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Monday, 2 March 2009

Downsized Executives Forced To Take 'Survival' Jobs

TEMPE, Ariz. — Mark Cooper started his work day on a recent morning cleaning the door handles of an office building with a rag, vigorously shaking out a rug at a back entrance and pushing a dust mop down a long hallway.

Nine months ago he lost his job as the security manager for the western United States for a Fortune 500 company, overseeing a budget of $1.2 million and earning about $70,000 a year. Now he is grateful for the $12 an hour he makes in what is known in unemployment circles as a “survival job” at a friend’s janitorial services company. But that does not make the work any easier.

“You’re fighting despair, discouragement, depression every day,” Mr. Cooper said.

Working five days a week, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mr. Cooper is not counted by traditional measures as among the recession’s casualties at this point. But his tumble down the economic ladder is among the more disquieting and often hidden aspects of the downturn.

Interviews with more than two dozen laid-off professionals across the country, including architects, former sales managers and executives who have taken on lower-paying, stop-gap jobs to help make ends meet, found that they were working for places like U.P.S. , a Verizon Wireless call center and a liquor store. For many of the workers, the psychological adjustment was just as difficult as the financial one, with their sense of identity and self-worth upended.

“It has been like peeling back the layers of a bad onion,” said Ame Arlt, 53, who recently accepted a position as a customer-service representative at an online insurance-leads referral service in Franklin, Tenn., after 20 years of working in executive jobs. “With every layer you peel back, you discover something else about yourself. You have to make an adjustment.”

In Mr. Cooper’s case, relying on unemployment checks was never a serious consideration. The maximum benefit that jobless people can collect in Arizona is $240 a week, among the lowest in the country — and much less than is required to cover the mortgage on the comfortable four-bedroom home in Glendale that he and his wife, Maggie Macias-Cooper, share.

Mrs. Macias-Cooper, who works as a personal trainer in a gym built in what used to be the couple’s three-car garage, has seen her client base shrink to 10 from about 50 over the last year.

In addition to giving Mr. Cooper a job as a janitor, his friend agreed to pay for the couple’s benefits through Cobra. Maintaining health care coverage was paramount for the family because Mrs. Macias-Cooper recently had breast cancer.

Some unemployed professionals said they decided not to seek even part-time work because it might interfere with their job searches. But Mr. Cooper rises every day at 4 a.m. and, after a time of prayer, devotes two hours to his job hunt on the computer. He prints out a detailed call list of prospective employers to take with him, squeezing in phone conversations during breaks throughout the day from his pickup truck, which he calls his “office.”

“There were times I broke down,” Mr. Cooper said. “I broke down thinking, ‘This is what I’ve become.’ ”

But Mrs. Macias-Cooper, who admitted that she was initially embarrassed about her husband’s new job, says she is now grateful.

“There is no shame,” said Mrs. Macias-Cooper, who grew teary during an interview at their home. “I am very proud of my husband that he will go to any lengths, do whatever it takes, to keep his family afloat, if it means mopping floors, cleaning urinals.”

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