RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And our reporters have been on the road this month, a year before the next presidential election, to report on the hard times many Americans are facing. As part of the series, NPR's David Schaper visits a suburb of Chicago, and a single mother who lost her well-paying job. She's among those faced with starting over after spending a long time out of work.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Walk in the door of Alice Eastman's house in suburban Wheaton, Illinois, and you're greeted right away by two rambunctious, young Labradors.
ALICE EASTMAN: Zeus is the black lab, and Crash is the yellow lab.
SCHAPER: Eastman says she's had the older one, Zeus, for about two years.
EASTMAN: He kept the sanity because I was sending a son to college; another one was going to be playing volleyball and varsity sports, so he was out of the house all the time. So I had this house to myself - no job.
SCHAPER: Well, Eastman had a job, a pretty good one, making $75,000 a year at the park district in the nearby Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, heading up its Department of Natural Resources.
EASTMAN: I was hired as the first superintendent of that department. My first day on the job was interviewing architects to build a nature center, which was pretty awesome.
SCHAPER: In almost five years at the park district, Eastman oversaw construction of the LEED platinum-certified nature center, hired its staff, and ran its educational and conservation programs. But in August of 2010, she was let go as new park district leadership started cutting costs and eliminating some of the higher salaries.
EASTMAN: I'm not even sure what the right term is. I was angry and demoralized.
SCHAPER: So with a degree in botany and 20-plus years of experience in natural resources, Alice Eastman joined the growing ranks of the unemployed.
EASTMAN: I was let go on a Friday, and I was on the phone and online on Monday, registering for unemployment.
SCHAPER: Though it's about a third of what she was making, Eastman says the $531 a week in unemployment benefits she gets for her and her 17-year-old son kept the lights on, put food on the table, and helped pay the mortgage while she looked and looked - and looked - for new jobs in her field, and found nothing.
EASTMAN: Not that many municipalities and park districts are spending money on natural-resource management right now.
SCHAPER: So Eastman started casting a wider net, applying for just about anything.
EASTMAN: I think I applied for almost 50 different positions between August and March. I got one phone call - one reply, saying, yeah, come in and interview. And that was at Target - one.
SCHAPER: So when Target offered her part-time work last March at $8.25 an hour, Alice Eastman took it.
EASTMAN: Minimum wage. I haven't worked minimum wage for 22 years. But there you go. I'm working with an architect; I'm working with a couple engineers.
SCHAPER: That she's not alone as a once highly paid professional in a part-time job paying Illinois' minimum wage makes it a bit easier to swallow. And Eastman just recently got promoted to a full-time team lead position at her Target store. So she now makes $12 an hour, with benefits. Alice Eastman is grateful for what she has. And as she turned 45 this week, she acknowledges she's entering a new, uncertain phase of her life.
EASTMAN: I kind of look at it as, I've climbed to pretty much the top of the one ladder, and now I'm starting at the bottom rung of a different ladder. It's a job; it's not a career. I had the career. I would love to be able to go back to a career. I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to, in what I was doing. Not here - I know I can't here.
SCHAPER: So Alice Eastman has just put her modest home in suburban Wheaton up for sale. And after her youngest son heads of to college next year, she's looking to maybe move south, in hopes of finding a new life's work.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.