Jewish Journal

Still unemployed: Out of luck but not out of hope

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

Posted on Nov. 22, 2011 at 2:36 pm

In July 2009, when everyone could see that the financial collapse of September 2008 was not going to be short-lived, I tracked down and interviewed for The Journal several people who had been hit hard by the recession. I also wrote about what Jewish organizations locally were doing to help and was heartened to find that the community had stepped up its efforts to reach out to those unable to find a job, pay bills or to put food on their tables — often middle-class people who had, for the first time in their lives, found themselves in need of help.

This month, two and half years later and three years into the economic crisis, I checked in again with those same ordinary people I had interviewed: a single mom looking for a new career when her job in the mortgage industry disappeared; a family with young children flattened by medical expenses when the mom, who didn’t have medical insurance, was injured; a former vice president in a huge entertainment firm who now couldn’t even get callbacks from her old connections as she searched for a new job; and a human-resources manager whose job had shrunk to 20 hours a week.

All but the injured mom agreed to be interviewed once more, to let readers know how things are going now. In a short conversation, however, the mom told me her injury had healed, and she is able to work again. She and her husband had gotten help from a nonprofit in getting their debt restructured, but after a few months that deal fell apart when they missed a single payment. The family had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, but she is hopeful they will eventually pull out of this mess, although she is still without health insurance.

Everyone else agreed to more extensive interviews. Like many Americans over the last three years, they have endured a continuing roller coaster of optimism and stress. Unemployment statistics and social service agency budgets tell one story, but the details of the lives of these people offer a more personal look at our times and the impact of financial stress.

From underemployed to employed to unemployed

Richard Banks had a job when I talked to him in 2009, but he was only working 20 hours a week and needed more. Today, the 64-year-old human resources manager who lives in Van Nuys is even further behind. He’s been out of a job since April.

“I feel young. I’m not ready for the senior center. I just want to work — I want to get out of the house, I want the social interaction, I like the idea of solving problems, of the energy of a workplace,” he said.

It took Banks 16 months to find a full-time job to replace the part-time position that wasn’t paying enough to cover his expenses. In December 2009, he was hired as the first HR manager at a growing Internet marketing firm. By January 2011, the company was sold to a competitor, and by June of that year, the California operation was completely shut down. Most of the 120 jobs at the firm were eliminated, with only a handful of people relocated to the Texas headquarters — an option that wouldn’t have worked for Banks, who has a wife and daughter, even had it been offered.

For the last five years, Banks and his wife, an editor, have traded spots back and forth being employed and unemployed. Family income has been about a third to a quarter what it used to be over the past five years, he said.

He has kept at the job hunt, working contacts, ads, Internet leads and building connections through a networking group he helped found at Temple Judea, where he was brotherhood president for several years.

Richard Banks has been on an employment roller coaster since 2008. “When you’re interviewing with someone half your age, there are issues,” he said. Photo by Rachel Davidson

He knows his age is working against him when it comes to job interviews.

“I’ve had so many interviews, long phone interviews, where everything is peachy keen, and then you meet up a week later and everything goes ice cold,” he said. “When you’re interviewing with someone who is half your age, there are issues — they want to be comfortable in their own culture, and it almost doesn’t matter what you bring into the environment in terms of education and experience. They’re just not comfortable with somebody they perceive — rightly or wrongly — who is not going to be around, or who is not going to get it, or who is not into the technology, or whatever the misconceptions are,” Banks said.

After Banks got laid off at the Internet firm, his wife got a job in publishing that came with health insurance, which was a good thing, as Banks — whose only stay in a hospital was when he was a bone marrow donor — was turned down for individual insurance.

Twenty-two days after his wife started working, Banks’ daughter, 23, was in a serious car accident, which has required follow-up medical care. It would have bankrupted them if they hadn’t had insurance, or if the new health care law hadn’t allowed his adult daughter to be on the family’s plan.

The daughter, a student, also works two jobs — as a food server and in retail. She pays about 90 percent of her expenses, and had to take out student loans when her father became unable to pay tuition after her first semester.

“I’m supposed to be there to be her safety net, and now I’m not that safety net, and that bothers me,” Banks said.

