If employment statistics are to be believed, Angela Brooks is one of the lucky ones.
The 40-year-old Ripon resident lost her job during the recession, a victim of downsizing and the down economy that swept the nation and the region in the late 2000s. But unlike tens of thousands of area residents, she did not remain among the unemployed.
Brooks found work, first a part-time position with Stanislaus County, and just recently an at-home job. But while she isn't among the unemployed whom economists and politicians fret over loudly and publicly, she falls into another, perhaps still larger group to emerge since the recession. She is among the vast number of underemployed in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The single mother went from working for five years at a full-time job at a civic design firm, making $24 an hour with full benefits, to a part-time internship with the county, making $16 an hour without benefits, to an at-home, per-call customer service job answering phones for car dealerships, making an average of $5 an hour, again without benefits.
"The government puts out all these numbers about unemployment. But that doesn't take into account people like me," Brooks said. "Being barely employed is not all that different than being unemployed. Sometimes it's worse, because you don't get unemployment."
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, California's underemployment rate which includes the unemployed and the part-time or marginally employed was 20.3 percent for the second quarter of 2012. That is nearly double the state's straight unemployment rate, which held at 10.7 percent for July.
Those such as Brooks, who took jobs that pay less or require less education or skills than their pre-recession employment, find themselves struggling for simple necessities despite all their hard work.
Brooks went from making $55,000 a year to making maybe $12,000 this year despite working six days a week. To make ends meet, she gets some help from her parents and scrimps wherever she can. She cut out cable, drives only in town, shops at discount stores and receives food from a church.
She and her 15-year-old son haven't put up a Christmas tree since 2007 after she lost her job.
Son doesn't mention problem
"One day, my son was lying on his bed with his shoes on and I looked at his soles and was like, 'What is on your shoes?' They were holes. He told me he knew we couldn't afford to get new shoes, so he just didn't tell me," Brooks said.
While no statistics count the number of underemployed regionally for the valley, many economists believe the problem is even more pronounced because of how hard the area was hit by the housing market crash and subsequent economic crisis.
Unemployment here remains much higher than the state and national rates, at 15.7 percent for Stanislaus County in July.
Amar Mann, a regional economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said more than one in five Californians are underemployed. California is the second-worst state for underemployment, just behind Nevada. And that gets magnified in the valley.
"If we focus our lens in on the Central Valley, we would expect that number to be even higher much higher, in fact," Mann said. "The underemployment rate gives a more complete picture of the labor force and I think a broader picture and to some extent a clearer picture of the struggles that many folks are experiencing."
That struggle includes dealing with a drop in earnings left in the recession's wake. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the median family income in Modesto fell from $61,407 in 2008 to $53,603 in 2010.
Top pay just a memory
People including Modesto resident Cathy Hayes know that drop firsthand. Hayes worked for 19 years at the New United Motors Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont before it shut down in 2010. She went from making $80,000 a year as a team leader to making slightly more than $8 an hour as a retail clerk.
Hayes works two part-time jobs in Modesto to make ends meet. She is a cashier at the Dollar General store and last month also began working at the soon-to-open Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market.
She earns just a few cents more than state minimum wage at both jobs $8.25 at Dollar General and $8.20 at Wal-Mart. But neither is full time, and she isn't sure how many hours she'll get once Wal-Mart opens this month.
The two part-time positions are the only ones she could find, despite applying for more than 500 jobs and going back to school for training in accounting.
To survive, Hayes has dug into her retirement account, cashing out half of her 401(k). She is struggling to hold onto her house and cover its $1,700 mortgage. Before, she thought she'd stay at NUMMI until she retired.
"I didn't think I'd have to worry about this in this stage of my life and career," said the 56-year-old. "I always thought that if you lost your job, you could just go out there and get another job. But now that I'm out there looking, it's not that simple. Before, I thought people who didn't have jobs or good jobs just weren't looking. But I can't say that today."
As the economic recovery crawls forward, more workers are finding themselves settling for lower-
paying jobs, as Hayes has.
The National Employment Law Project released a report last week that found that during the recession, the largest number of jobs lost were the midwage ones. Those positions dropped 60 percent and recovered only 22 percent. Lower-wage jobs, by contrast, lost only 21 percent during the recession, but have grown 58 percent during the recovery.
University of California at Merced economics Professor Shawn Kantor said that loss of income means a loss in earnings, which further hurts the economy. Workers can't spend money at businesses so businesses can't make enough money to hire more workers, and the cycle feeds on itself.
"That is the cycle that has to break," Kantor said. "Firms aren't going to move here until we have a stable, well-qualified, educated work force. That isn't going to happen until workers come here and see job opportunities. It's a chicken and egg problem. And that's a really hard problem."
Compounding the problem is the loss of skills that being underemployed can have on workers.
"When you have people who have these skills who aren't able to find jobs using those skills, those skills start atrophying, and that might do further damage in the labor market into the future," Kantor said. "This could be a generational impact we're having on this region."
Janet Kingsland, who works as a job placement specialist at Alliance Worknet in Stanislaus County, estimates that only about 10 percent of the unemployed and underemployed clients she works with find jobs that pay as much as those they had before.
"We are continually talking about ways they can keep their skill set sharp," she said. "They can volunteer and still keep their sense of purpose and sense of self. There's so much work and effort with so little response from employers these days. We talk about ways to stay motivated when you aren't getting positive responses."
Twice as tough
That gets doubly difficult when both spouses find themselves underemployed. Salida resident Jeannie Crawford and her husband lost their jobs in 2008. She worked as a manager at a school supplies store in Modesto and he worked in auto parts at a car dealership. Both have since found jobs, but making significantly less.
Crawford works part time, making $8 an hour, where before she worked full time, making $13 an hour. Her husband found work at another auto dealership, but went from $26 an hour to about $16.
"I'd love the luxury of being able to go to the grocery store and just fill up a cart," said the 52-year-old. "But now I go depending on when I get my check."
She works 20 hours a week as a clerk at Beverly's arts and crafts store. She works two other occasional jobs as a store merchandiser, helping to set up displays and getting paid per project. The couple and two of their three children live in the house they bought 15 years ago. Their 22-year-old daughter also works and pitches in with expenses to help them get by.
"We thought we'd have those jobs forever when we bought the house," Crawford said. "We were good and stable."
Merced County Worknet Program Manager Michelle Allison said underemployment is stressful for families across the valley. And accepting lower-paying jobs often means losing benefits.
"It's really a challenge for people to transition into a different lifestyle," she said.
Family adapts to changes
For those such as Modesto resident Juaquin Tafolla, it means transitioning to a different family role. The 35-year-old used to work in sales for Dish Network and pulled in about $50,000 a year. Then in 2008, business slowed and his company downsized.
Since then, he found work distributing newspapers, including The Bee, seven days a week. But he makes less than half of what he did before.
Still, the father of three kids ages 8, 4 and 2 gets up and goes to work every morning at 2. He said he feels lucky because his wife still has her job as a scheduler at Memorial Medical Center.
"She makes way more now, but it used to be the other way around," he said. "You feel a little like your manhood got taken away. Men want to be the provider. But I feel lucky that at least I have something. Every night I throw the papers and I'm like, 'At least it's something.' I keep on moving."
Merced Sun-Star staff writer Mike North contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2284.