Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the

January 2, 2002 edition of U.S.

1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Legacy of a Layoff: Bittersweet Memories

Most people underestimate the effect of a

lay-off,"

says Rachel Weitzenkorn, the coordinator of Project ReEmployment,

which is offered through the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of

Greater Mercer County (609-987-8100). This workshop, where

participants

are required to attend all four half-day sessions, is designed to

get people through all of this while helping them set up a game plan

for finding a good, new job.

Weitzenkorn says the effects of job loss can include isolation,

depression,

anger, and grief, along with financial distress and family upset (U.S.

1, August 8, 2001). I can attest to the truth of her statement. While

I still don’t fully understand why, I do know that even the arrival

of a welcome pink slip can precipitate a blue funk.

The call came early on a Monday morning in December, 2000, just as

I was settling in for a day’s work in my home office. An employee

of a dot-com that reported on business news in the high tech, mostly

Internet, sector, I was just getting started on a quarterly summary

of top tech companies in New York City and Philadelphia. These

companies

had become increasingly hard to find during the eight months I

reported

on them. Stock prices were being quoted in pennies, and every week

brought the cancellation of three or four IPO offerings. The CEO of

one of the top Internet sites catering to brides had told me months

before that he was sure no consumer-oriented Internet company would

go public again — not ever.

Even before I picked up the phone, I suspected what the news would

be. The caller ID announced the Florida number of my company’s

headquarters,

where the top executives and the IT guys worked. The rest of us —

editors and reporters — worked from home offices and knew each

other mostly through Instant Messaging. The voice on the other end

of the line confirmed my hunch. It was the online publication’s top

editor, my big boss. There had been some talk that I would start a

New Jersey beat, and for a nanosecond I thought maybe that was what

he was calling to discuss. But no, I really knew.

The exact words my editor, a decent man and a good boss, used were

a blur. My impression was that he was having a much harder time with

the call than I was. His message, transparently rehearsed, almost

certainly with a lawyer, was clear enough: Stop typing this second.

You have been laid off.

In the flurry of E-mails and Instant Messages that followed, I learned

that reporters and editors around the country were getting the same

call. Most, incredibly enough, were surprised, something I found hard

to understand given that our jobs were to report on dot-coms,

companies

very much like ours. And for months the news had been unremittingly

bad.

Others were angry. They had been lied to! Misled! Well, yes, there

had been statements to the effect that more venture capital money

— enough to carry us to profitability — was due to roll in

any minute. Strange, I thought, that any of them, a pretty good bunch

of news people overall, had believed those statements to be anything

more than wishful thinking.

Me, I was neither surprised nor angry, or even unhappy. Quite the

opposite. In Christmas cards mailed just two days before the mass

lay-off, I had told friends I was quite sure I would be free to get

together with them soon. I expected to be laid off before New Year’s.

Getting a virtual pink slip a week before my older son was due home

for the holidays and my husband was scheduled to take vacation was

a bonus. On top of that, I was given far more severance pay than I

ever would have expected, and I was in the early stages of talking

about taking an excellent new job. (This one.)

The dot-com job, which had tied me to a desk in my home office from

before 8 a.m. until at least 6:30 p.m. had proved to be way too

isolating

for my taste. There had been talk, early on, of renting a satellite

office in Manhattan where I could work off and on. There had been

talk of staffing up so that I, and my reporting partner, who lived

in Brooklyn, could get out in the field to do face-to-face interviews.

But dwindling capital made it necessary for us to stick close to our

desks, turning out news stories based on telephone interviews as fast

as we could to fill up the site.

So, to review, I didn’t particularly like the job, knew a layoff had

to be coming, had a good shot at a better job, knew a good-sized

severance

check was on the way, and was looking forward to time off at the

holidays.

Elation would have been the proper reaction to that call from Florida.

But here is the odd part. I was depressed.

For me, a brisk walk through Manhattan — all around Central Park

and then down through Chelsea, the far west Village, Soho, and Tribeca

— is a sure cure for a little depression. I headed there on the

day after the Florida phone call. Instead of its usual magic, all

Manhattan held for me was streets full of purposeful people. Every

one of them heading for work, or so it seemed. I was the only person

on earth who did not have a job!

