The Brutal Journey Back to Work for Millions of Americans

Job-market casualties drive a sense of betrayal in this election year.

Phyllis Swenson recognizes the financial breaking point. She sees it in the faces of people who seek shelter at her church. She hears it when they call there asking for food, a spare gift card, anything.

Now, the shadow of unemployment and loss is stalking her.

“It’s scary,” says Swenson, who recently received a foreclosure notice on her home.

Phyllis Swenson.
Phyllis Swenson.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The 63-year-old Fairfax, Virginia, resident is among millions of Americans who haven’t rebounded with the improving U.S. economy. Part-time work at Vienna Presbyterian doesn’t pay all her bills, and almost a year of futile job-hunting has left her desperate.

“Recovery?” she scoffs. “How are we recovering?”

The labor market has staged a strong comeback: Unemployment is 4.7 percent, down from 9.5 percent when the economy started expanding in June 2009. Employers have added an average 150,000 jobs a month this year, though May slowed to just 38,000. The rate at which people quit, a handy measure of job mobility, is trending up.

Yet some Americans still feel a deep sense of betrayal. Their journey back to meaningful work has been brutal -- if they even arrived -- leaving them with depleted savings, increased debt, homes lost to lenders and for some, long searches that stripped away their most valuable possession: self-esteem. Many who did find jobs now earn less, with fewer benefits.

This has helped fuel Donald Trump’s improbable rise and Bernie Sanders’s strong challenge to Hillary Clinton. Thousands cheer at rallies when the Republican front-runner claims he’ll put people back to work and the Democratic contender rails against income inequality.

Swenson, who likes Sanders, is just trying to survive. Bloomberg News asked her and two other financially stressed people previously interviewed to share how they’re doing now. These are their stories.

Swenson has been looking for a full-time job since last fall. An Air Force veteran, she’d taken courses at a two-year college but didn’t graduate. She’d worked at the Environmental Protection Agency and as a hotline operator and administrator at a center for women in need of psychological counseling.

“I absolutely loved it” she says about her nine years at the center. She was helping people, which is her passion.

She resigned in 2009 after a leadership change, a decision she regrets. The timing couldn’t have been worse: Unemployment for high-school graduates without a four-year degree reached 11 percent that year, then stuck near there for much of 2010.

Swenson became a cashier at a car dealership, but it closed three months later and she was out of work from 2010-2012. She collected unemployment and rented space in her home to help pay the mortgage; she also receives payments from her husband’s life insurance.

There are pictures of them in the dining room and kitchen, where he died of a sudden heart attack in 1994.

“Warren,” she says, pronouncing his name with love. “We were an interracial couple.” Swenson is black and he was white.

She joined a support group at Vienna Presbyterian Church, and after some volunteer work, landed two part-time jobs there that covered most of her bills. The church also helped with two mortgage payments.

But churches, a nongovernmental safety net for millions of people, also are financially strapped. Last August, one of her positions was consolidated into another job, reducing her hours. She was “very surprised and deeply hurt,” even though she says Vienna Presbyterian remains committed to helping her.

She’s stuck in a category labor statisticians describe as people working part-time who want full-time work. The number has stalled around 6 million after dropping from 9 million in June 2009. It averaged 4.4 million in 2007 before the recession.

Employers want different things now, Swenson notices. When she mentioned her Air Force experience in the past, “Bingo! I got the job,” she says. “Nowadays, people say, ‘So what?’”

She’s interviewed at another church, which hired someone else, and at a hair salon, which never called back. She’s gotten no response to other queries.

“There are days when I think, ‘Oh, man, I can’t go through with this,’” Swenson says. But “I believe in miracles. I have seen miracles happen in my life.”

Leticia Vives.
Leticia Vives.
Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Leticia Vives was “helpless” in September 2014. Then 44 years old, the former teller supervisor was cut in a Bank of America downsizing after 23 years and said she’d been out of work for about 19 months. Her husband’s disability check was the family’s sole income, so the mother of three was draining her 401(k) to pay bills.

