Even If People Find a New Job, Their Incomes May Still Lag

Michael Luo|The New York Times

Chuck Dettman said he had not really considered the notion back in 2001 that he and his friends in a job-search support group would never recover from being laid off.

Laid off woman

The country was in a recession then, as now, and the professionals who had just lost their jobs met weekly at a local job center to network and trade advice. Despite the national economic problems, they remained confident that they would not only find work but would also be compensated as they had been in the past.

Eight years later, however, most of the people who formed the core of Mr. Dettman’s group have not made it back to their old income levels, even if they eventually landed jobs.

“I think there’s maybe only one or two that have been successful in making what they did then,” Mr. Dettman said.

Taken together, their struggles are stark illustration that it can take years for a worker’s earnings to bounce back after a layoff, and that it can take even longer for a layoff during a recession. Economists, in fact, say income losses for workers who are let go in a recession can persist for as long as two decades, a depressing prognosis for the several-million people who have lost their jobs in the current recession.

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“On average, most workers do not recover their old annual earnings,” said Till von Wachter, an economics professor at Columbia University, who recently completed a working paper with two other economists that examined the long-term earnings of workers who lost their jobs in the recession of the early 1980s.

Mr. Wachter studied workers who had been with their companies at least three years, then lost their jobs when their employers reduced their work forces by at least 30 percent. He found that even 15 to 20 years later, most on average had not returned to their old wage levels. He also concluded that their earnings were about 15 percent to 20 percent less than they would have been had they not been laid off.

One of the main reasons for the drop-offs, according to economists, is that workers who endure a layoff are more likely to be laid off again.

“What tends to happen is the worker has to start over with a new employer, sometimes in a new industry,” said Ann Huff Stevens, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis. “You’re at the bottom of the totem pole again.”

(Although some unqualified workers are undoubtedly laid off, Mr. Wachter said he tried to correct for that possibility in his study. He focused on large-scale layoffs to ensure he was following mostly workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own.)

The largest wage losses are typically for workers who had long tenures at their previous companies. The stability often allows them to build up skills specific to their employers or their industries and to accrue corresponding wage increases, but those skills can be worth less to other companies.

Older workers’ wages usually slide more than those of younger workers. Those with college degrees do slightly better than those without.

The networking group that Mr. Dettman helped form in 2001 was initially made up mostly of former colleagues of his from Pratt & Whitney, the jet engine maker, which laid off hundreds at the end of 2000 in a restructuring. The group members were all in their 40s and 50s.

Interviews with seven early members of the group found that many had been forced to drastically change their lifestyles to cope with lower incomes. Several have struggled with long bouts of unemployment. Some were laid off several times. Many have been forced to lean heavily on spouses’ incomes.

Mr. Dettman, who was a business analyst and earned just over $50,000 after nearly 20 years with Pratt, spent almost four years looking for work, exhausting his savings and his 401(k). He finally took a job as the chief financial officer of a drug and alcohol detox clinic run by his daughter and his son-in-law, getting paid three-quarters of what he used to make, without benefits. He quit two years ago to start his own Christian counseling service but has yet to draw a paycheck.

Jim Clark, 60, a former engineering assistant at Pratt who made about $49,000 a year, went back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in organizational management but has still not found full-time paid employment. He now scrapes together about $20,000 a year as a cantor at his Roman Catholic parish on Sundays and by singing at weddings and funerals.

The only former group member interviewed who is now earning more than she did before is Karen Carron, a 19-year Pratt veteran and computer programmer. Ms. Carron, 49, who has a master’s degree in computer science, made about $69,000 a year as part of a team producing software for the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet.

About a year-and-a-half after being laid off, she found herself doing almost exactly what she had done before, only this time for a Pratt contractor. She now earns $80,000 a year.

Ms. Carron said she was not familiar with other programming languages that are more broadly used, so she was lucky to have found a job working on the same project. Otherwise, she said, she would almost certainly have had to take a pay cut.

In contrast, others in the group who managed to land steady paychecks have had to struggle to get back on track.

David Himmelheber, 58, worked more than 20 years at Pratt in the graphics department, earning about $54,000 a year at the end. He was one of the first members of the group to find a job, but it was in an entirely new field, as a business liaison for a vocational school, making about half his old salary. He eventually moved to teaching social studies at the school and now makes about $40,000 a year. He also found work as an adjunct professor at a local college. The two teaching assignments combined, however, bring in less than what he used to make at Pratt.

Bill Sankey, 62, a computer programmer, earned about $55,000 a year for a company that owned Pizza Hut franchises, before being laid off in 2001 when the company was sold. Since then, Mr. Sankey has been hired and laid off twice. At one point, he was making more than he did before his 2001 layoff. At his latest job, he is back to making about the same, though with inflation factored in, he is probably making less.

“I really haven’t progressed anywhere financially in eight years,” he said.