Cuts have come from everywhere. Banks said he’s always clipped coupons and doesn’t eat a lot of meat, so food expenses are pretty low. There have been no vacations and not much going out, and he had to give up tai chi, which had been helping to keep his stress levels down. He drives a 1986 Mercedes with no air conditioning and only one working window. He is collecting unemployment, but that will run out soon.

The house, in Van Nuys, is paid off, and Banks is repaying a small line of credit he took out against the house. He said he is relying on the house as his only asset.

And what about a retirement fund?

“I’m screwed,” he said. “There is no doubt about it.”

But he is staying hopeful and keeping busy.

Recently, he started meeting with another unemployed synagogue member to explore developing a Web-based business channeling volunteers to nonprofits.

He’s been helping a friend staff a new restaurant, and he started volunteering for One LA-IAF, an advocacy organization, where he is focusing on health care reform.

“I am walking the dog in the morning. I love to cook, so I’m back to making dinner. I am repotting the succulents and the cactuses because I love to see things grow — to keep the life force going,” he said.

He has no patience for talk about “one door closing and another opening.” But he looks for bright spots.

“I made a choice many years ago that no matter what is going on, you have to pull something out of that day that is good, something that makes you smile and makes you laugh. Something that keeps you positive.”

From the corner office to Crate & Barrel

When I talked with Annette Klein in 2009, she was certain success was just around the corner. She had been looking for a job for a few years, and she was thinking about starting a business.

“I’ll have made $1 million by next year at this time, and have a house with a backyard so we can get a dog,” she told me then.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Klein (not her real name, to protect her privacy) was laid off as a vice president at a large entertainment conglomerate in 2005, and after taking a couple of years to raise her toddler, she started looking for work again in 2007. Her timing couldn’t have been worse.

Last year, Klein, who is in her 50s, marched her resume into about 15 retailers and landed a job as a salesperson at Crate & Barrel in Beverly Hills. She worked five- to seven-hour shifts a few days a week, on her feet the whole time, earning $9.50 an hour.

“Some customers were really nice, and some were awful. It’s hard to curb your tongue when someone treats you with disrespect, especially at my age, and at my place in life, and where I’ve been and what I’ve worked for,” Klein said.

The Crate & Barrel job ended when the store wanted her to work more hours, and she physically couldn’t handle it. So now she is back to looking for a job. In the past four years, she’s tried multilevel marketing sales of products such as Arbonne and Isagenix. She networks and pulls on connections, and she has thought about hiring an executive head-hunter firm — but that would have cost her $8,000 up front, with no guarantees.

So, for now, she keeps pounding the pavement, looking for work in the entertainment industry and meanwhile applying for any jobs she can think of — including as a nanny, in sales or as a personal or administrative assistant.

For some of these she is seen as overqualified, for others she doesn’t have the right experience. Her age doesn’t help, she said.

“I know with every inch of my body and bone and heart and soul, that I’ve done whatever I can. I’ve talked to people; I’ve used connections; I’ve done everything. I have every ounce of confidence that I can look you straight in the eye and say I have done everything possible,” she said.

While Klein has had to cut back, she is nevertheless not in dire financial straits, and said she has never feared she would end up in the streets.

She has a small early retirement payout from the entertainment company where she worked for 20 years, and child support from her ex-husband to raise their 8-year-old daughter. She used up a 401(k) to pay bills for the first few years, then burned through most of her inheritance from her father. Her mother died last December, and that fund is now paying her bills, including health insurance.

Two years ago, she received a $1,500 cash grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and a $4,000 loan from Jewish Free Loan of Los Angeles, which she is now paying off at $100 a month.

Nevertheless, her circumstances have taken a toll. Her relationship with her brother and sister, who live in New York, has broken down over the inheritance money, leaving her feeling bereft of family connection. Last summer, she had surgery to alleviate a collapsing jaw, which she said was stress related. 

But she works to keep her spirits and her energy up, doing meditation and yoga, exercising and volunteering at her daughter’s school.

Klein and her daughter moved from a Los Angeles apartment to one in Beverly Hills, where she pays $700 a month less. Temple Emanuel, where her daughter goes to school, has been generous and supportive of her in all ways, she said. 

