Wednesday, January 23, 2013

0 A fragile recovery

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The recession isn't over for Mary Santana.

It didn't end for Richard Baron, Bonni Drye and Elaine Hebestreit, either.

Crowded around a table sharing pizza on paper plates and plastic forks, each of the four Flagstaff residents has a story of how life changed forever after losing a job and the sometimes long, winding road to finding work again in northern Arizona.

The common thread among the foursome isn't the sacrifice of the small creature comforts they used to enjoy, like dining out every week or extended, out-of-town vacations.

Instead, it is loss of faith in the overall economy -- it isn't enough just to work hard or to have 30 years invested in a family business.

Each person knows how fragile the economic recovery has been, and they are constantly looking over their shoulders for signs of the next downturn.

LAYOFFS STILL GOING ON IN THE 'RECOVERING' ECONOMY

Santana was caught off guard when the family-owned medical billing company where she worked for years closed permanently in December.

"My (old) company had a contract with the state government for 30 years and the state decided, 'Nope, we are not going to renew the contract,'" Santana said.

She found her way to the Coconino County Career Center shortly after learning she would be laid off, connecting with the Center's Cindy Wilson.

Wilson, who herself was laid off by NAU four years ago, convinced her to apply for a similar position with another local medical billing company.

Santana considers herself lucky.

"I have been blessed," she said. "It was the first interview I did and I got the job."

A former Valley resident, Santana wanted to keep her family here in northern Arizona.

"Defeat for me would have been to go down to the Valley and find work," Santana said.

Finding work locally meant taking a job that pays $20,000 less than she used to be making, and the entry-level position doesn't include health care benefits.

But she is not discouraged.

"I am coming in at the bottom and I have to work my way back up," she said. "But I also see that with the company I am with, the sky is the limit."

She could get on her husband's insurance plan, but they cannot afford the $300 a month it would cost to add her.

"We are barely making ends meet," she said, hoping the $30 flu shot she recently got will keep her from getting sick.

"I cannot afford to be off of work," she added.

DIVIDED LOYALTIES

Neither can Richard Baron.

The father of two has been laid off twice in the last four years, first from Northern Arizona University and again when the nonprofit he worked for, the Arizona Manufacturing Extension Partnership, folded up shop.

Baron has found temporary work with Coconino County, but it also does not offer health insurance.

So Baron carries "catastrophic" health insurance in case of a major accident. It is less practical, however, for seeing a general practitioner.

"I haven't gone to a doctor for a year and a half," he said.

He is grateful the county has extended his temporary contract until this spring, but working for the government without benefits has some drawbacks.

For example, government holidays are unpaid days off for temporary employees.

"I've had, in the last three paychecks, where I was getting 30 percent less pay," Baron said. "That hurts. It is a very real thing."

To stay in Flagstaff, Baron tapped a home equity line of credit to keep creditors at bay. He knows it is a risky gambit.

"You are living off your assets but digging yourself deeper in debt," he said. "I've got two kids at home."

The premise of finding long-term employment while working at a temporary job leads to divided loyalties, Baron said.

"You are loyal from 8 to 5 because you are dedicated to (your current) employer, but at night you look at want ads, go to networking meetings," he said. "You think, 'Well, I like that day job but it is not permanent.'"

30 YEARS SINCE SHE LAST FILLED OUT A JOB APPLICATION

Drye saw the handwriting on the wall for the family's plumbing business and its emphasis on new construction after the housing bubble burst.

"We saw the economy starting to turn a couple of years ago," she said.

Jobs became scarce even after repositioning to focus on repair work, with the numbers dwindling from the pre-recession height of eight people down to just to the two of them.

The business is still viable, she says, but her husband now answers the phones and she only comes in once a week.

Drye eventually found work with the county but needed assistance filling out job applications after helping to run the plumbing business for three decades.

"It had been 30 years since I filled out an application," Drye said.

A short internship arranged through the Career Center helped her find full-time employment, including working for Supervisor Carl Taylor.

THE NEW NORMAL

The head of Coconino County's Career Center, Curtis has her own story of being laid off some 30 years ago.

Her story ends well, finding work at the County and slowly rising through the ranks until becoming a department head. Her former boss, she says, landed in prison.

Sitting around the table, Curtis believes the slow recovery of the national economy is far more fragile and few jobs are truly designed to last a lifetime.

"The recession hasn't ended. Even for the economists, the recovery is tenuous," Curtis said.

Baron nearly interrupts Curtis, noting he cringes when he hears someone say the economy is recovering.

"For all of us around this table, the recession has not ended," Baron said, eliciting a small chorus of agreement from his peers.

"We should use the term 'recovery' in quotes," Curtis said.

Joe Ferguson can be reached at 556-2253 or jferguson@azdailysun.com.

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