After Escaping Jobless Rolls, Trauma May Linger

By Michael Luo

RALEIGH, N.C. — Antje Newby went back to work in September, but she has still not escaped the burden imposed by nine months of unemployment.

Mrs. Newby and her husband were forced to walk away from their home in suburban Detroit and are now living here in a rented house with their three children. They are bracing for a huge tax bill in the spring because of early withdrawals they made on her 401(k) and taxes they still owe on unemployment benefits. Their credit is in tatters, and their 16-year marriage showed cracks they are still trying to repair.

“We’re not done living through the fallout of all of that,” Mrs. Newby said, four months into her new job as an account director of an advertising agency here.

The wound of unemployment, as her family has learned, is not cauterized so quickly, and lives do not simply go back to the way they were.

Keith Brofsky | Getty Images

Interviews with more than a dozen people who were out of work at least a half-year during the recession and have now landed jobs found many adjusting to new realities. Some of the changes are self-imposed; others forced upon them. They include grappling with newfound insecurities and scaled-back budgets; reshaped priorities and broken relationships. In some ways, it is equivalent to the lingering symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

In returning to work, Mrs. Newby, 41, has fulfilled a dream of millions of jobless people as the economy lurches back to life. But with the average duration of unemployment now more than six months, the consequences of the period will continue to ripple through the lives of many.

Matt Grogan, 40, who lost his job in Michigan in 2007 and was out of work for close to two years before landing a position in information technology in West Virginia seven months ago, said he was petrified heading into his first performance review.

“I could not sleep that night,” Mr. Grogan said. “I called my mom. I had so much anxiety. I was worried about going to that meeting and having them say, ‘You’re done.’ ”

Lee Black, 43, who lost his job in information technology twice for a total of eight months in the recession, forcing him to declare bankruptcy, has now taken over from his wife the handling of his family’s finances, and is hewing for the first time to a strict budget. Their family of five goes to church now every Sunday. And he has quit drinking.

Still, even though Mr. Black has been back to work for more than six months, he continues to feel as if he is living on a knife’s edge. The job he found is in Cincinnati, a two-hour drive from his home in Columbus. He stays in a camper he keeps in a parking lot near his work during the week and pours himself unrelentingly into his job, volunteering for extra shifts, including overnight on Christmas.

“If the rug is pulled out again, I’m not going to survive,” he said.

In the case of the Newbys, the strife between Mrs. Newby and her husband, Tom, 42, whose work in commercial flooring dried up last year as well, has cooled after flaring in the crucible of unemployment, but the embers remain.

The fate of their house in Michigan, on which they have not made payments in months, is still looming, and with it, the full impact on their credit. With no savings and little chance of securing a loan, they worry about how they will be able to get a new car in June when the lease on their old one expires.

“We’ve got financial impact we’re going to deal with forever,” said Mrs. Newby, who is still behind on her bills.

And small and large changes now abound in their lives. The family packed up and moved south in a matter of weeks after Mrs. Newby was hired. Their older daughter, Allison, 16, once an avid basketball player, is no longer playing in her new school. The couple has resolved to rent and never own again after feeling trapped by their old house.

“This has totally changed my perspective,” Mrs. Newby said.

It is not clear whether those who have gone back to work will embrace a new frugality. The Newbys are doing their best to rein in their spending, both out of necessity and to make sure they are better protected for the future. Like many other Americans, they had always simply spent what they earned.

But they have failed to set aside anything so far, even with Mrs. Newby’s six-figure salary. Their race to catch up on bills is only part of the explanation. They are still without a second income, because the couple agreed that Mr. Newby would stay home initially to help the children, including Tommy, 4, and Mackenzie, 7, through the transition. The cost of day care also means it makes little sense for him to take just any job.

They have tried to exercise discipline, but the reality is they have struggled at times to shed old habits. They had initially set a budget of $1,300 a month for their rental home, the same as their mortgage back in Michigan, but they wound up inching up to $1,600, because they fell in love with the house they are living in now.

Mr. Newby has intentionally been less strict with the children to help them through the tumult. He has been especially conscious about giving Allison, a high school junior who still breaks down in tears at times over their move, a wide berth.

For her part, Allison says she is studying harder than ever because she believes she now needs to get a scholarship to go to college. Her career goals have shifted as well. She is focused on finding a job in a stable field to avoid what happened to her parents.

She has observed her parents’ relationship warm up, but it is not clear if they are all the way back. The other day, the couple found themselves arguing once again about the Michigan house. Mrs. Newby wanted to go to the bank and finally settle the matter, but her husband argued it was fine to wait.

“It was the old tapes playing again,” Mrs. Newby said.

Even with the long shadow of her job loss, Mrs. Newby’s attitude toward work has shifted, driven in part by her Christian faith. In an all-consuming advertising career, she is now less inclined to throw herself completely into it.

“I gave so much of my life, so much of my energy and time to serving this company and clients and for what?” she said. “Where did it get me?”