The job market looks awesome. Unemployment is near its lowest levels since the 1960s, we’re in the midst of the largest, longest streak of payroll growth in recorded history, and there are signs employers are finally raising wages.
But those numbers obscure the experiences of millions of part-timers, temps, older workers and others who have done everything right, but are still struggling to find good jobs. We heard from hundreds of them. Once we knew where to look, we found their stories hiding in plain sight, in the Labor Department’s data.
“I did all that work for this amount?!”
In June 1973, Ron Hartnett was crossing a six-inch I-beam 65 feet in the air when his partner shouted that the “rattle gun,” an air-powered bolt wrench, was out of room. “I got it,” Hartnett answered. But he hadn’t got it. The heavy hose dragged him off balance.
“Once I started going down,” Hartnett said, “gravity took over.”
Someone who was there that day would later say Hartnett “hit every beam on the way down.” At the hospital, they read him his last rites.
Now, 45 years and two master’s degrees later, a 66-year-old Hartnett is working iron again, in and around Dakota City, Neb. He just wrapped up his latest project, framing out a surgical center. He might not find more construction work right away, but that’s okay — school will start soon, and the former teacher and principal will always be able to find work as a substitute.
The traumatic brain injury Hartnett sustained in his 65-foot fall didn’t stop him from getting degrees from New York University, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and the University of South Dakota, but it has made it hard for him to hold down steady work. Nebraska workplaces haven’t always accommodated his disability, which sometimes made organization and long-term planning a challenge.
He does what he has to, “always trying to keep the wolf from the door.” And often, that means iron work.
When he first started working iron, Hartnett was making about $43.90 in today’s dollars. On his last project, he made $16.93.
“Before, you could say to yourself you had a good job if you were an ironworker. But now, because of the pressure on unions …” Hartnett trailed off.
“You look at your paycheck and think ‘I did all that work for this amount?!’”
“I’m not the cute little 20-something that I used to be.”
Liz Levi, 59, is hilarious and full of sardonic energy, but she doesn’t go out much anymore. When she does, it’s with “a few good friends who don’t insist on splashing around in their money while I watch.”
She once had her own office, secretaries and assistants, along with titles like “director” that spoke to her decades of experience. Now, she’s a temp — one of many.
Levi was laid off from her job at a law office during a merger in early 2015, and has struggled to find long-term work. In late 2016, she filed for bankruptcy.
The job market in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has been cruel. “When I was young, just out of college and inexperienced, I was often offered the job on the spot,” she told us. “Imagine my surprise when — now that I have both a college degree and over two decades of work experience — I often can't even land the interview.”
The difference? “I'm not the cute little 20-something that I used to be.”
“Age discrimination is a real thing,” Levi said.
These days she processes checks for a multinational corporation on a six-month temp contract. It's complex work, but it doesn't come with vacation. Or sick days. Or job security. Or benefits.
Without Affordable Care Act (ACA) subsidies she would have to pay $1,483, or about three quarters of her monthly income, on insurance.
"I went through the list once, just for fun,” she said. “I have 10 preexisting conditions that wouldn't be covered."
"I’ve got one eye kinda going wonky on me, and I don’t have vision insurance, so I haven’t been to an eye doctor for it,” she said. “Even if I went and he said I needed surgery, I couldn't afford it. It's kind of horrible."
She would prefer to put her fine-arts education to use, but the art market is even less forgiving than temp work. Her last check, from a gallery in Ames, Iowa, was for $19.
She ordered a used serger sewing machine that she hopes to use to “upcycle” and sell clothing she buys from thrift stores.
“Maybe someday I don’t have to get up so freaking early to go to work,” Levi said. “I can just go down to my sewing room. That would be nice — and the cats would like it too.”
“You’re going to pay me less to do the exact same work in Nashville?"
Racquel Davis was blindsided by her layoff from a Texas general contractor, soon after meeting half her yearly sales goal in less than a quarter. But the 39-year-old, who moved back home to Nashville, remains positive.
One day, Davis plans to leverage her architectural engineering degree and MBA to create a nonprofit organization that would introduce young women and minorities to opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
But in the near term, she needs to earn a at least as much as she had before, which itself wasn’t commensurate with her technical training and experience.
“I was already underpaid [in Texas] and you’re going to pay me less to do the exact same work in Nashville?” Davis said. “The cost of living is moving up.”
To make ends meet while she seeks the right opportunity, Davis works part-time as a substitute teacher at a friend’s day care. She uses her STEM teaching skills, helping young students channel their natural inquisitiveness into discoveries about sailboats and seed germination, while she works on her nonprofit business plan.
The Nashville labor market is hot. It’s even a finalist for Amazon’s second headquarters. But Davis still puts her Houston address on her résumé, because she’s found that some big companies aren’t hiring locals.
“All of these companies are literally getting paid by our government in tax breaks to move here,” Davis said, referring to the state’s aggressive attempts to lure outside corporations. “But they’re not hiring Nashvillians. They’re bringing their own people with them from whatever Northern city they come.”
Paul Corcoran, age 60, estimates he has sent out 90 applications since he was laid off in February.
The Oceanside, Calif., resident picks up enough Uber and Lyft passengers to help stretch his unemployment benefits, but not so many that his earnings qualify him as “employed.”
He has 30 years of experience in marketing at a major telecom company, but says that in a field that’s fast evolving from creativity and relationships to search-engine optimization and ads, he took his eye off the ball. “It’s not like I’m stupid, but the reality is I have no experience there.”
“I don’t need a ton of money, so I could even work in an entry level position,” Corcoran said. “It might be fun, at 60, to work in something less stressful.”
“I’m overqualified for these jobs, but they don’t think that I would be happy to do them,” Corcoran said. “I’m not finding any interest in a 60-year-old guy with gray hair and, honestly, kind of a limited shelf life.”
Corcoran once planned on retiring at 65, but says that now won’t happen without “divine intervention.” He also worries what will happen to him if anything happens to the ACA. “If my wife weren’t working — if she didn’t have benefits — we’d be in seriously deep trouble in a hurry,” he said.