Photo: Jack Needles
Matt Sullivan  /  for msnbc.com
Jack Needles stands in front of his home in Hilliard, Ohio. Needles is facing his second layoff in six years amid weak economic conditions.
Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/27/2008 10:32:02 AM ET 2008-10-27T14:32:02

For Jack Needles, life was just getting back on track.

Laid off in 2002 from a large insurance firm, Needles spent four of the last six years working his way up from a customer service position back to the type of business analyst job he was trained to do. He endured a steep drop in income, almost lost his house and ended up with credit problems that he was just putting behind him.

And then, about two weeks ago, the rug was pulled out from under him again: Needles, 39, learned that he would be laid off from the electronic processing department of a major bank, a victim yet again of a weak economy that was forcing his employer to cut costs.

As he scrambles to find another job, Needles finds himself in a similar position to where he was six years ago: Worried about whether he can get an equivalent job, concerned about how he’ll be able to keep up with his bills and nervous about what will happen with the health benefits he and his girlfriend depend on.

But Needles, who lives in Hilliard, Ohio, also has reason for hope. He is seeing some openings in his field, and there also is a possibility he will be able to secure a new position at the company he works for now. If not, he says he learned from the last time that even a less-than-perfect job is better than no job.

“I’m not afraid to go (get) a job to pay the bills,” he said.

When we asked msnbc.com readers to tell us how the economy was affecting their job situation, we heard from many people in already hard-hit fields such as housing or the automotive industry. But amid a widening financial crisis, we also received hundreds of stories from people working in other industries, ranging from banking to food service, who are becoming the latest casualties of the nation’s economic struggles.

Some who responded to our latest Gut Check America call for stories told us that their commissions or tips have dropped sharply, while others said they are out of jobs they held for decades and are struggling to find new employment. Several readers told us that they had found new jobs but were having to make do with lower wages or less generous benefits. For some readers, the only way to stay afloat has been to dip into retirement accounts or other rainy-day funds.

Their experiences reflect the national picture. Over the past 12 months, the number of unemployed Americans has risen by 2.2 million as the economy has weakened, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many economists expect things to get worse before they get better.

Still, it is not all doom and gloom. Some readers wrote to tell us that their jobs are still secure, or to report that they had even received raises, promotions or increased business amid the economic crisis. Others said their employers were only making minor cutbacks, such as canceling a holiday party. And some readers said that they were working harder, or doing the work that used to be done by more than one employee, in order to help their companies pull through.

But for those people who have lost their jobs, the shock of being unemployed is bringing the economic crisis home.

“It’s just really unexpected and disconcerting,” said Melissa Duckworth, 27, who found out Sept. 30 that she had lost her job as a graphic designer with a small company. “I felt sort of removed from everything going on in the news until it happened to me.”

Duckworth, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Beverly Hills, Mich., had only recently returned to work after having a baby when she said company executives told her they had lost funding and would have to cut staff.

The job loss is throwing her household into disarray. Duckworth had planned to continue working and pursuing her master’s degree while her fiancé stayed home with their now 6-month-old baby. Now Duckworth is scrambling to find a job as well as health insurance, since her benefits will run out at the end of the month. She’s hoping she can still complete her degree.

Adding to their worries, the couple just bought a house after their rental was foreclosed upon.  To make ends meet, she expects both she and her fiancé will have to work outside the home, instead of having one parent stay home with their baby girl.

If the couple can’t find enough work, she expects they’ll have to burn through savings that was meant to go toward their wedding next May.

While her fiancé, an industrial designer, is relatively optimistic about his job prospects, so far Duckworth has been discouraged at how little response she has gotten to a sheaf of resumes. Recently she landed a temporary, part-time teaching job, but it will pay only 20 percent of her former salary.

“I’ve never personally had trouble getting a job before,” Duckworth said.

This time, things are different.

National statistics paint a disheartening picture for America’s workers. The unemployment rate was at 6.1 percent in September, up from 4.7 percent a year ago, and some economists worry it could reach 8 percent as the nation’s economic malaise continues.

One big fear, based on recent economic downturns here and in other countries, is that companies will be remain reluctant to hire for a long time, even after the economy starts picking up steam again.

“We’re probably headed for an extended period of unemployment,” said Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard.

Freeman is expecting job losses to affect all parts of the country. He also expects the downturn to be felt by everyone from state workers who could be victims of tight government budgets to college graduates who begin their careers at a lower salary and have trouble making up that lost ground later in their careers.

Another worry is that the basic unemployment figure only tells part of the story.

Over the past year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has seen an increase in people it defines as “marginally attached” to the labor force. These people say they want to work but have not recently looked for employment for various reasons, such as that they don’t believe they can find a job in their field. In the past 12 months, the number of marginally attached workers has risen by 336,000, to 1.6 million people.

There also has been a steep rise in the number of people who would like to work full-time but only have part-time work. The Labor Department said the number of people in that situation has risen by 1.6 million, to 6.1 million, over the past year.

A broader measure of joblessness, which also includes both those figures, hit 11 percent in September, from 8.4 percent a year earlier.

The good news is that some msnbc.com readers said they had been able to land new, full-time jobs after a layoff. The bad news: The weak economy meant they sometimes had to take cuts in pay or benefits.

Katie Vriezelaar, 29, spent nearly three years working her way up the corporate ladder in the underwriting department of a major bank, only to find her job cut last December. After a stint in a temporary job, Vriezelaar has finally found a new job, but she is only making two-thirds of her previous salary.

Vriezelaar,who has two young children and also went through a divorce during that time, had to cash out her pension to make ends meet, move to a cheaper apartment and cut out other extras. For her son’s sixth birthday last month, she spent $10 on trinkets from a discount store rather than splurging on an $80 big-ticket item.

Whereas before the job change she lived a comfortable life with plenty of discretionary income, now she said she often finds herself juggling bills.

“I scrimp to get to the next paycheck, and it’s just mortifying to me because I’ve just never been like that before,” said Vriezelaar, who lives in Altoona, Iowa.

Needles, the Columbus resident who is facing his second layoff in six years, also worries about what will happen if he has to take a pay cut to secure a new job. He said he is already only making about two-thirds of what he earned when he was laid off in 2002.

Needles also fears that hiring will slow because it is getting close to the end of the year.  Still, he’s been told he will still have his job until early December, and after that he’ll get 12 weeks’ severance pay.

He’s also still holding out hope that he may be able to find another job within his current company, and he’s already had one job interview outside the company. That has him weighing the benefits of staying at a company where he already has seniority and stable benefits, versus the possibility that he could find a job elsewhere that pays even more.

Asked to describe how he feels right now, he said, “It’s kind of, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening again,’ combined with ‘Well, but it could be a good thing.’”

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