What nonsense, what rubbish, I kept telling myself.

But the internal lectures did not work. All through that day, and

on the three days that followed, I was inexplicably down. The weekend

brought relief. Come Saturday, I was part of a normal group of

bookstore-browsing

loafers, not the only person on the street with nowhere to go.

Given my reaction to an absolutely welcome lay-off, imagine what

Weitzenkorn’s

clients are going through. "Most of the individuals we see are

being downsized from major companies," she says. "They had

been working for their companies for 10, 15 years. They come to us

asking, `What do I do now?’"

Class size in Project ReEmployment ranges from five to 20.

Participants

tend to be corporate employees. "We had a vice president last

time," says Weitzenkorn, who has been running the programs for

one year. Right now, a number of IT professionals are coming in.

Classes

often feature guest speakers, including representatives from local

corporations, experts on budgeting, counselors from temporary

placement

firms, and job search advisors from area colleges. Discussion is

encouraged,

and participants often pick up leads, search strategies, and tips

on coping with family and financial concerns from one another. Some

classes become close, and form a sort of alumni group to keep the

communication going after the sessions end.

Weitzenkorn also is available after the formal program to provide

counseling. Among her advice to job seekers — and their

families:Know

it is normal to grieve. Most people, told they are no longer needed

at their jobs, are going to go through a process that is very much

like grieving the loss of a family member or close friend. "There

is shock, anger, depression, guilt," Weitzenkorn says. No serious

job search can begin until these emotions are out of the way, she

says. It may take a month, or six months. There are people who are

still unable to come to grips with the loss after a year. If working

through the emotions surrounding a lay-off takes this long, however,

counseling may be in order. Some of her advice:

Shed the shame, and reach out. "People are so ashamed

when they lose a job," says Weitzenkorn. "It’s so

embarrassing."

A natural reaction is to hide out, but that is precisely the worst

thing to do when a good new job is the goal. "Almost everyone

gets a job through networking," she says. Try to swallow hard,

realize that the stigma once attached to a lay-off is now gone, and

tell absolutely everyone that you are looking for a good employment

opportunity.

"We teach people how to say this," says Weitzenkorn. While

many ex-execs choke on announcing to near-strangers that they need

a job, saying something like, "`I’m interested in getting into

export logistics, do you know anyone in the field I might be able

to talk to?’" can be much easier. Remember that people, almost

universally, enjoy helping if they themselves do not feel pressured.

Think of shifting gears. Hard as it is for many of the

newly-laid-off to accept, for a good number of people the event is

a positive career milestone. Weitzenkorn has seen a number of

corporate

employees, who, while missing their paychecks, are happy to be freed

from jobs they didn’t like all that well. Many decide a change is

in order. Work at a non-profit looks attractive to some clients, and

teaching is gaining in popularity among mathematicians and scientists.

Make an interim plan. Some of Weitzenkorn’s clients need

an income right away to keep up on their financial obligations. To

help out, Project ReEmployment brings in credit counselors to teach

budgeting. "When we ask new participants if they are interested

in a course on budgeting, they say no," says Weitzenkorn. "But

that is one of our most popular classes. People always stay around

to ask questions." Project ReEmployment also brings in reps from

staffing agencies to discuss short term employment possibilities to

help keep the mortgage money flowing while the search for a good,

permanent job is in the works.

Be patient with your unemployed spouse, parent, or child.

Families need to listen, and go easy on advice to their unemployed

relative, says Weitzenkorn. Coping with an empty mailbox weeks after

sending out 200 resumes is a strain. Putting yourself on the line

at interviews where the other candidate gets the nod is demoralizing.

At home, the lay-off victim needs support.

Even in the best of circumstances — like mine — a

lay-off

is a jolt, especially in a society where the first question we ask

one another invariably is: "So, what do you do for a living?"

An aim of Project ReEmployment is to show the unemployed that lots

of people are hunting for their next jobs, and that the experience,

painful though it may be, is often a stepping stone to a better job

— and maybe a better life. That’s the way it worked out for me.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring


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