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Monday, November 9, 2009

Laid OFF in an ON AGAIN world


Tenured Baby Boomers know a little something about being laid off. Nearly every one of them has a story in their pocket about the closing day at a certain point in their employment history. The bile rises up in their throats as they relive the fear and confusion that goes hand-in-hand with an unexpected or even anticipated layoff. Yet, there’s a basic truth in the saying ‘time heals all wounds’ and this age group is one to tell you: they may have been done in one corner, but they ain’t done yet. No way.

But, as we all know, times are tough on the employment front these days. In spite of some reports that the recession may be easing – banks repaying TARP hand-outs, real estate sales stiffening – employment, or rather unemployment, remains at historically poor levels. President Obama has said he is “concerned,” and there are some predicting that unemployment will remain high throughout the remainder of 2009, easing up in the first quarter of 2010.

But not everyone agrees. Gerald Celente, author of Trends Report, is portrayed by the left as being out of bounds to the right. Some dismiss his projections as “doomsday reports,” while others just diss him as being out of sync and out of fashion. No matter where you stand on politics, Celente’s predictions for our nation’s economy is that we’ve only just entered the dark side. He says the U.S. total real unemployment is more like 16% --not the 9% level being reported overall – and that before the crisis is over it will reach 25%...“Great Depression numbers."

We here at watchBOOM.com are not prognosticators. Hopeful, yes, and that is born of having lived so long. So we thought we’d round up a few employment/layoff stories from years past and offer them up as testaments to our Baby Boomer wrinkles. We survived and went on to thrive then, and we will do it again.


By Jeff Rundles

I’ve been let go, laid off and otherwise separated from particular jobs several times over the course of my career and after a while it just isn’t surprising anymore. I mean, after all, I’ve spent a lifetime in the media, and if there was ever an industry more volatile than media, I’d like to know what it is. Okay, Italian politics maybe, but it should be noted that the current president of Italy is a media mogul, so there is some synergy in that.

I once got let go from a part-time gig as a business commentator at a Denver television station for making a rather innocuous, but pretty funny if I do say so myself, joke about Nebraska. Who knew so many Cornhuskers watched Denver television so early in the morning?

Another time for a few months I had a 5-day-a-week talk radio show at a station based in a Downtown Denver office building. I showed up for my usual shift one afternoon and my key didn’t fit into the employees’ entrance down the hall from the main door. So I went to the main entrance to find different call letters painted on the door and different people inside. The receptionist told me, rather impolitely as I recall, “You don’t work here anymore.” Hey, now that I think about it, someone still owes me about a hundred bucks!

But the best story happened over Christmas in 1982. I was editor of a business magazine, owned by publishing company that went on to make a rather bad name for itself in Denver, and just before Thanksgiving that year I got a new publisher. He said all the right things and made a ton of promises, but it didn’t take long to discover that he was, shall we say, less than honest. On that score he fit right in with the president of the company, who is ultimately the subject of this story. For some back story, this particular company president had recently left his wife, having taken up with a young woman on my staff.

Christmas in ’82 was on a Saturday, and on the previous Sunday night I went to New York City to cover a business summit that had a few prominent Coloradans in attendance. Early Wednesday morning, on my hotel room phone, I got a call from the publisher which went like this:

Publisher: “Jeff, when are you coming back from New York?”
Me: “Later today.”
Publisher: “Oh good. Then you’ll be in tomorrow. Come in and clean out your desk.”

Knowing this fellow, I just let the conversation end there. It – my job – was fait accompli. On Thursday I went in to discover that pretty much everyone had been let go, so we all cleaned out our desks together and planned a Pity Party for that evening.

During the party it began to snow. By the time I left to go home, at about 10:00 p.m., there was nearly a foot a snow on the ground and it was coming down in buckets. Many of you might recall that the snow total that Dec. 23-24 reached something like 23”, pretty much erasing Christmas Eve as a last-minute-shopping day.

