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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Being Cheated Out of Your Job in the Bush Recession

Newspapers around the country, I suspect, are filled with stories about people who have suddenly lost their jobs in the Bush recession.

That certainly has been the case here in Birmingham. On one recent day, our local newspaper reported that the metro area's unemployment rate had soared to 8 percent, double what it was a year earlier. That was followed the next day by a compelling story about a mother of three who is struggling to make ends meet after losing her job as a producer at a local television station.

These stories raised a question here at Legal Schnauzer: What is the difference between losing your job for legitimate (though painful) reasons in a bad economy and being cheated out of your job?

As the victim of a "political hit" that cost me my job last May as an editor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), I read these stories with that question in mind.

What conclusions have I reached? Well, let's first consider the stories of some folks who are suffering because of the bad economy.

There's Gary Sweetapple, a technology consultant from Alabaster, Alabama, who lost his job of 12 years as chief information officer for an office furniture company. Sweetapple lives in Shelby County, where I live, and has been out of work for almost a year. He has been working with an outplacement consultant, who says he is surprised by the number of people in their 40s and 50s in the Birmingham area who have been laid off and are looking for work. "Many are in a state of shock and disbelief," the consultant said.

There's Sybil Gilbert-Scarbrough, the television producer, who was so blindsided by the loss of her job that she didn't even have an updated resume prepared.

And her finances are in ruins. With her bank accounts down to $1.01, she recently had to tap into one of her daughters' saving accounts for $50 to cover a check she had written the week before. "I literally had six cents in my savings account and 95 cents in my checking account," Gilbert-Scarbrough said.

Two days later, she had to use her daughter's gift card to help buy toilet paper.

As I read about the struggles of my fellow Birminghamians, I couldn't help but recall a recent article by Nick Turse at Alternet. It's title? "The Financial Crisis is Driving Hordes of Americans to Suicide."

As if that headline weren't alarming enough, Turse goes on to report:

The body count is still rising. For months on end, marked by bankruptcies, foreclosures, evictions, and layoffs, the economic meltdown has taken a heavy toll on Americans. In response, a range of extreme acts including suicide, self-inflicted injury, murder, and arson have hit the local news. By October 2008, an analysis of press reports nationwide indicated that an epidemic of tragedies spurred by the financial crisis had already spread from Pasadena, California, to Taunton, Massachusetts, from Roseville, Minnesota, to Ocala, Florida.

What is going on in the minds of the jobless?

Beverly Hills clinical psychologist Leslie Seppinni caught something of our moment when she told Forbes magazine that this was "the first time in her 18-year career that businessmen are calling her with suicidal impulses over their financial state." In the last three months, alone, "she has intervened in at least 14 cases of men seriously considering taking their lives." Seppinni offered this observation: "They feel guilt and shame because they think they should have known what was coming with the market or they should have pulled out faster."

So what have I learned about the difference between losing your job and being cheated out of your job? At the risk of making sweeping generalizations, I'm guessing that loss of a job for legitimate reasons, in an economic downturn, can lead to depression--even desperation. Perhaps that is why the Alternet story focuses on cases of suicide.

Mrs. Schnauzer and I can identify with the financial strains and psychological stresses of our fellow Birminghamians who were portrayed in recent news articles. We know what it's like to get threatening (and illegal) calls and letters from third-party debt buyers. We know about the stress of having to look for a job while having a resume that says you were "terminated" from your previous job.

But I think we feel something different from folks who lost their jobs due to an economic downturn. Those folks almost certainly were not the only persons let go at their places of employment. I was. Those folks probably had a supervisor who could look them in the eye and give them a truthful story about why they were being let go. I didn't.

My employer wasn't laying people off in May 2008. It cheated me out of my job because someone didn't like the uncomfortable truths I was writing on my blog.

Being treated that way, after 19 years on the job, does not produce depression or desperation, I think. It produces outrage and a determination to achieve justice.

I'm happy to report that Mrs. Schnauzer and I do not feel the least bit suicidal. And we expect it to stay that way.

Homicidal? I don't claim to be an expert on this subject, and I don't want to become one. But if people are cheated long enough and out of enough, to where they essentially have nothing left to lose, I suspect they can reach a breaking point.

Do Mrs. Schnauzer and I have a breaking point? I imagine that, like most humans, we do. Will we be pushed up against it? Time will tell.

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