Pittsburgh-area unemployment has dipped below 7 percent to hit its lowest point since February 2012, and national unemployment has been declining since 2009.
That's good news. Mostly.
Then there's Jamie Passinault, a 28-year-old teacher who was laid off last summer from her job in a Pittsburgh public school. Sweeping cuts in the district last summer forced her to trade one classroom for another, and now she's a graduate student rather than a science teacher.
And there's Elizabeth Miller, 42, who lost her job in 2011 along with almost 200 other Port Authority Transit workers. She is now back in the driver's seat on her bus route, but she's working more than 60 hours a week to help pay off debt that accumulated in 14 months off the job.
In June, jobs grew across the leisure and hospitality industries, professional and business services, retail trade, health care and financial activities. Yet for one group -- the public sector -- employees can't seem to shake job insecurity.
With its latest unemployment numbers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the federal government sliced 5,000 jobs in June, adding to the total 65,000 employees it has cut in the past year. In Pennsylvania, almost 15,000 federal, state and local government employees have been laid off since May 2012.
Ms. Miller, of Findlay, was laid off with 180 others in March 2011. In May 2012, she was in the last wave of those workers to be returned to their Port Authority jobs.
Those 14 months of unemployment took their toll.
"We lost a lot," Ms. Miller said. "I lost a lot. I lost my home."
Ms. Miller had always paid her bills on time. She had always put food on the table for her two daughters. She had always been able to keep up with the medication she takes for her Crohn's disease.
But when budget cuts pulled Ms. Miller, a single mom, from her bus route, just buying groceries became difficult.
"Where do you push and pull? Do you rob Peter to pay Paul?" she said. "Medications went to the wayside, credit cards went to the wayside."
When mortgage payments also became a burden, Ms. Miller had to sell her house in February 2012. Now, Ms. Miller has been back at work for more than a year, but she said she's playing catch-up on bills.
"I'm trying to rebuild my life," she said. "It took 14 months for it to be destroyed, but it seems like it will take a good six to seven years to be rebuilt."
Steve Palonis, president and business agent for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, said all of those 180 workers laid off in 2011 have been offered their jobs back, and most chose to return to the Port Authority.
But when the state Legislature failed to pass a transportation funding plan before Gov. Tom Corbett's July 1 deadline that would have provided a more stable stream for the Port Authority, Mr. Palonis said job uncertainty returned among union members.
'It was an ending moment
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, has spent hours this summer in meetings fighting against furloughs in the district before the upcoming school year. The school board this week approved nine new furloughs of school-based professionals and 27 new furloughs of paraprofessionals.
Those meetings have been a painful flashback to last summer. In July 2012, the city school board voted to furlough 280 school-based employees, a sweep that included 176 K-12 teachers and other professionals, 14 pre-K teachers, 59 paraprofessionals, 12 adjuncts, 10 other pre-K professionals and nine technical-clerical workers.
"It was a difficult summer," Ms. Esposito-Visgitis said. "It's so difficult [for teachers and other school employees] because you are so tied to your school, to your school community, to your colleagues."
Some teachers have found new jobs in other districts or in private schools. Others were called off furlough or to work in temporary positions while others were on sick leave or maternity leave.
And others, like Jamie Passinault, had to find another option outside the classroom. Ms. Passinault spent one year teaching science to fifth- and sixth-grade students at Colfax Elementary before she was among the teachers cut last summer. Now she's a graduate student of public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University.
Ms. Passinault, of Regent Square, remembers the day she put Mentos in Diet Coke and watched the kids' excitement when the soda exploded out of the bottles. Experiment days were her favorite, she said, because they were hands-on engagement for her students.
She also remembers the day she got the letter, that day last July that she finally heard officially that she would be placed on furlough. She had known since a staff meeting in October 2011 that there would be layoffs, and as a new teacher in the district, she knew she would most likely be among the first to go. She had already applied to graduate school just in case, but opening that letter still hurt.
"For me, it was an ending moment," Ms. Passinault said. "I wasn't ready to leave the classroom."
When she graduates from her program in December, Ms. Passinault said she intends to continue working for teachers and students in Pittsburgh public education -- but not in her old classroom.
"I think this experience has led me to think that there's a lot of work to be done, and a lot of things to be a part of," Ms. Passinault said. "I really think I could have continued to add to our students [in the classroom], so I'm interested in continuing to be in education policy and advocate for our students and advocate for their voices."
With those 14 months off the job still in the back of her mind, Ms. Miller has taken an active role in the transit union, speaking at meetings in Pittsburgh and rallies in Cleveland.
She encourages everyone who will listen to pay attention to what elected officials are doing, to understand the financial crisis that could hit Port Authority without the right funding and take her job again.
"I'm not just speaking for me," she said. "I'm speaking for the other ... workers that were displaced. We cried together, we rallied together."
But away from the rallies and the crowds, she speaks quietly. Her voice is thick with memory, with worry.
"We now worry about them pulling that rug out and knocking us back out that door," she said.
"It's a very uncomfortable feeling, a very worrisome feeling, because we know that fall back out that door is very hurtful."
Megan Doyle: firstname.lastname@example.org. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/