On Friday morning, Christmas Eve, a friend of mine and I took a couple of snow shovels and headed out to dig stranded people out of the snow. We were near the corner of University and Evans and decided to hitch a ride to another friend’s house to help out. Who should pull over to pick us up but the company president’s soon-to-be-ex wife, in a Jeep Wagoneer, filled to the brim in the back with very expensive, fine men’s suits, shoes, pants shirts, ties – a whole wardrobe. Yup; the company president’s clothes.

“Would you mind helping me dump these rags in the Goodwill box?,” she inquired.
“We’d be delighted,” we replied.

And so we did. What’ya know? A riches to rags story.

Not a month later, this same company president, presumably with a new wardrobe, gave the publisher the ax, the same publisher who had terminated me; he lasted just a day over two months. The company president left Denver for good in disgrace some two years later, owing a lot of people a lot of money. To quote the great Dorothy Parker, “Time wounds all heels.”


By Nancy Clark

No matter how you dress it up, getting through a layoff can be like believing in that old wives’ tale that “things break in threes.” Or, more optimistically, “looking good is half the battle.”

• Thursday 5:45 p.m.: Landlord calls with the news that the house has finally sold. I have 30 days to relocate.
• Friday 9:02 a.m.: Enter city magazine office (where I am the editor). Receptionist elongates her natural drawl into tomorrow, saying, “You-u-u-r next.” I am among the entire group laid off effective that morning.
• Monday 10:30 a.m.: Delusional (although I’m not admitting it yet), I head for the salon and a manicure and hair appointment “to get a new job.”
• Same day 10:35 a.m.: At Speer and Grant, I nudge up alongside a car driven by the guy I think I am dating, or at least was yesterday. In the passenger seat is a young woman I will forever call “Bambi”—half my age, a natural blonde, wearing an angora sweater with real pearls. My ex-boyfriend holds his hand up to the side of his face so as to hide. I am entranced by the pearls.
• Same day 11:30 p.m.: Phone rings. Caller identifies himself as Denver County Police requesting that I retrieve my stolen vehicle from underneath the viaduct at 6th and Lipan. I accuse the caller of “not being a policeman, because no policeman would ask me to drive under a dark bridge in the middle of the night.” “Ma’am, I am sorry, but I am a real policeman.” I scrounge up a pal to drive me to the scene of my wrecked vehicle that has been plowed into the viaduct as part of a gang initiation rite.
• Next morning 1:30 a.m.: I make an outbound call to my parents. Dad answers the phone as I start bawling, “Daddy….” “Here, let me let you talk to your mother,” he says, passes the phone off to Mom.

Moving back home with my parents—cat, dog, two kids in tow—wasn’t nearly as wrenching as my trip to the unemployment division. I’d rotated through hopeful and optimistic. Now I was just dead-ass broke. I wore heels, envisioning this as a
professional job interview. Men in wife-beater T-shirts and women flip-flops filled the place. Chastised by a clerk for waiting so long to file, I reeled back out to the parking lot, grateful to find a McDonald’s bag on the seat of my car, blowing into it to stop the hyperventilation. I was a failure, an utter, all-around failure. I didn’t even know how to dress the part of being unemployed….

A decade later in the telecom playground, I overhear a hushed phone call and then sniffling from the cubicle next to me. “They want you next,” said Adele, struggling to put on a brave face. She’d just gotten her pink slip. Earlier that week, she’d gotten a blue reading on her EPT.

“We’re terminating everyone in the department,” the director says crisply from across a conference table flanked by HR nudges. I nod in acknowledgment. “Except you.” I stopped mid-nod. “We’d like you to stay on as a specialist.” My peers sweep the contents of their desks into boxes assuming I had been severed with the same ax. For the first time, I understood the term “flying under the radar.”

The specialist title I’d been offered haunted me ’til the next morning when I asked for a powwow with HR. Yes, confirmed the rep, you’re no longer eligible for the quarterly bonus. Didn’t we mention that yesterday? Yes, you have the option of taking the package. Yes, that’s three month’s wages. Yes, you have 28 unused sick days and vacation days available to you. Yes, you qualify to leave at noon today.

