Brigitte McIntosh is sitting on her bed, just as she has every Sunday, week after week, month after month, blue pen poised over a page of newsprint headed “Career Opportunities.”
Patiently, she reads each offer, marks half a dozen, clips them, then takes out a legal pad to compose drafts of yet another batch of cover letters.
Though like many others, the day is an anniversary of sorts. A year ago, the 44-year-old former international operations director for an Oregon footwear manufacturing firm walked into her office and, within 15 minutes, was told that she had lost her job.
Company down-sizing. Nothing personal. Take some time off, if you like, and come back this evening to pack up your things.
During the year since McIntosh’s lay-off, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been boxing up their office files, business address books and the family photographs that personalized their desks, and joining the ranks of the unemployed.
In the final quarter of 1990, the jobless count totaled more than half a million, the worst three-month stretch since the bottom of the 1981-82 recession, according to the Department of Labor. Last month, the national unemployment rate reached 6.1%, while the California rate climbed to an even higher 7.1%, up from 5.3% a year ago.
Behind the figures are the faces of bankers, lawyers and retail executives, as well as the secretaries, engineers and assembly-line workers who fueled the defense, construction and manufacturing industries. From positions of relative prosperity and power, they have moved to the front lines of the job hunt, where egos are buffeted and hope is a carefully guarded commodity.
The following are the stories of three people who are looking for work. All of them lost their jobs because of economic measures unrelated to the quality of their work. They are people who had every reason to believe the old saying, “It could never happen to me.”
Brigitte McIntosh snaps open her black leather briefcase and places it beside her on the flowered bedspread. She bought the case as a gift to herself four years ago when she landed her former job. She slips out one of a handful of business cards and briefly regards her name and title printed below the company logo.
“I was supposed to turn these in,” she says, adding bleakly: “What could I possibly do with them?”
The job, which took her to Europe and Asia, was the pinnacle of her career. Raised in a middle-class family in Munich, Germany, McIntosh received a law degree, moved to the United States when she was 21, married an American (she was divorced eight years ago), and in the past 14 years moved up through management ranks in three manufacturing companies.
When she lost her job--and an annual salary of $47,000--she was emotionally devastated and financially unprepared. She had just returned from a vacation to Europe that cost several thousand dollars, had bought a new car, was supporting her son in college and had only $10,000 in the bank.
Still, at first, she didn’t worry. She moved out of her home and began calling friends and associates, while living with a friend. But when her unemployment insurance ran out in June, she still had not found work. In July, she moved to Los Angeles, where she thought opportunities would be better.
Last fall, she took a temporary job with a Long Beach firm, reviewing accounting data for $11 an hour, enough to keep her son in college and meet her monthly car payments. Unable to afford an apartment, she found lodging as a companion to an older woman in Inglewood.
Still, McIntosh manages to chuckle over her plight and to pursue her job search with energetic resolve. For two hours every Sunday morning she reads the employment ads.
But if her living quarters are cramped, so is her personal life. “The tough thing is that it’s solitary,” she says of her situation. “People say, ‘Get out, it improves your disposition.’ Well, that’s fine, but it costs you money. You’re looking at going to a movie and spending $6 or saving that $6 and living a day or two.” To cut costs, she has become a vegetarian and she hasn’t eaten in a restaurant since March.
Moreover, her hunt for a permanent job has been fruitless. “To this day, after talking to hundreds of people--we’re not talking several dozens but hundreds--I have yet to get a solid job lead.
“Most people don’t even give you a response.” When she gets form rejection letters she tosses them. “It’s too depressing.”
The contacts that fill her 1990 appointment book are about 95% used up. “I’ve tried everything I can possibly think of,” she says of her job hunt.
In the beginning, she made half a dozen trips to the unemployment office to check job listings, and for months she attended business association luncheons, though now she has no money to spend for doubtful outcomes.
She is registered with several executive recruiters, and since early fall she has fired off five to 15 resumes a week, but gotten only a handful of interviews.
After a year, she is confused about her makeshift life.
“You don’t think that people in the middle class who are law-abiding citizens, who drive the 55-miles-per-hour speed limit, that it could happen to them. To me, it’s so hard to understand.”
Still, McIntosh remains positive about her future.
“Surely one of those employers will look at my resume and say, ‘There’s a person we want,’ and my troubles will be over.” Besides, she adds, “I can’t lie down and die. It’s too soon.”
Bob Nolan (who requests that his real name not be used) strides over the dove-covered carpeting in the reception area to greet his guest. He is a distinguished-looking man of 47, with graying salon-clipped hair, a dark business suit and a crisp white-collar shirt.
Nolan is a client in a major outplacement firm, his “office” is one of several first-come-first-served “cubicles,” as he says, and he has become a peripatetic executive, toting his papers in a black canvas bag and vacating his desk at the end of each day.
“You’re really a nothing in this place,” he says.
A high-level executive for a major international hotel firm, Nolan lost his $125,000-a-year job last fall in a corporate buy-out. He and other executives were flown to world headquarters to receive the news.
“It was like the death of a loved one,” recalls Nolan, who joined the firm soon out of college and in 20 years saw its holdings quadruple.
