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Randy and Sharlene Carpenter, with their son.
Randy and Sharlene Carpenter, with their son.

Year of Hard Choices: A job search, delayed

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At the beginning of this year, we began a series called A Year of Hard Choices, looking at the challenges posed by economic losses and budget deficits. You can review all of our coverage on our website, ncpr.org. One of those stories introduced us to the Carpenters. Sharlene and Randy are both in their late 40s. They live in Heuvelton. Sharlene lost her job three days before Christmas last year. She made high tech glass lenses at the Corning plant in Canton. She was collecting unemployment. Her husband, Randy, had been laid off from a pallet mill three months earlier. Randy was looking for work at Fort Drum. Recently, David Sommerstein visited the Carpenters again to see how 2009 treated them, and what next year may have in store.

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Sharlene's gotten a lot of time to spend this year with her granddaughter, Riley.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

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The motto in the Carpenter household this year was...

Simpler is easier.  It's better.  Well, it may not be easier, but it's better.

Sharlene says that's meant no cable TV or internet.  No big ticket items.  They bought a wood furnace to save on heating costs in their cozy, single-wide trailer.

Sharlene's unemployment was extended until February, so she's stayed at home, without regrets.

I've worked the last 30 years and I've never drawn unemployment, and so I feel if I have to draw a year or a little more, then I deserve it.

The best news for the Carpenters this year is that Randy found steady work as a pipe fitter at Fort Drum.

There's a lot of work going on down there.  If it wasn't for Fort Drum, there wouldn't be a lot of work around this part of the country.

So you could say, in the Year of Hard Choices, during the depth of the recession, the Carpenters held their own.

We have our little splurges every so often.  We'll still go out to dinner once in awhile.  I still spend money on the granddaughter.

The bright spot in Sharlene's jobless year has been two year-old Riley.

[sound of Riley talking]

Yeah!  What color is yours?

Sharlene and Riley feed each other tic tacs and cuddle on a well-worn couch.  Sharlene watches her granddaughter two days a week. 

On the other days, Sharlene has been tiptoeing towards a new career.  She took a medical terminology class to become a receptionist in a doctor's office.

Took up a lot of time.  [Riley speaks]  [To Riley: Oh yeah, it's not ready anymore, huh?]  I think it was only the first week in and I'm like, oh my god, what did I do? [laughs]  Cause it really was pretty intense.

Like laid off manufacturing workers everywhere, Sharlene's skills don't translate well to the desktop job market.  She was learning Microsoft Word and Excel as a beginner.

Taking the class made me realize that there were people who knew a whole lot more than me that would probably get jobs over me.

DAVID: "Did that freak you out a little bit?"

Yeah, I felt inadequate.  And then, like, with the classes, after I started realizing this is just for me and it doesn't matter what a lot of people know, it got a lot better.

Job training for training's sake.  In that approach, Sharlene's in good company.

[sound up of training class]

Now, don't anybody print.  We're gonna do a resume.

This is a job training class at the state-run One Stop Work Source in Canton, where Sharlene Carpenter took her medical terminology course. 

It's where the unemployed come to find jobs.  But these days, senior employment coordinator Jean Hansen says the focus is on training.

Because if our focus is on helping people to find jobs, we would just have a dismal success rate.

Unemployment's still at 10%.  The number of welfare recipients has jumped 15 to 20%. 

Hansen says the scariest thing right now is that people like Sharlene Carpenter will be running out of jobless benefits soon.  Hansen predicts a tsunami of job seekers.

They want to work.  They want to pay their bills.  They're going to lose their unemployment insurance, and there is not going to be a job for each and every one of those people.

[sound cross-fade]

Back at the Carpenters, Sharlene's daughter, Carissa, stops by to pick up Riley.  She rolls her eyes at the box of sugary tic-tacs.

She's feeling very privileged.  "I bet so."

It was Carissa who needled her mother to take the medical terminology class and look for office work in the first place. 

If she's gonna get a job where she gets some benefits and retirement and all that kinda stuff, she's gonna need more training than McDonalds and Corning are going to give her, so the classes were helpful for her.  I think she can get more of an office-type job which is what she wanted.

Sharlene actually wanted to take a second training class, but even the One Stop Work Source had run out of money.  When Carissa looks out at today's job market, she worries for her mother.

I read that that McDonalds, their sales are actually going down.  I mean, you could always rely on McDonalds or Sugar Creek - the store to hire you.  But if they're losing sales, they're not even going to be hiring.  So you can't even get - pardon that - crap jobs anymore, y'know.

Sharlene holds out hope that the Corning plant might rehire her.  If not, she might just forget the job search and take care of Riley full-time.  With Randy's job at Fort Drum, she says they're doing OK.

The Carpenters saved up long before they lost their jobs, so this rainy day isn't as painful for them as it could have been.  Sharlene feels like the rest of America is just catching on to a simpler lifestyle.

People realize now that it really is serious and that it is going to take a long time, and after so many hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs, you just can't keep going like you were.  I think it hit a lot of people very, very hard, and I think we were fortunate because we've always kept things fairly easy and we saw what was coming.

The Carpenters' biggest fear is if one of them gets sick.  They make too much for qualify for New York's low income health insurance.

I don't know how you want to say it.  I'm just gliding along waiting to see what happens.  It's so uncertain.  What could be good today could turn upside down tomorrow.  "And how are you with that?"  Scared.  I mean, I lose sleep over it, honestly.  You just have to keep your head level, I guess.

It's the only way, Sharlene says, when the year after the year of hard choices may be even tougher.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein in Heuvelton.

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