Working 3 Jobs In A Time Of Recovery If Elkhart County, Ind. was the symbol of the recession, then Ed Neufeldt was the face of the unemployed worker. Elkhart's economy has recovered but Neufeldt is still struggling to bounce back.
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Working 3 Jobs In A Time Of Recovery

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Working 3 Jobs In A Time Of Recovery

Working 3 Jobs In A Time Of Recovery

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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On this day, President Obama launches the final phase of his presidency. We're going to hear a voice from the beginning. He's a man who lives in a place the president visited early in his first term. By returning to that place, we can see what's changed in the economy in six years for better and for worse. Elkhart County, Indiana, suggests why the economic recovery doesn't always feel as good as the numbers indicate. On the morning of the State of the Union speech, here's NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Elkhart County, Indiana - recreational vehicle capital of the world, except when no one was buying RVs. In February, 2009, the unemployment rate in Elkhart bumped up against 20 percent. President Obama picked it for his first big trip in office.


AUDIENCE: (Chanting) Obama. Obama. Obama.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, everybody. Thank you so much. Thank you.

KEITH: Obama took the stage at Concord High School and turned to a very nervous man in a borrowed suit and said, go ahead.


ED NEUFELDT: Good afternoon, everyone.

OBAMA: Good afternoon.

NEUFELDT: My name is Ed Neufeldt.

KEITH: If Elkhart was the symbol of the recession, then Ed Neufeldt became the face of the unemployed worker.


NEUFELDT: On September the 17, 2008, all of the employees of Monaco Coach were informed that, due to the economy, they would be closing their doors.

KEITH: Neufeldt was suddenly unemployed after 32 years working in the RV industry.


NEUFELDT: I am hoping and praying and believing that President Obama will put the people in Elkhart County and the country back to work.


KEITH: Obama was there to promote the $800 billion Recovery Act. $170 million in stimulus money would go to Elkhart County, according to ProPublica. Six years later, Neufeldt is behind the wheel of a Kia, showing me around Elkhart County.

NEUFELDT: Now, I'm going to turn right here and show you some of the plants that were closed down. The one over there - in 2009, there was nobody in that building.

KEITH: Before the crash, Neufeldt and thousands of others reported for work before dawn in these big warehouses, building RVs. As the recession hit, a number of major employers went bankrupt.

GUS FEILER: We lost 75 percent of our volume overnight. It was not a recession. It was a damn depression.

KEITH: Gus Feiler's company, Williamsburg Furniture, makes couches and sleeper sofas and captain's chairs for RVs. He went from 140 employees to 40. And the ones that were left took huge pay cuts. Feiler says he refinanced everything he could just to keep the doors open. And now?

FEILER: Those of us that were lucky enough to survive - we're back.


KEITH: Filer shows me around his three massive, interconnected buildings. More than a dozen women rapidly sew upholstery. There are saws buzzing and nail guns firing. Captain's chairs for high-end motor coaches are flying out the door again.

FEILER: It is good to hear that noise again. 2009, 2010 were very silent - turn your stomach.

KEITH: Feiler says his big problem now is finding employees. He'd hire 30 more today if he could. As Neufeldt draws me by those once-abandoned warehouses, it's clear from the smokestacks and the parking lots full of pickup trucks, they're humming again, too.

NEUFELDT: Evidently, by the looks of the cars there, they've got people working at all these buildings.

KEITH: Today, the unemployment rate in Elkhart County, Indiana is right around 5 percent. That's a bit better than the national average and almost back to what it was before the recession. The saying is if you can pass a drug test, you can get a job in Elkhart. Ed Neufeldt - he has three jobs - all part-time.

NEUFELDT: Yeah, everybody's working that wants to work. But you could probably - really, I drew more on unemployment than I'm making working these three jobs now.

KEITH: His main job - stocking shelves for a local bread company, going store to store, moving the older loaves to the front.

NEUFELDT: Got to make everything look pretty.

KEITH: He also works at a grocery store. And in the evenings, he cleans a doctor's office. Neufeldt remembers before the recession hit his wife telling him he had it made.

NEUFELDT: I was 62 at the time. She said, just work about three more years. We've got a great 401k going. And I think I lost maybe $50,000 when we had that crash.

KEITH: If Neufeldt was the face of the unemployed worker six years ago, today he's the face of a recovery that left some people behind.

MAYOR LARRY THOMPSON: Ed is a survivor. You know, he was going to do whatever it took.

KEITH: Larry Thompson is the longtime mayor of Nappanee, Indiana, at the southern end of Elkhart County.

THOMPSON: I'm a small-town Republican mayor.

KEITH: Thompson stood in abandoned RV factories and wondered if his community would ever come back. And now it is.

THOMPSON: Whatever full employment is, we're close.

KEITH: Mayor Thompson gladly competed to bring stimulus money to his county. The so-called green jobs didn't last. But the upgrades to the sewer plant made a lasting difference. Ultimately, he has mixed feelings about the Recovery Act.

THOMPSON: But it gave us hope that if we just hang in there and work hard and all work together, this thing will come back.

KEITH: It gave Ed Neufeldt hope, too. He believed in that guy he introduced in the high school gym, even though he never voted for him. But now Neufeldt gets upset when he thinks about how divided the country is.

NEUFELDT: If we go out somewhere, which is not very often, they'll say, oh, did you know Ed introduced President Obama? And I used to - years ago, I was kind of proud. Now I say, shh, don't tell anybody.

KEITH: And this is the President's challenge. The economy is back though it is far from perfect. And when you ask people in Elkhart County where the credit goes, they don't talk about President Obama or his policies. They talk about the free-enterprise system and a community that stuck together. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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