During the worst of the recession, employers didn't trim deadwood. They bulldozed the forest.
Businesses eliminated whole departments, sacking steady performers who'd been with them for years. Many, like Charlie Thompson and Karen Lupton, didn't see it coming.
Thompson was an IT guy and purchasing manager for a Lake County contractor. When he was let go in 2009, he thought the boss was calling to discuss a discount on an AC unit Thompson wanted.
He ultimately got it for free – in a severance package.
Lupton was a graphic artist at pencil maker Dixon-Ticonderoga. She knew the company was cutting back, but she had projects in the works and figured she was safe. She lost her job on Halloween 2008.
I met Thompson and Lupton in mid-2009 while working on a series called "Life After Layoffs." We followed them for months, writing about their struggle to find work while getting by on unemployment.
Thompson and Lupton were archetypes of the Great Recession – middle-aged, mid-career workers forced to start over – and I wanted to see how their stories were playing out. As the economy slowly improves, are they healing with it?
For Lupton, 53, there's no quick answer. She's working part-time now as a cashier at Universal's Blue Man Group. It's weekends mostly, because she's gone back to school and is busy with classes during the week.
She's studying radiologic technology and is interning at a Leesburg radiology clinic. She hopes to graduate by next December.
Lupton, who's not had a full-time job since being laid off, used up her unemployment benefits long ago and has leaned on her family to make ends meet. She feels lucky – if worn down and, at 53, a little creaky.
"It is exhausting right now," she said. "I am the oldest in my class, older than most of my teachers. But I figure it should keep me young and hip."
Lupton, who is not married and has no children, said she may have to move to find a job after graduation. Her bigger concern is her age.
"Still worried about being hired, due to being over 50," she said. But, she said, I "feel the medical field will be kinder than the graphics field on that topic."
Older workers often struggle to re-enter the workforce.
A 2010 Labor Department survey found that just 58 percent of laid-off workers between 45 and 54 years old ultimately found new jobs. The rate was only 45 percent for workers 55 and older. Most took pay cuts.
"Workers who have spent a career developing a set of skills and experience have a harder time finding a job match," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute. "This is always true, but it's more pronounced when jobs are scarce."
Shierholz says that in 2011, about 36 percent of laid-off workers 34 and younger were jobless for six months or more. But the rate was 53 percent for workers 45 and older.
Charlie Thompson was in that group. He was unemployed for 21 months before landing a job in tech services at The Villages Media Group. To get there, he took certification classes and some out-of-town temporary work to help pay bills.
Even with that, Thompson and his wife – parents of three, special-needs children – fell behind on their mortgage and car payments. The Lake County family drained its savings account and relied, at times, on donations from friends.
On his worst days, Thompson, who's 57, felt like he'd failed his family.
"I'm supposed to be the breadwinner," he told me back then. "And I haven't been bringing much bread home lately."
Today, his outlook is brighter. He's making just two-thirds of what he used to, but he likes the job and says the bosses seem to like him.
The family "is slowly climbing out" of its financial hole and is now current – though underwater – on its mortgage. Thompson is trying to take the long view, recognizing that his recovery – like the state's – is a marathon, not a sprint.
"Overall, we're much better today. We're able to tread water at least," he said. "We're not as good as we used to be, but we're also not as bad as we used to be."
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