In America

After layoff, finding new meaning in a lower paying job

By Michelle Rozsa, CNN In America

Plainsboro, New Jersey (CNN) - It is just before noon on a Sunday and Carl Fields is rushing through narrow aisles in a busy kitchen at a rehabilitation center. He dodges between tall metal serving carts and workers ladling steaming mashed potatoes. Plates of roast beef are coming off the food line to be capped with white plastic domes, set on trays and loaded onto carts.

“You said 'coleslaw,' Reg?” Fields yells to another man in the kitchen, as they dash around to find the missing slaw and get meals out to 125 residents.

“Cart up,” he yells each time a stack of trays heads toward the dining halls.

For 10 to 12 hours a day, often more than five days per week, Fields manages a kitchen staff. His duties include everything from checking that the correct items are on the food trays to helping to plate missing salads.

This is a place he never expected to be. “Never crossed my mind quite frankly,” he says.

In 2009, Fields was more than 25 years into a career with a large insurance brokerage firm, donning suit and tie five days a week to manage large commercial accounts.

“Four days short of my 58th birthday," he says, “I received notice I was being laid off. It came as a total shock, honestly.”

The company was reorganizing and his position was being eliminated.

Fields and his wife, Lynette Clark Fields, appeared in CNN’s 2010 documentary “Black in America: Almighty Debt."  At the time, he had been unemployed about a year and a half, and was tirelessly hunting for a job.

“I feel that I am going to get a job,” Fields said last year while as he stood over a table piled high with applications to work as an account manager, administrative assistant, warehouse clerk, truck driver. Back then, he estimated he had applied for more than 300 job since his insurance company position was eliminated. He spent long days at the library, poring over employment websites.

Fields is a devout Christian and he remained positive about his job search - and his future - because of his unwavering belief in God.

“I know he's already planned it,” Fields said in 2010.  “And I know that he's bringing it into existence for me.  I know that.  I trust that."

Despite Fields’ strong faith, it was a grueling journey that finally ended in June, two years and four months, after he was let go from his executive management job at the insurance company.  He was visiting his mother-in-law at a newly opened rehabilitation center when he asked one of the workers if the facility was still hiring. They were.

The salary? About two-thirds less than Fields was earning in insurance.

“I knew it was less money, but it didn’t matter,” Fields says.  “It was about being able to get up, go to work and contribute. I’m not a taker. Never have been.

“I felt human again," he says with a laugh.

He's thrilled to be working now, but the Fields still struggle with massive debt.

“It’s a deep hole,” Fields says as his wife listens and nods.  Their bank recently allowed them to refinance and lower the mortgage on their home, but they still have one car payment and, “we have insurances. We have medical needs. We have life needs quite honestly,” Fields says.

Every month they come up short. They won't say exactly how much, but Clark Fields acknowledges it's a lot - so short that they took a step they hoped to avoid: drawing on Fields’ pension from the insurance brokerage firm five years early.

“There is a large penalty for taking the pension before 65,” Clark Fields explains.  “It’s a huge penalty and you can’t make it up.  You either take it now and get the lower amount or you wait until you’re 65.”

The Fields aren't the only ones who are struggling. Black unemployment surged to its highest level since 1984 this year - 16.7% for African-Americans in the months of August. In the same month, the unemployment rate for whites fell slightly to 8%, according to the Labor Department.

“The need to take pay cuts, and substantial pay cuts, is becoming more and more common,” says the Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, the Fields' pastor.   “When you drill down into those new jobs [being created], many of them are low-paying jobs without benefits. And displaced workers are finding they have to just get a job so they don’t lose their minds."

Soaries oversees First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, a large, mostly African-American church in central New Jersey.  In September, he noticed a growing frustration among members, many of them middle class and unemployed for months and college educated, like Carl Fields, with bachelor's and master's degrees.  He started an employment ministry designed to help members keep skills sharp, network and find work.

“One-hundred-and-fifty-five church members signed up saying, 'We need the church’s help in finding jobs,'” he says.  “Well, the average church in America has 150 members. To think that I have, essentially. a whole church unemployed is quite challenging.”

Fields feels settled in his work life, something he sorely missed when he was unemployed.

“I was in the dining room this afternoon,” where he often chats and mingles with the patients in the center, “and I saw a resident who said, ‘Oh, there you are.’ That’s very fulfilling," he said.

He values his connections to the residents: bringing meals to their rooms, getting updates on their conditions over lunch and chatting with concerned spouses in the hallways. He enjoys comforting people, and his new job allows him to do that.

That’s part of the reason he's no longer looking for another higher-paying opportunity, although his wife believes he'll move up in the company.

When he first got his position at the rehabilitation center, he would come home at night and go straight to his computer to search for a new and better spot.  But he quickly got the feeling that jobs were drying up.

“I think the doors are being blocked," he says, "because this is where God wants me to be.”