ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
It's Labor Day, and we begin this hour on the road back to work. Last January, we gave digital recorders to six people, all living in St. Louis, and asked them to keep an audio diary. Like some 14 million Americans, the people in our series started the year unemployed and on the job hunt. Eight months later, all now have work. But for several, the struggles continue.
NPR's Tamara Keith takes us back to St. Louis for an update.
TAMARA KEITH: Randy Howland was the first one to return to work.
RANDY HOWLAND: I've got an entry-level customer-service position, working 3 to midnight, at just a little bit above minimum wage. It's certainly nowhere near where I want to be and need to be. But I am fully employed, so there's a good thing there.
KEITH: I asked each of the six to answer the same question.
BRIAN BARFIELD: Am I fully employed?
KEITH: This is Brian Barfield.
BARFIELD: Yes, but right now seasonal, which means that I go in at half rate. And I work the same hours, do the same job as everyone else for half the money. And if I prove myself, then I get hired as a permanent employee.
KEITH: And his wife, Jennifer Barfield.
JENNIFER BARFIELD: Am I fully employed? Yes, but I'm a contractor. So I am working full-time hours, but things are very iffy because contract job's nature is, you know, get rid of them easily.
ANNICA TROTTER: Hi, this is Annica Trotter, it's August 13th. I am now fully employed as a contractor with an aerospace company. I work full time. This is a permanent position. This is for real.
KEITH: Ray Meyer started working for a temp agency in March.
RAY MEYER: Am I fully employed? No. I'm still doing contract work. They have me going to a job right now. And the job, I'm told, is going to last now until the end of October, but I think we're going to be done much sooner.
KEITH: And finally, Casaundra Bronner, who got a permanent position in July.
CASAUNDRA BRONNER: I work for an event planner. And I'm like, a marketing coordinator, PR coordinator and slash everything else.
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BRONNER: It's about half of what I was making before, but it's more than I had been making when I was unemployed. So, we're fine.
KEITH: That's three people in temporary positions. The other three are in permanent jobs, but only two of them are happy. One person is making more than she used to. The rest are earning much less. Casaundra Bronner is a single mother with two daughters. She worked at Anheuser-Busch, and went from an entry-level position to become a marketing manager with the company. She was laid off in March 2010 as the company downsized after a merger. And the first thing she wanted to do was be with her girls.
BRONNER: I think I was told probably around 10 o'clock in the morning. After I left the company, I called my mother to tell her that she didn't have to pick the girls up. When it was time for them to get out of school, I was there and they were like, what's going on? Why are you here? But they were excited. And I just told them that Mommy has to find another job. I'm going to get a new job or something. I don't work at that job anymore.
KEITH: For a long time, Bronner tried to get her old life back. She applied almost exclusively to large companies because she saw herself as a large-company person. She was looking for a job just like the one she lost. But slowly, that changed.
BRONNER: This is Casaundra. It's February 5th, 2011, and I was talking to my mother and she said, you know, I was thinking that you should look into starting your business making cupcakes. And I said, what? That just sounds a little bit too much for me. I've never had any desires to open my own business or work for myself.
KEITH: But she kept thinking about it.
BRONNER: I started getting excited about it. And I haven't been excited about anything in a really long time - a really, really long time.
KEITH: Casaundra Bronner started to see herself differently.
BRONNER: Today is Monday, March 21st, 2011. Today, I have an interview. It's a marketing assistant for an event-planning company called Events Above the Rest.
KEITH: Evens Above the Rest is a tiny company that plans parties and weddings, the kind of place that hadn't even been on Bronner's radar for most of her year-long search.
BRONNER: I just received a called from Ms. Ellis at Events Above the Rest, and she informed me that I have the job.
KEITH: Bronner is taking a real pay cut, and she doesn't get health insurance. But there are upsides, too. She goes to work at a place where she feels like she's an important part of the team.
BRONNER: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hey. How are you?
BRONNER: Good. How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good.
KEITH: Her boss is sending baking business her way with some of the events. And she's out of the 8-to-5 rat race, which means she can walk her girls to the bus in the morning.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: There's my bus.
BRONNER: Here comes the bus. Give me a kiss.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Give me my key.
BRONNER: Have a great day.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Bye, mom.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Put it in this...
BRONNER: You make more money in the corporate setting and there's more, I guess, perks on paper, as you'd say. But your quality of life, I think, is - my quality of life; I can't speak for everybody - my quality of life is much better.
HOWLAND: It's March 31st. This is Randy.
KEITH: For Randy Howland, the road back to work didn't lead to a better place.
HOWLAND: Our mortgage was due today. And my wife's mother came up with a couple hundred bucks to help us meet that. I've got a job, but it's not enough at this point.