I was boxing up my belongings when Ted whispered covertly to me, “Meet me on the smoking terrace.” Since joining the company, Ted and I had been placed at odds by higher-ups who alternately reversed our roles—boss-subordinate, subordinate-boss, depending on the project at hand. The strategy irritated Ted no end given that he owned a doctorate in psychology and I possessed only a lowly bachelor’s degree. I followed him to the smoking deck. There, he thrust the corporate mental health brochure toward me and said, “You need to call them.”

Channeling indignation, I replied, “Ted, I’m not the weak link in the food chain. I’m like a cork.”
“A pork?” he couldn’t hear over the ambient noise coming from I-25 abutting the company patio.
“Not a pork, you idiot. A cork. I always rise to the top.”
“You gave away a perfectly good job,” Ted growled. “Who in their right mind would quit a perfectly good job?! I wouldn’t have quit.”

Ted had counseled many a soldier during his tour in Nam. He’d confided to me once that when militiamen are on the edge of true insanity, they smell smoke. Now Ted was trying to shrink me as much as he was trying to work through his own fears. I leaned in and sniffed in the direction of Ted’s ciggie. “Hey, Ted? Do you smell smoke?” His lip curled.

I dialed for dollars, ’er clients, on my cell all the way home setting appointments with candidates for my services I hadn’t talked to in all too long. They were out there. I just had to remind them that I was. I heard months later that Ted had yanked his kid out of junior college the day of the layoff, a knee-jerk financial reaction perhaps. Or maybe just gossip. A whole decade later at a print company open house, I spotted Ted across the room and waved…maybe a little too buoyed up by reunion effusiveness, the kind that drives helium balloons to burst against ceiling lighting. He probably doesn’t recognize me, I thought. My hair was different, after all. “Hey, Ted, Ted, it’s me, me Nancy.”

“I know,” Ted growled, turning on his cowboy-boot heels. From this distance they looked every bit the two and one-half inches to match my heels.


By Jane Earle

I was working as editorial director at the CBS affiliate in my city during the 1987-88 recession, the last big one before the world-wide economic collapse of last fall. The corporate owners of the station made cuts in response to falling advertising revenues and decimated the staff.

Decimated. It sounds bad. Really bad. And if you take it back to its roots, it was really bad. In modern usage, decimated conjures images of blood all over the floor. At its Latin root, it means to take one in l0. Punishment for a Roman legion was to execute every tenth member. It was a practice designed to focus the attention of any legionnaire who might have thought of slacking – or sloping -- off and to produce the most disciplined army of the ancient world.

That’s what my employer did; it took one job in 10 from the staff of the television station. It was devastating to me. My husband’s business as an oil consultant had steadily declined over the past year to nothing as the price of oil sank to $10 per barrel. (Yes, Virginia, once upon a time there was $10 per barrel oil in this country.) So, the sharp knife that went through the TV station cutting 10 percent of the staff meant that the last of our household income went away over night.

It wasn’t the first time I had lost a job. Anyone who works in America will sooner or later find him/herself unemployed. It’s free market capitalism. Firing, or laying off, the euphemism for losing one’s job, is particularly brutal at a TV station. You’re there one day, gone the next. Since mine was the only station in town producing editorials, I didn’t have much hope of going down to the unemployment office and finding a listing for a similar job at another station.

Someone suggested to me that then would be a good time for me to go off to Harvard and get a master’s degree at the Kennedy School of Government. It seemed a bit extreme to me but it did offer hope of
adding to my resume and ultimately making me more employable. My husband, never one to resist his fate, found the idea bizarre and was not inclined to pull up stakes and move to Boston. So, not only were we both unemployed, but we were approaching a crisis in our marriage.

In the end, as no other options appeared, we did move to Boston. I had been accepted at Harvard and after the most difficult year and a half of my life, I emerged with the degree and another $20,000 in debt. From there, I was able to get a teaching position at Cornell University and we began to restore our lives.

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