She prides herself that her daughter has not had to feel the brunt of her financial stress.

“The one thing I never did was take it out on [my daughter] or let on to her that there are any problems. By the grace of God, she has everything she wants — a good school, a nice home. So she doesn’t have a big house with a swimming pool like her friends have. She is dying for a dog, and we’re going to have it, because I’m going to start making money, and I’ll get us a home with a backyard so she can go run and play with her doggy,” Klein said.

And Klein still considers herself lucky.

“I try to change anything in my life from a negative to a positive. Losing a six-figure salary is a negative. But I got to bring my daughter up. I was here for her — and these are tender years.”

Elyssa Berger, right, with her supervisor Dana Plasa: “It’s a letdown after all that hard work, to make this change into a field that you thought was abundant with jobs, and to find out it’s been hit like everyone else.”

A sure bet yields uncertainty

Elyssa Berger was hopeful about her future when we first talked more than two years ago. She had lost her job in the mortgage industry, and had just applied to nursing school and was waiting to hear where she would get in. She had no doubts that the decision to change careers in her mid-40s would pay off, since well-paying nursing jobs were reliably plentiful.

That was true when she started the process in 2007, but not today.

Berger graduates from Los Angeles Valley College’s nursing school Dec. 15 with an associate’s degree in nursing, and will become a registered nurse after she takes her boards in February. But unlike at graduations in years past, there will be no recruiting fair at hers, as hospitals have little to offer new nurses.

“There are very few new-hire programs right now, and the ones that are still around that used to take 30 people a year, now they are taking four or five people,” said Berger, a single mother of 21-year-old twins and an 18-year-old.

In 2008, Los Angeles hospitals had vacancies in more than 12 percent of their nursing positions. Today, that number is around 4.7 percent, according to Deloras Jones, executive director of the California Institute for Nursing and Healthcare.

As the economy turned sour, part-time nurses increased their hours, older nurses opted not to retire, and some nurses who had been out of the workforce rejoined. All that left little room for new graduates — a situation exacerbated by the fact that since 2003, California nursing schools have increased capacity by 69 percent to address a nursing shortage, according to Jones.

While hospitals aren’t offering first-year training programs like they did just a few years ago, Jones said, nursing jobs are opening up in nonacute settings — clinics that focus on preventive care, nursing homes, home health and educational programs.

“I can probably get a job in a nursing home. It doesn’t pay nearly as well and doesn’t have the benefits you get working at a hospital. And that wasn’t what I went to school for,” Berger said. “But I’ll work where I can so I can get my first-year experience.”

Berger had initially hoped to work in hospice after doing a few years in a hospital. She is using all the connections she established in her student rotations — usually a sure bet for a first job.

“It’s kind of scary and shocking. To make a big life change like that and think you’re going to always have a job, but then to find out you can only get a job after you have a year of experience, but you can’t get that year experience — that’s a tough one,” said Berger, 47.

In 2007, Berger’s job in title insurance disappeared when the mortgage industry began to implode. She considered going back to her first career in airfreight sales, but with her kids getting older — and college funds already in place — she decided to explore other fields. She had been working with Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) to redirect her career when her daughter went into the hospital for seven days.

After watching the care the nurses gave her daughter, Berger decided she wanted to become a nurse.

She spent four years taking prerequisites, applying for programs and then completing her program. While she was applying, she volunteered in an oncology unit to get some experience, and she hooked up with a nurse mentor through JVS’ Womentoring program.

Her instincts and preparation paid off

“I loved the program. I love nursing. Even though I’m exhausted after a 12-hour hospital shift, I feel good — I feel like I’m contributing and helping people. It’s everything I thought it would be,” Berger said.

Jones notes that there is still a long-term nursing shortage, so jobs should again be plentiful when the economy improves.

But Berger needs a job now. She’s not eligible for unemployment, and while she planned financially to take the time to get her degree, she says she planned for four years — not more.

“I planned to be working now. I can’t afford to be off another year now,” Berger said. “It just kind of sucks, and it’s a letdown after all that hard work, to make this change into a field that you thought was abundant with jobs, and to find out it’s been hit like everyone else.”

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