Almost two years later, Vives has a job and her Ansonia, Connecticut, home no longer lingers in foreclosure. But her ordeal leaves her oscillating between a dark read on its indelible scars and optimism borne of her religious devotion and love of family.

A native of Sicily who came to the U.S. when she was 5, Vives says the American Dream isn’t what her Italian relatives and others abroad made it out to be.

Their vision is of a “glorious, rich place, and it’s not really like that,” she says. “You really have to work for what you want to have and sacrifice, and it doesn’t come easy like they make it sound.”

She’s lost faith in politicians who don’t understand “how many people in this country are suffering,” so she’s decided not to vote in the presidential election.

Armed with only a high-school diploma and a handful of industry certificates, Vives lacks the college degree that might have doubled her odds of securing work. And her job search was far different from when she started her career. “There’s no human touch to it -- everything’s electronic.”

During her 21-month odyssey, she submitted applications each week, while counting every dollar. Unemployment insurance helped: first state, then federal benefits for 11 months, until the emergency funds expired without Congressional action in December 2013. That’s when she tapped her retirement accounts more deeply.

She finally got a response to an online application. Her long tenure at Bank of America impressed the boss at Bridgeport Dental Partners, Vives says, and he hired her as financial manager for six Connecticut offices in November 2014. His call came just in time for her to avoid foreclosure, which had dragged on for about two years.

Vives now relishes working for a small business. But she yearns for a bigger paycheck. And her employer doesn’t offer pension or 401(k) benefits that could help rebuild her almost-empty account. So, with all three daughters -- 19, 18 and 17 years old -- college-bound, Vives sees retirement as her biggest worry.

“I’m grateful I have a job now, but I’m still not where I want to be.”

Sally Richards.
Sally Richards.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Sally Richards is the rare job-seeker who found what she was looking for -- after two years, three moves, three part-time positions, resume after resume and months of silence from several prospective employers.

A lawyer who specializes in health care, she’d served as a court advocate for about four dozen children in Ohio and had her own practice with more than 100 clients. When she moved to Washington in 2013, she anticipated landing a job in the city’s big nonprofit sector where her skills could be put to broader use.

When Bloomberg interviewed her in mid-2014, she’d spent six months looking for work. The response to her experience -- and the salaries at nonprofits -- were less than she expected. Toward the end of that year, Richards was fighting discouragement.

“You get to a point where you say, ‘Nobody knows about me. What am I good for?’ Sometimes you say, ‘I am approaching the job search all wrong.’ And you try and reinvent yourself.”

She wanted to do something constructive, so she started consulting part-time at an insurance brokerage. She had, after all, run her own practice and could help with business development. But the job turned into an administrative position. “I lasted three months,” she says.

She did some grant writing for Volunteer Alexandria, which links professionals with nonprofits that need support. She worked part-time at an art center for a few months, then took a part-time job at a women’s boutique last June. She enjoyed it -- “It taps into my marketing skills, my people skills” -- and still works there some weekends for fun.

Of course, a part-time paycheck didn’t pay life’s full-time bills, and her credit-card debt increased. She went from living with her family, to another family, to a leaky basement apartment, which she eventually left. Richards was careful to avoid luxuries as she looked for a new home: no extra fees for a gym or pool.

Last summer, Richards’s grant writing and juvenile-law experience paid off. She attended a volunteer orientation at Stop Child Abuse Now, or SCAN, and met some of the leaders. Later, she saw an opening for a full-time director of development. She started at the nonprofit Sept. 8 and speaks with passion about its mission.

She received a reminder recently of how tough the labor market is: a notice from a company she applied to 14 months ago saying it chose another candidate.

“So many people I know from the job search still don’t have full-time jobs,” she says, adding she hasn't decided yet who she'll support in the presidential election.