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September 20, 2014

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The Economy:

A year later, woman back to work, finally

(Unemployment) was always someone else’s problem. But now I see that behind every percentage, there’s families.”

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Steve Marcus

Paula Gray, 51, pictured Monday outside her home, now has two jobs after a year of looking that included a profile in this newspaper.

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Paula Gray is photographed by tourists while handing out her resume to motorists on the Sahara Avenue off-ramp of northbound I-15 Thursday, April 9, 2009. Launch slideshow »

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She tried handing out business cards on a highway off-ramp, a broad straw hat between her and the sun.

She reached a table at a casino job fair after four hours in line only to get laughed at for having a resume with too many jobs and a college degree. After months of not finding a job, and after a newspaper article about her search, estranged family and old friends called and e-mailed to offer help.

And then, as if scripted, 12 months after beginning her longest bout of joblessness since college, 51-year-old Paula Gray got three job offers in as many weeks. The first one came almost a year to the day after she had lost her job of eight years as an administrative assistant at a construction company.

She said yes to two full-time jobs.

Her voice on the phone one recent afternoon was leavened with new life as she said, “I just got off work.”

One of her new jobs pays less than her unemployment checks did. Nevertheless, she said, “to be working again feels so different.”

“It makes me feel like I’m valuable, or purposeful. Like there’s a reason to go to bed at night, or wake up in the morning.”

The plucky redhead got media attention in an April 11 Sun article about her single-minded stunt of handing out business cards on the shoulder of the I-15. But even that just brought job interviews, the roller coaster that tens of thousands ride amid a 12 percent unemployment rate, the don’t-call-us routine, the hope followed by silent rejection.

“It truly is depressing after a while, to keep filling out applications ... to keep being told no,” Gray said.

She became frustrated with the Las Vegas job market, feeling out of place because of her education and employment history.

“Looking back I wished I’d taken my college degree or some of my experience off my resume,” she said. “Maybe I would have gotten a job quicker.”

She decided at one point that the routine was wearing her down, that she had to reconnect with family in Baltimore. But on the night of June 14, the day before her flight, she got a call from a national time-share company. It wanted her to interview for a customer service job the next morning. She moved her flight back.

“Walking out of the interview,” she recalled, “I felt different.” She got on a plane that evening.

The company called back July 4, of all days. She didn’t hear her cell phone ring. She found a message: “We would like to offer you employment. We’re willing to wait until you return from your trip.”

Several weeks later, her second day on the job, she got an e-mail about an application she had filled out 12 months earlier. It was another offer. And then she got a call with another.

She has worked out a graveyard schedule with the time-share company and starts a daytime job in purchasing with a major Strip property this week.

Gray said she has to work both jobs because of the hole she dug during the past year — about $10,000 in personal loans, not to mention robbing from her 401k account. After 12 months of waiting shoulder-to-shoulder for interviews with hundreds of out-of-work people from across the valley, she feels as if she represents “not just myself, but also many others.”

Now, she said, “I really think differently about unemployment. That was always someone else’s problem. But now I see that behind every percentage, there’s families, people with bills to pay, issues that are impossible to measure with numbers.”

She has also learned a few lessons along the way, including the frugality many Americans are discovering in this riptide of an economy.

“I used to eat out more often. I haven’t bought clothes except for interviews. I ask my doctor to prescribe generic medicine. I clip coupons now and I never used to pay attention to that. I see which gas stations charge 10 cents less. It’s amazing, how much money I used to burn through,” she said.

She also has more family and friends in her life now. “I make some decisions now almost by committee,” she said.

The committee was concerned about her taking two jobs, fearing it could wear her down. “But I feel the more I have to do, the more I’ll do,” she told them.

Gray is still reeling from the “you’re hired” feeling she got from a few phone calls and e-mails only weeks ago.

“It was such a relief. I felt like I was stepping out of the twilight zone,” she said.

She has no explanation for why the search ended in a tumble of good news, after so much failure.

“If I knew what it was, I’d bottle it and sell it,” she said, laughing.

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