“He was one of the movers and shakers who was on a real fast track,” says the partner in the outplacement firm who handles his case.
Now he is readjusting his ego. Although the outplacement firm offers a handsome business setting and secretarial support, he no longer has a phalanx of employees at his beck and call. There’s no more executive parking spot, and entertaining at tony restaurants has given way to coffee-shop lunches.
“I don’t crave the corner suite,” he says. “But I’ve been in a position of power and one gets accustomed to that.”
Nolan does not face immediate financial difficulty. A severance package gave him full salary and benefits until this spring. After that, however, he’ll have to dip into his savings to allow him, his wife and their college-age daughter to maintain a living standard that includes three cars and a home overlooking the Pacific.
For now, however, he puts on his suit and tie each morning, drives into town and hits the telephones. “You have to swallow your pride and call people and say, ‘I no longer have a job.’ ”
He has listed a hundred names to call on a series of legal pads, with an “A list” of company presidents, a “B list” of peers and a “C list” of people with whom to touch base.
Even for a self-assured man, cold calling is threatening. “You have to psych yourself up that this must be done today,” he says. Rationalizing that it’s lunch-time in Chicago or closing time in New York is cheating. When he gets rebuffs, he takes a break and buys the paper. “The toughest thing is putting that behind you and moving on.”
For the most part, however, industry contacts have been supportive. At business lunches, Nolan has been the one to comfort his associates. “It’s been a scary thought to them that I’m out of a job. If it could happen to me, it could happen to them.”
However, he has had three or four “major surprises.” One close colleague whose wife and baby he visited in the hospital has not returned repeated telephone calls.
He has not told neighbors and acquaintances that he’s unemployed. “You’d be forever defending yourself. There’s still a stigma about being out of work. People say, ‘If he’s so good why is he out of a job?’ ”
This attitude infuriates him. Indeed, he worries that there are too many good people on the market these days. “It dilutes the contacts you’d have for yourself. If I was the only hotshot looking for a job it would be different.”
There have been the odd, awkward personal moments of lost identity. When filling out a form for a store credit card over the holidays, Nolan found himself writing in his company name. “If you wrote ‘out of work,’ bells would probably ring and they’d drag you off.”
However, he is willing to take the knocks of the system. “They can do anything they want to,” he says of his company’s new owners. “I’m a capitalist and I understand that.
“I know I can be successful again. My concern is when that’s going to happen.”
When the nearly 400 employees of Mica/Hercules, a circuit-board manufacturing firm in Culver City, were called to a meeting last June, they thought it was to announce a new owner. They knew the company had been for sale.
Instead, they were told the business was being closed. With a send-off of 60 days’ salary required by law, they were out of work.
“Everybody was really shocked,” says Ralph Villagomez, one of the firm’s two truck drivers and a chairman of the company’s union for 15 years.
“It was like a family,” he says of the company where he worked for 24 years. “We were youngsters when we started out together. We were all real close.”
For the past seven months, Villagomez, who turns 53 next week, has been looking for a job. Just the day before the interview, his wife, Susan, 50, who worked for 10 years in the accounting department of an international electronics company, came home at mid-day after she and four other employees had been laid off because of slow sales.
Now the couple sit in their Culver City living room, taking stock of their situation. A normally jovial man, Villagomez sighs: “I’ve never seen things so bad.” Unemployment, recession, now war, he considers, as he watches TV coverage of Persian Gulf combat.
Susan Villagomez, who has carried her husband on her company’s health insurance, has only two weeks of medical benefits left. And in two weeks, Villagomez’s unemployment checks come to a halt. The couple is worried, for he is a diabetic and needs a regular supply of insulin.
Still, compared to friends, they consider themselves lucky. Their three daughters are grown and working, and they only have a small mortgage left on their pleasant suburban home.
The sentiment among former co-workers is one of depression, however. Those with families have resorted to taking jobs paying $5 to $6 an hour, says Villagomez, who earned $9. “What can you do with that? After taxes are taken out, you make less than on welfare.”
Villagomez has been making daily rounds of companies in the neighborhood, sometimes putting in an application without even knowing what they manufacture.
The responses are monotonously similar. “It’s always the same thing: ‘We’ll let you know if something comes up.’ Sometimes you feel like telling them off. But it’s not their fault.”
Villagomez, who came to the United States from Mexico with his parents when he was 9 years old, worked for a decade in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles. It has been 34 years since he has been out of work.
To help keep up their morale, friends often drop by the Villagomez home, sitting out in the back yard and talking about their lot. One friend lost his job at Mica/Hercules along with his two sons and one daughter-in-law.
The crowd of former co-workers, most in their 50s, also worries about their ages. “Right now you’ve got so many people out there looking for jobs, they’re taking the cream of the crop.” But, he says, it’s good to get together. “People feel lonely. It makes us all feel better seeing the old people.”
Villagomez, who has applied for a range of positions, from truck driver to a park recreation maintenance employee, says he’s ready to work. “I feel great.” What will he do if he doesn’t find something within the next few months? His frequent grin vanishes as he pauses. “I don’t know, to tell you the truth.”