KEITH: There was a time when Randy and his wife, Lisa, would buy things for her mom. That was back when Randy earned six figures. They had season tickets to St. Louis Rams football games, and went to 30 Cardinals games a year. That was back when they didn't have to borrow money from Lisa's mom.
LISA HOWLAND: Asking her for money kills me. It kills Randy, too. But - well, thank God we have somebody that can help us.
KEITH: The Howlands had hoped that Randy's new job, combined with Lisa's work from home as a hairdresser, would be enough to cover their bills.
HOWLAND: It's Memorial Day. We had to borrow another $300 from my mother-in-law. My wife's hair salon business is not doing very well. She could really use some new clients - I mean, really use some new clients.
KEITH: Shortly after this was recorded, Lisa decided she would try to get a second job. The store where she buys beauty supplies is hiring.
HOWLAND: It's Monday, the 18th, and a little mixed feelings today as I make my wife a bit of breakfast because my wife is starting a job. I am happy for her but at the same time, I should be the one that's got the good job. Here you go. Are you nervous on your first day, hon?
KEITH: Lisa is uneasy.
HOWLAND: I'm nervous. I'm very nervous today. I wasn't when I got up, but I am now. Last time I worked for somebody else was when I met you, which was 24 years ago.
HOWLAND: Twenty-five years ago?
HOWLAND: Twenty-four years ago. Get today under my belt, and I'm sure tomorrow will be better.
KEITH: Two weeks later, Randy Howland is still stewing. He feels guilty that Lisa has to work.
HOWLAND: I work from 3 to 12 and my wife works during the day, so we don't see each other. But that's no big deal. No big deal. She is helping make ends meet and at least this month, we don't have to borrow from any relatives or friends to do that. Excuse me while I drink my coffee.
KEITH: And Randy continues to search for something better - a job that will pay more than $10 an hour, a job that will allow him to be the breadwinner again. Ray Meyer is still searching for something better, too. He was laid off from his job as a regional bank manager almost three years ago now. And he finally gave in and started working with a temp agency. On the road back to work, a new job isn't the final destination. It's just a stopping point along the way.
MEYER: Good morning, this is Ray. I'm on break from the temporary job that I have. I'm outside. It's just good to be out and about, and it's certainly good to be in the morning traffic with everybody else.
KEITH: Meyer is sitting in his purple Dodge Caravan. There's a rust spot on the door, and it needs repairs more often than it used to. When Meyer bought it 14 years ago, he never imagined he'd still have it today. But he also never imagined he'd be working for a temp agency making $15 an hour.
MEYER: I think it's difficult for me working for a place - and I've been saying working with a place - but working for a place because I just am finding that these temporary jobs that I'm working on tend to treat their temporary employees differently, and I guess because we're disposable.
KEITH: Meyer is still searching for a job in banking. He knows he won't make what he did before, likely wouldn't even be in management. But it would still be so much better than this temp work.
MEYER: It's Monday, and I haven't recorded anything for a while. My job just dismissed out last Thursday night. But the job didn't tell me until I got home. Then Manpower, the people I'm working through, called me and let me know that I didn't need to go back.
KEITH: Meyer is disappointed, but there's something more. The uncertainty of temp work is gnawing away at him. It's like every few months, he relives his layoff.
MEYER: I guess I am a little gun-shy. I'm afraid everything I do is going to end up with me losing my job, you know. Where I'm at right now, you know, I could make the boss mad. You're taking all of your stuff home at the end of the day because you don't know if your key is going to work to get back in the door the next day. And I think we all feel that way. You never know for sure if you're going to have a job from one day to the next.
KEITH: He'd never say it this way, but you can tell Meyer is still traumatized by the loss of his banking job back in 2008. He was working on a teller machine when his boss called him into the office. He had no idea what was coming.
MEYER: I don't know that I'll ever feel safe again. Before, I felt like I was doing a good job and they pulled the rug right out from under me, and I just didn't see it coming.
KEITH: Meyer's current temp gig is supposed to last through October, but he isn't counting on it going past September. The temp agency has been good about getting him into new work quickly, but it isn't like having a permanent job. There are no sick days, no security, no health insurance or retirement benefits.
Months after returning to work, such as it is, all six of the people on the road back to work are still digging out of financial and emotional holes. Some are still behind on their mortgages; most need to catch up on other bills, savings depleted; and their wish lists are long.
Tamara Keith, NPR News.
SIEGEL: You can learn more about the people we're following On the Road Back to Work at our website. And you'll also find all of the stories in our series so far, photos and additional excerpts from their audio diaries. That's at NPR.org.
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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.