ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Nearly five-and-a-half million people are receiving unemployment benefits in the US now. Each of them has a story about losing a job and about getting by. Well, today we're going to meet Duke and Peggy Cox. They live in Palisade, Colorado, and they were planning to retire soon. Instead, as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, they're looking for work and trying to find a way to revive their homebuilding business.
JEFF BRADY: The Coxes live in a nicely appointed townhouse that they built a couple years back. He's 57 years old, she's 60. This isn't their retirement dream home. That would be a few acres out in the country. But that dream is becoming more difficult to imagine.
(Soundbite of rustling, footfalls)
BRADY: Duke is walking toward a small, white shed.
Mr. DUKE COX (Retired Homebuilder): Let me see. I hope this is the right key.
BRADY: Inside is what's left of the homebuilding business he and Peggy ran before the housing market fell apart.
Mr. COX: As you can see, there are all sorts of saws and compressors. And that box over there is full of things. And it's something of a mess right now because it's just storage.
BRADY: The last house they built sat on the market for eight months and sold for 10 percent less than the asking price. Their income has dropped from over 75,000 a year to about 30,000. There's a home-based vitamin and supplement business that brings in a little money, and they own a piece of commercial land that an oil company is leasing. That's putting food on their table right now. For a few months, Peggy went back to her previous occupation, driving a semi truck. She describes herself as a women's libber from way back, and she seemed to enjoy working in a male-dominated profession.
Oil companies have been drilling for natural gas in the surrounding counties. Peggy worked for a subcontractor.
Ms. PEGGY COX (Retired Homebuilder, Truck Driver): Halliburton has a large facility here. And we were hauling fly ash and cement in for them for their wells.
BRADY: But after a few months, natural gas prices dropped dramatically, and companies cut back on drilling.
Ms. COX: I have recently been laid off. There's just not enough work here.
BRADY: Usually in morning, Peggy checks the state employment Web site. Her ideal job would pay $20 an hour. But given the times, she types 17.
Ms. COX: And it just runs search. There are no jobs that meet this search criteria. So for today, there's nothing. Let's see if I put 15, what comes up -$15 an hour.
BRADY: Just one job in all of Mesa County comes up. It involves delivering appliances, and she can't lift that kind of weight.
Meantime, Duke has landed a short-term job lobbying for an environmental group.
Mr. COX: Well, we're in Denver, at the state Capitol. Actually, we're on the second floor, just outside of the old Supreme Court hearing room.
BRADY: So you have your suit and tie on. You've got your nametag on that says Grand Valley Citizens Alliance.
Mr. COX: Well, you know, I started out in this thing as a volunteer.
BRADY: But now the group is paying him to lobby for tougher environmental regulations for drilling companies.
Mr. COX: It's been kind of a fill-in job. And I have to tell you that today is my last day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COX: So I'll be unemployed again after today.
BRADY: And then he'll be back home in Palisade, planning out the future of his homebuilding business with Peggy and hoping there's still time to earn enough money to retire.
Mr. COX: If today is the bottom of the real estate market and tomorrow it all turns around, perhaps we could be back in the building business, just like we were, in maybe a year and a half.
BRADY: The Coxes have some savings - not much, but some, says Peggy. For now, they're just pulling together a few small incomes to get by until the economy turns around.
Ms. COX: You know, I go between feelings of panic and what are we going to do in our late 50s, and me being 60. What is our future? You know, we had wanted to retire, and I don't see retirement at all for us at this point. There does not seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. I think we will have to work.
BRADY: Peggy estimates she can drive trucks for another 10 years. She'll be 70 then. The Coxes think there might be a future in constructing environmentally friendly houses. That'll require more research to determine how risky the market is, but that's not a problem. Without work right now, time to do that research is one thing they have a lot of.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.
SIEGEL: And you can read more stories about the unemployed at our Web site: npr.org.