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AL MARTINEZ

When corporations pull the rug out

December 02, 2005|AL MARTINEZ

GIVEN all the contrived ho-ho-ho heaped upon us by merchants after our money, this is probably the worst time of the year to be without a job. Unemployment is scary enough, and the added pressure of Christmas gift giving lays an extra dimension of pressure on one suddenly without the means of earning an income.

Many are facing that prospect here and at newspapers throughout the nation, where buyouts and layoffs are the realities of plunging circulations. While the young may find departures with pay a means of moving on to something better, older workers committed to a career that suddenly vanishes face a different and darker prospect.

To those who follow my twice-weekly output, I offer an assurance -- or a warning -- that I'm not among those who must seek other, and perhaps less satisfying, ways of making a living. I have, at least until now, survived the turmoil and the sadness that many of my colleagues are being forced to confront.

Worry and fear were palpable emotions during weeks of rumors that circulated throughout the domains of a newspaper once known as "the velvet coffin" for the perks that characterized a place once rich and comfortable. It has taken the events of the past days to make us realize that the Chandlers no longer hold us in their cozy embrace.

But even as rumors became reality here, tightening was evident in other places across the nation, notably the 30,000 "reductions" announced by General Motors. Twelve plants will be shut down throughout the U.S. and Canada, leaving their workers to face the cold winter of discontent without jobs. This while the company's CEO is said to sit comfortably upon a retirement plan that will pay him almost $5 million a year.

Not among those who have millions awaiting them is a good friend named Russ, who, for the second time in his 30 years with GM, is facing the prospect of being without a job. The first time was in 1992 when the company closed its Van Nuys plant, sending Russ and his family to Beaverton, Ore., where a GM parts warehouse remained open.

It was a life-altering move to uproot his wife and two children from a new home in Saugus to an unknown situation a thousand miles north, but it was either that or leave the company he had served for all those years and give up a pension, which, while less than that of the CEO he worked for, was too important to abandon.

And now, after about 10 years in Beaverton, Russ is again being told that his job will end and, at age 50, he will be forced to seek other ways to support his family, which now includes two children in college and a wife whose work brings in less than necessary to keep up with the expenses of higher education.

A difference today is that Russ will probably receive his pension, which was due to kick in next April, but it will halve his income and once more force him to face a decision: to remain where they are in a large home in a lovely 3-acre forest or to sweat out finding a new job elsewhere to supplement his pension. The need, he says, was sudden and abrupt: "They blindsided us."

In addition to a sudden shift in one's plans come intense feelings of loneliness and a slide in self-esteem, though a layoff may have nothing to do with a person's abilities or talents. The cruelties of executive decisions at times of dwindling profits too often find their victims faceless. Numbers become more important than names.

And though women are increasingly assuming jobs once limited to men, there remains in our culture a feeling that the role of supporting a family is ultimately the man's. When he is no longer able to fulfill that role, for whatever reason, the impact is often devastating. Ego dissolves and pride disappears in a wash of emotions that can easily leave one paralyzed.

Knocking on doors, waiting in offices, filling out resumes and badgering friends and relatives becomes a way of life to those seeking to rise again above the desolation of a landscape gone suddenly bleak. There is nothing to wake up for. Nothing to be good at. Nothing to take pride in. One can only watch as others go off to work and ponder the factors that leave them behind.

I've never been forced to take a buyout or been laid off. Each time I have left a newspaper to join another has been by choice and has represented a step upward. But I have seen my father, a victim of the Great Depression, stumble into drunkenness and divorce when his job vanished and none other was found, leaving a vast emptiness in his life. I saw his tears and his rage and a shift in priorities that destroyed our family.

Russ is made of better stuff, and so, I hope, are my colleagues here who are facing uncertain days this strange holiday season. But the feeling of loss is pervasive, and the road to reestablishment is long and hard. I wish them well on the way to their horizons.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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