ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The Labor Department reported today that first-time claims for unemployment benefits jumped by 27,000 last week. That's a setback for a labor market that has been improving in recent months. One sign of that improvement, several people we're following as part of our Road Back to Work series have returned to work.
NPR's Tamara Keith reports on the simple satisfaction of having a job, no matter how bad the pay or the hours may be.
TAMARA KEITH: Ray Meyer got a job after more than two years of searching, but it's not a good job.
Mr. RAY MEYER: The hours are 11:45 p.m. to 7 a.m.
KEITH: It's a temporary gig, doing data entry overnight. Meyer and five other people are keeping audio diaries to document their experiences on the road back to work.
Mr. MEYER: Well, good morning. This is Ray. I've just been home a little bit from the all-night job. This particular job, I'm thankful to have, but it's pretty crazy.
KEITH: Before losing his job in a round of budget cuts in late 2008, Meyer had spent a 30-year career in banking. He'd get up early and work long days, but he says he always got seven hours of sleep. In his temporary job on the graveyard shift, he has to sleep during the day, and it's a struggle.
Mr. MEYER: OK, I am on my way to work. It's 11:33 at night.
KEITH: Meyer says the lack of sleep is really getting to him.
Mr. MEYER: I've been having these micro naps or something that somebody told me that they - I think that's what I'm having. It's where I just like black out for a few seconds. And I'll be sitting at my desk, and I'll be to the point where I'm ready to fall over, and I wake back up and catch myself. It happened last Saturday on the highway, and it's kind of scary, I'll be quite honest with you.
KEITH: And dangerous. All this and for $10 an hour, a huge pay cut from his previous job as a regional bank manager. Then, just two weeks after it started, Ray Meyer's crazy temporary assignment ends. But here's the truly crazy thing: He says he'd do it all over again.
Mr. MEYER: I can't say it was a bad experience. I've been out of work for two years, and I'm so tickled to have had an opportunity to work for somebody and to be out of the house and feel like I was contributing for something else. I just felt really good about it. It was a good experience.
KEITH: So a few days later when the temp agency called with another data entry position - this one on a day shift - Meyer jumped at it. His wife Gail, a schoolteacher, says working is part of her husband's character.
Ms. GAIL MEYER (Schoolteacher): You know, throughout these two years, he's never stopped working, whether it's for money or not money. You know, that's him. That's his makeup.
KEITH: Randy Howland is back to work, too, after a 17-month job search.
Mr. RANDY HOWLAND: And would you, for security purposes, happen to know the verification pass code?
KEITH: He's answering customer service calls for a major telecom company.
Mr. HOWLAND: So you said the phone is out?
KEITH: That means Howland is back in an industry where he once thrived. In 2002, he was making more than a hundred thousand dollars a year working for WorldCom. Then the company went bust. He's been through a series of career disappointments since and is now making $10 an hour.
Mr. HOWLAND: Yes, I have settled, but when I look around, I'm not alone. As terrible as it sounds, it makes me feel a little bit better when I know people are worse off than I am.
KEITH: His new job is pretty stressful. When one call is over, the next one starts right away, and his performance is constantly being monitored.
Mr. HOWLAND: I typically am just going so fast that I don't go to the bathroom. I mean, it sounds kind of strange, but I worked till 11 o'clock last night, and I didn't take my lunch until 9:30.
KEITH: The pay isn't enough to cover all the bills he and his wife, Lisa, have to pay each month. A few weeks ago, they had to get money from Lisa's mom to cover the mortgage. And yet, Randy is feeling positive about the job. Lisa says he's smiling again.
Ms. LISA HOWLAND: Just having a job - and I don't care how much he's making - is really important to me because I know for his self-esteem and for who he is, it's better for us.
KEITH: Everybody knows the jobs Randy and Ray landed aren't ideal. For Lisa and Gail, though, they mean some of the emotional pressure is off even if the financial strain isn't over.
Tamara Keith, NPR News.
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