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Slowdown Forces Many to Wander for Work

Packman's dad was a steelworker, his mother a Greek-immigrant hairdresser. They divorced when he was young, and he lived with his mother, moving a lot as she searched for cheaper rent or better jobs. After high school, Packman worked as a bar bouncer, a landscaper, a steelworker. There was no future in any of it. So he put himself through Kent State University and then computer training.

He and Sabrina married young. They met at a punk rock bar; he wore a mohawk haircut; she said she was a "skinhead for racial equality." In time they realized what they wanted was a family and a stable home. Today Sabrina wears a silver stud in her lower lip and mails tips to Parenting magazine: "I leave cut-up veggies in plastic bags in the fridge to toss into a soup or salad," she wrote last year.

"I just want to see my family happy. I want to see them satisfied. That's all I care about," says David Packman, playing with his sons Donovan, 9, and Kaz, 4. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

_____Live Discussion_____
Tuesday, 11 a.m. ET: Washington Post staff writer Greg Schneider will be online to discuss this article.
_____$17/Hour Series_____
Permanent Job Proves An Elusive Dream (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads (The Washington Post, Sep 20, 2004)
Information Technology Employment Overall, the IT workforce has declined since its 2000 peak. Computer programmers and electronics engineers have been especially vulnerable. Wage increases have also slowed.
About This Series

This is the third in a series of occasional articles about the changes roiling the middle of the American workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 an hour, with such benefits as health care and pensions. Other stories in the series will address how the changes are affecting large and small businesses and will look at the prospects for new types of jobs to take the place of those lost. To read the stories published so far, go to www.washingtonpost.com/business. Reporter Greg Schneider will be online at 11 a.m. today to discuss this article.

Son Donovan was born first, then Kaz, and everything seemed on track until 2001. By then the technology boom had collapsed, and Packman lost his $49,000-a-year job designing and fixing computer networks at Trustmark Insurance Co. When a series of health problems hit -- Sabrina needed treatment for a chronic cyst on her pancreas, then gave birth to a baby that died of a kidney disorder -- the Packmans had no medical insurance. They wound up more than $40,000 in debt.

A friend eventually helped Packman get a new job, troubleshooting computers for the law firm Arter & Hadden LLP. That lasted two years, until the firm went bankrupt from over-expansion.

This time, Packman simply couldn't find a permanent job. Companies wanted independent contractors for short-term gigs, so he would work anywhere within a reasonable drive from his home near Youngstown, as far as Cleveland, Akron or Pittsburgh. He'd get $15 an hour to $27 an hour, always with no health benefits.

The work was so inconsistent that medical and other bills began accumulating again. Sometimes the family had to choose between buying groceries or paying the rent. With kids involved, it wasn't much of a choice.

By the end of August, the Packmans were evicted from their home.

The Internet proved to be the family's last lifeline. Packman had posted his résumé on several tech job sites, and it drew a hit from a company 300 miles away in York -- a region where Packman would not otherwise have looked, demonstrating the power and promise of the computer age, along with the frustration. He landed a four-month stint troubleshooting networks at a government contracting company, which he asked not to name in this article for fear of jeopardizing his prospects there.

Using his last $1,000 to rent a moving van, Packman hauled all their belongings to a storage center in York and checked the family into a motel, hoping they might find a place to rent. But with such bad credit history, Packman said, landlords were not willing to take a risk on them. After a few weeks, they moved to a cheaper motel.

The $30 an hour he's earning disappears quickly. Because of their past problems with medical bills and eviction, the Packmans have to pay a premium to lease their 2002 Chevrolet Malibu, pushing the monthly payment to $320. They also pay more for auto insurance. Banks won't let Packman open a checking account because of his wrecked credit and at least one overdrawn check on his record, he said, so he has to pay fees to a check-cashing company to cash his weekly paycheck. He pays child support to a daughter from a previous relationship. The motel bill adds up to far more than rent would ever be in York.

Every day, Packman gets home from work around 4:30 p.m. and takes the boys out to a park or school playground. Sabrina might make sandwiches in the room for dinner. On a typical night earlier this month, Packman dropped her off at a coin laundry and took the boys to a nearby Giant grocery store. Donovan has the list in his head: sodas, cereal, corn dogs. The boys want ice cream; Packman lets them buy a candy bar and pack of gum instead.

Back at the laundry, Donovan and Kaz jump from chair to chair in front of a television set. As Sabrina pulls shirts and jeans from a dryer, Packman idly watches the opening to a Fox "Renovate My Family" show. A woman weeps happily; she's getting a new home.

"My wife can't watch those shows anymore," Packman says with a wan smile, turning away.

They endure this routine for three more weeks, then face a hard decision. The stress is aggravating Sabrina's health, and the boys are going stir crazy. They have no way to meet other children; when a co-worker invited Packman to bring Donovan to a birthday party, Donovan spent the whole time with his dad, nervous around the unfamiliar kids.

Packman's only solution is to load the family in the car and drive them eight hours to a friend's house outside Cincinnati. He plans to leave Sabrina and the boys, to save money, then live out of his car if necessary until the York contract runs out. But he puts off making the move, day after day, because he can't bring himself to separate from them.

"I just want to see my family happy. I want to see them satisfied. That's all I care about," he says. He has résumés on the Internet. Something else will come along.

"I always have other feelers out," he said. "There's no such thing as a permanent position anymore."

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