There have been many sacrifices in Randi Quiroga’s life since she was downsized by Merrill Lynch last July, but perhaps the thing she misses the most is going out for Chinese food. The Robbinsville resident laughs when she mentions her special yearning, but dig deeper and you understand that the layoff really rocked her world. This is no laughing matter. And the Quiroga family is just one of many in central New Jersey.

Quiroga’s official title at the Merrill Lynch facility in Hopewell was project management professional, a position she held for 12 years. She thought she was a recession-proof, despite the fact that, like other global financial giants, Merrill Lynch was reeling from billions of dollars in losses, and had been shedding jobs steadily, especially in back office operations such as customer service and administration. Quiroga knew layoffs were happening, but she didn’t see her own pink slip coming.

“I was performing an important role, working hard, putting in overtime and I had always had good reviews, so it really came as a shock,” she says. “But I can see now that your work ethic and longevity doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about what the business needs. I’m even afraid to send an E-mail over there because I don’t know who is still there and who is gone.”

Quiroga’s layoff threw a significant economic monkey wrench into the dual-income Quiroga family household. Her husband, Robert, had also been downsized from Merrill Lynch a couple years ago. He has since been working for the consulting firm Datanomics as an information technology consultant. However, his assignments last only six months at a time, Quiroga says, and anticipating the end of those six-month stints has added even more anxiety. “Sometimes I can’t even breathe,” she says. They have two children. Elana, 19, is a freshman at the University of Connecticut. Daniel, 14, is an eighth grader.

This might have been a situation Quiroga’s parents endured decades ago, during the Depression and World War II. But as a baby boomer (Quiroga is 50), she never had the impression that a hard-working, educated professional like herself would be filing for unemployment benefits near the height of her career.

She grew up in Wantagh, Long Island, where her father was a car salesman and her mother worked as a registered nurse. “I didn’t get the salesman gene,” Quiroga says. But the interest in biology and life sciences from her mother’s side was instilled in her, and she graduated from Cornell University with a degree in animal and biological sciences. (Her husband, a native New Yorker, graduated from St. John’s University.)

Quiroga points out that she has been steadily employed in a solid, professional position since her college days in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. That’s why being out of a job feels somewhat like being marooned.

Reflecting on the psychological and philosophical aspects of her current state of affairs is only part of the readjustment Quiroga is going through. More immediate are the financial concerns for herself and her family. Her husband’s income, along with state unemployment benefits, have kept the family afloat and, thanks to extensions, Quiroga will be able to continue to collect unemployment for several more months. But, the checks will eventually stop coming. “Before I was laid off, we weren’t living a luxurious life, but we could save for college, actively save for retirement, and keep up with inflation,” she says. “We’re alright now, but we’re somewhat in trouble, I just don’t know the extent yet. For one thing, we had to go with COBRA for our medical and dental coverage, and it’s expensive — $1,200 a month.”

Dining out has become a thing of the past for the family, and they are being parsimonious about buying and exchanging presents. Among other adjustments, the family has stopped saving for retirement, they have re-financed their mortgage, and cut down on cable bills.

Fortunately, the family had saved steadily for 19-year-old Elana’s higher education. The bad news of the layoff came only weeks before she was about to start college, but she was able to go forward and attend the University of Connecticut. Quiroga says there is no question that Elana will continue there. It is Daniel, she thinks, who will experience the family cutbacks more. “We’re thinking of a state school for him, as well as looking into student loans and what not,” Quiroga says. “It’s impacting him worse than Elana. For example, this is the first time in 10 years that we can’t send my son to camp. Now he’s looking to get a summer job. In fact, they’re both learning the meaning of working for your money and that’s important for them — to know that money doesn’t grow on trees.”

If there is a teaching point in this circumstance, Quiroga struggles to articulate it. “I was brought up and taught that if you got a good education, worked hard, and were honest, you would succeed. You want your kids to be honest and hard-working but none of that seems to matter anymore. There’s no loyalty. That’s why this blew my world apart.”

Looking for a job, Quiroga says, is “what I do all day, every day. I’m networking, sending out resume after resume, but you don’t even get a call back. Everybody is so busy, and they have hundreds of resumes on their desk. It’s an employer’s market right now, and they have the luxury of looking for the perfect person.’

“I’ve had several phone and in-person interviews with human resources and managers, but it seems from the number of resumes I’m sending out, I’m not getting much of a response,” Quiroga says. “I’ve signed onto a number of job boards, but as far as following up by phone, there’s no way to contact them. I’ve also gone to the websites of various companies where you can register for job alerts. I think it’s better to go right to the source.”

Quiroga is looking for work within a one-hour radius of her home and is currently not attracted to the idea of commuting to Manhattan. “If I worked in Manhattan that’s all I’d do — commute, work, and sleep, and my kids would hardly see me,” she says. “Merrill Lynch really helped me have a life with my family, and I was even able to telecommute sometimes. I thought that that was the direction the corporate world was going.’

“I would love to transfer my skills into the pharmaceutical or medical fields, and I think I could step pretty easily into anything that’s put before me,” Quiroga continues.

Like many others in her situation, Quiroga has tried to look at the layoff as an opportunity “to learn something new or to do something I really wanted to do,” she says. “I’ve just gone through the orientation process at Mercer County Wildlife Center, for example, and I’m going to be volunteering there.” Other volunteer work involves the high school’s PTSA.

“I’ve also created a really creative resume for veterinarians’ offices,” Quiroga says. “To do something I love, I’d be willing to make some lifestyle changes. There’s also teaching. A lot of people have suggested I try this because I have the science background and good science teachers are a hot commodity. I’m open to a lot of ideas.”

Flexibility, imagination, and creativity may be the key jobhunting ingredients for professionals who have been used to long-term, full-time positions. “You have to be more creative and innovative than before,” Quiroga says. “It’s a different way of thinking and I think it’s a difficult skill to develop. The schools aren’t teaching this. So we’re wondering how to teach them to succeed in this life, take care of their families, and keep their jobs. Kids today really have to look ahead, toward something the world will need for a long time.”

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