In 2009, Rebecca Meeke was starting her life over.
The single mother and her two daughters had moved back to Davenport, her hometown, to live with her elderly parents after Meeke was laid off from her job at a small airplane manufacturing plant in Texas.
"I went through a divorce in 2006," she said. "I was just starting to see light at the end of the tunnel when the economy hit."
In 2009, Dallon Christensen was happy in his job at Deere & Co. But the Bettendorf man wanted to spend more time with his children and find a job that better fit his career aspirations.
Fast forward to 2011.
Meeke is buying her own home, has a full-time job and is going to college. Her daughters are happy with their home, school and friends.
Christensen has his dream job and sees his boys every day after school.
Certainly, not every person who went through economic hardship in 2009 is experiencing a happy ending. But for some Quad-Citians, the answer to the question "Are you better off than you were in 2009?" is "yes."
It was two years ago that job layoffs and business closings hit the Quad-City region. Announcements of work force reductions - layoffs and closings - came at an almost-daily pace in early 2009.
Some were from the area's largest manufacturers, employers such as Deere & Co. and Alcoa Davenport Works.
But many employers were forced into smaller cuts, done quietly, 10 or 20 people at a time, according to Kerry Koonce, communications director for Iowa Workforce Development.
While an exact total of local layoffs never was compiled, the small numbers added up, she said.
Nationally, the unemployment rate stood at 9 percent in March 2009. In the Quad-Cities, it was 7.8 percent.
In January 2010, U.S. unemployment rose to 10.6 percent; in the Quad-Cities, it reached 10.2 percent. In February 2010, Quad-City unemployment hit 10.3, the highest in the past two years.
By contrast, U.S. unemployment stood at 9.8 percent in January of this year, the latest month for which figures are available. The Quad-City metro area was at 8.6 percent in January.
For two of the largest private employers in the area, the rebound began in 2010.
Alcoa Davenport Works announced in November that it would hire 101 new production employees, about two months after putting the call out for 40 new industrial maintenance employees. According to Alcoa spokesman John Riches, Davenport Works now employs about 2,000 people.
Total employment had dipped as low as 1,600 earlier last year as a result of layoffs and work force reductions that began in early 2009. But as of Sept. 13, 2010, the plant had recalled all workers who were on layoff, Riches said.
Deere & Co. laid off hundreds of workers at plants in the region in 2009, including John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline and Davenport Works. Today, Deere spokesman Ken Golden said, both Quad-City plants are back to full strength
At Iowa Workforce Development, Koonce said there are several key indicators used to evaluate the economic climate. For example, the labor force in Iowa in March 2008 stood at 1,611,500. Two years later, in March 2010, it had dipped to 1,570,500, or a drop of 41,000 Iowans.
Another indicator is the number of new unemployment claims. She said the latest figures show there are about 1,360 fewer new people filing claims than a year ago.
"It is steadily going down and decreasing, meaning there are not as many new people losing their jobs. That is a good number," she said. "Some have exhausted their unemployment benefits, too, but it is getting better.
"We also look at the average hours worked per week. For the employer, when they are doing positive growth, the average is always in overtime. Before, that average was at 37 hours per week. Now, we are back to 40, which is a good thing. That means they are working full weeks."
Joanna Short, associate professor for economics at Augustana College, Rock Island, sees mixed indicators.
"Students are asking me more about graduate school in the last couple of years," she said. "Students normally go out in the job market. But it is difficult, and many times they are looking for something else to do (other than their degree career path) until things improve. That has been noticeable the last couple of years.
"But the unemployment rate is slowly coming down, and the different employer outlooks say they do plan to add staff. So, those have been gradually looking better. But the unemployment rate takes a while to come down. As things improve, more make the jump into the labor force."
Short said while "it looks like things are going in the right direction," factors such as rising food and gasoline prices could hinder continued growth.
Meeke back to work
Things definitely are moving in the right direction for Rebecca Meeke.
Two year ago, the unemployed single mother of two found work at a furniture store, although at a much lower hourly rate than she had earned in Texas. By December 2009, she was hired at the Rock Island Arsenal as a GS-6 administrative assistant. She also began classes at Kaplan University in Davenport, working on her bachelor's degree in business administration. And after 18 months of living with her parents, she and daughters, Natalya Stentz, 10, and Lealia Stentz, 8, found their own place.
"I was looking at getting an apartment, and it ended up being cheaper to buy a home than renting an apartment," she said. She received assistance with the downpayment through several programs.
"I am definitely better off," Meeke said. "I am still a caregiver for my parents. But my house is only three blocks from them, so I am close enough to get to them if I am needed.
"I was working two jobs in Texas. I have been very blessed. My tax return wiped out everything but my car and house payments. I save for what I need. I have an emergency fund."
Dallon Christensen said he took a risk in 2009 - and is better off now. He quit a good-paying job to follow his dream and join an online company that allows him to do exactly what he loves and spend more time with his two boys.
"I was recently hired as a controller for accountingdepartment.com," he said. The New Jersey-based online business provides accounting and controlling services to companies nationwide.
Christensen had worked at John Deere Davenport Works for more than 12 years as an accounting and financial analyst.
"It wasn't that I was unhappy with how things were at Deere," he said. "Deere is a wonderful company and I had a great career there. ... But this was a great opportunity."
He converted a bedroom in his home into office space and has been in his new position since Jan. 17.
"Being able to work from home full-time is a very nice benefit," he said. "I am still running on the same schedule, but no commute. And when my kids come home (from school), the kids are not waiting for Dad to come home. The kids come home to Dad."
Christensen believes the career switch has positioned him for better things down the road. He wants to own his own company someday.
"I like the fact I am in a virtual environment," he said. "The results are more important. No one can see you working but know you are getting the work done.
"I am definitely better off than two years ago. I am doing something I truly enjoy doing."
Back to work
For Lee Shaffer, like many others, the road back has been rough.
The Davenport man was hired at Alcoa Davenport Works in April 2007 and was laid off March 2009. He was called back in August 2010.
"I had worked there just under two years," he said of the layoff. "If it had been two years, I would have gotten subpay (from the union). I was unemployed for about six months."
He collected unemployment compensation and eventually was hired at the ADM plant in Clinton, Iowa. He made about $4 per hour less than at Alcoa and paid higher insurance premiums. Shaffer said he was among many new ADM hires who had been laid off from other jobs.
He and his wife, Mandy, have two children, Austin, 9, and Emily, 8, and are expecting a third.
"Honestly, being unemployed was hard," he said. "But when I got on at ADM, it was an hour drive up there and I worked rotating 12-hour shifts, which was very, very hard. Very hard on your body. I was pretty glad to get called back to Alcoa.
"I did not fall behind on any payments. My wife still works. But we definitely had to cut back on things."
After experiencing the lows and highs of the past two years, Meeke has advice for others who find themselves out of work.
"If you are going to go back to school, find out what will get you a job," she said. "I hear people complain about getting a degree in something that you cannot find job for. Don't make yourself miserable.
"And have a support system. Family is a big thing. And friends, just to listen. Sometimes you are not looking for somebody to give you an answer. Sometimes, you are looking to just get (your feelings) out of your system."