how many resumes I sent out between January and June,” she said.
Kelley finally landed another position as a purchasing agent. She’s very happy in her new job, but she’s still making less than she was earning in 2008.
The financial hit to the family has been substantial. Kelley said they had to sell their house at a loss and are living with relatives in Austin while they try to find a rental home that will accept their dog.
In the meantime, they’ve cut back on everything from groceries to movie nights with their son. They have little extra to save for big expenses such as their son’s college fund.
“We’re struggling to pay the bills, so we really don’t have anything to put into savings,” she said.
English is finally earning close to what she made in 2009, after her second layoff from an administrative job. But the years of unemployment have taken a toll, and she expects it to have an effect on long-term financial goals like retirement.
She also is still haunted by the fear and frustration she felt during the months in which she was looking for work or working jobs that paid very little.
At one low point, she and her boyfriend moved from Pennsylvania to Florida, where they lived in a trailer while she spent months trying to find a job. They eventually returned to Pennsylvania, where she found clerical work that paid half of what she’d been making in 2009.
“It’s extremely frightening,” said English, 44. “Not only do you wonder where you’re going to work, but you almost get to a point where you don’t know where you’re going to live.”
Now she is happy to have her current job, as an administrative manager with an environmental cleanup company.
The job losses also have made her more aware of any possible concerns about her employer's financial condition. She said she’s more likely to ask if she should be worried about layoffs. She also said she’s grown much more concerned with job security than with job satisfaction.
The only upside she sees is that she has become very good at putting together resumes and explaining things like unemployment gaps. She’s thought about taking on a second job as a career coach, helping people put together resumes and cover letters.
“I’m looking at, maybe I should step out of my security zone and do this,” she said.