Life on the Other Side
Since the current recession started in December 2007, more than 2.5 million Americans have lost their jobs, and by the end of last year, the nation’s unemployment rate had climbed to 7.2 percent. The picture here has been no less bleak, with an estimated 295,800 Chicagoans in the metro area now out of work. We talked to five local people who had recently been laid off about how their lives have changed and how they’ve scaled back expectations.
by Jennifer Tanaka
Insurance policy analyst
Raising four kids on a single income was tough enough; now Laura Horkay, 34, has to do it on unemployment benefits. In July, Horkay lost her job as a policy analyst at the insurance brokerage and risk-management consultancy Marsh Inc. The company simply shut down her entire department, part of a company-wide elimination of 900 jobs in 2008. To make matters worse, a couple of months later, Aon, the other big insurance company in town and Horkay’s best hope for finding a comparable job, closed the same department. “The thing that killed me the most was that they cut off the health insurance [on her last day of work],” says Horkay, whose children are ages 14, 10, 8, and 6. The COBRA payment to keep the family insured would have been $750 a month, she remembers; instead, Horkay opted for free state-funded health insurance for herself and the kids, making her biggest expense the $970 in rent for her three-bedroom house in Morton Grove. To help Horkay stay within her monthly budget of $1,818 after taxes—which is the most an individual in Illinois can collect in unemployment benefits—she relies on the state’s LINK card for food, $640 worth of groceries a month. She has also made some changes to the family routine that she hoped would go more or less undetected by the kids. “We used to go out for movies and pizza on Friday nights; now we’ll rent a movie and get a frozen pizza,” she says. Horkay gave up trying to buy a special diet of additive- and gluten-free food for her ten-year-old son, Dakari, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And this past Christmas was lean, despite the usual begging. “They asked for Guitar Hero [a video game for the PlayStation], a drum set, and iPhones,” Horkay says. “I told them, ‘Mommy’s not working right now.’” Horkay is not sanguine about the current job market. “There’s a lot of entry level positions,” she says. “That’s great for someone with no kids. With four, there’s just no way.”
Given the decline of the newspaper business, Dave Miller was not surprised when he was laid off from the Daily Herald this past April. “But it was jarring that it was happening to me,” says Miller, 42. A 15-year veteran of the suburban paper based in Arlington Heights, Miller covered high-school sports and a smattering of college and professional games. He joins a legion of journalists who have been let go in recent years; in 2008 alone, more than 15,000 jobs at newspapers have been lost, including scores of newsroom positions at the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune. At first, his new joblessness was a welcome break. Miller used the time to prepare his two-bedroom townhouse in Naperville to sell—supervising a laundry list of cosmetic renovations such as painting, replacing carpet, refinishing the floors, and moving out his possessions, which included an extensive White Sox memorabilia collection that ended up in his sister’s basement. “The timing was sort of a blessing in disguise, because I had been planning to buy a house in Oak Park with my girlfriend,” he says. “It would have been so much worse if
I had been laid off after we bought the house.” Last July, he moved into his girlfriend’s rental in Ravenswood, where the two plan to stay until Miller gets a new job. A month after his condo—a spacious townhouse adjacent to a retaining pond that attracts ducks and egrets—went on the market, Miller says, buyer traffic slowed to a trickle; he dropped the price three times, to $187,900, until it went under contract for $182,000 in mid-January. His job search so far has been equally frustrating. Miller says the usual job boards—Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com, and JobFinder.com—have yielded only a couple of promising leads, but none has progressed to an in-person interview. One ad—for a full-time writing position at a corporate communications company on Michigan Avenue—led to a phone call from the CEO, who told Miller that his was one of 100 applications the company received in one day. “We had a good conversation, and he said he would get back to me in a couple days—then nothing,” Miller says. Even though Miller has accepted that his next job will probably pay less than his last one, he’s still hoping to find work he enjoys. “My ideal job would be in media relations or PR with the Chicago White Sox,” he says. “I sent a letter to Jerry Reinsdorf. The Blackhawks actually sent me a rejection letter and I appreciate that.”
Director of business development
When Barbara Maldonado, 32, moved to Chicago in 2006, she did it to take her career to the next level. And, for a time, the plan was on track: After six years of constant travel as a rookie at GMR Marketing in Milwaukee, Maldonado left her hometown and soon found a job as the business affairs manager at The Marketing Store in Oakbrook Terrace. Then, in March 2008, she got a bigger job—director of business development for a five-person boutique marketing company in River North. But as she rose, the economy sank. “Last summer when the bottom fell out it was impossible to even get meetings,” she recalls. “People would say, ‘Talk to me in fall 2009.’” A week before Christmas, Maldonado was laid off and her position eliminated. “If it was 2004, I’d be driving a Jag,” she says with a laugh. “Instead, I’m renting an apartment and driving a beat-up car.” Given just one month’s severance, Maldonado, a native of Puerto Rico, worked as a volunteer through the holidays, delivering meals for a local charity and helping to organize an Obama inauguration party to benefit Amnesty International.
She says volunteering is a way of coping with her job loss. “[Volunteer work] helps put things in perspective and also keeps me active until ten o’clock at night,” she says. “Then I freak out until two o’clock in the morning.” Instead of sleeping more, Maldonado spends up to two hours a day on Facebook and LinkedIn, two popular Web-based social networking sites, and at least an hour a day updating her Twitter feed. She credits LinkedIn for getting her one in-person interview for an open job and Facebook for an offer to work on a short-term project. In fact, Maldonado has interviewed for four jobs but none has panned out. With her specialized marketing skills, Maldonado, who now lives in Oak Park with her Wheaten terrier, is optimistic, but she is also considering another path. “I’m applying to a nonprofit management program,” she says. “So I might totally change my life—depending on how I pay my bills.”
Times were good when Bryan Manning started at ABN Amro, the Dutch-owned behemoth, where he was hired to sell the bank’s services to investment managers. That was 2001. In the years that followed, Manning watched from the frontlines as credit default swaps arrived on the scene and the mortgage bubble grew. “I knew we were in trouble in August 2007 when the Canadian commercial paper market shut down,” he recalls, referring to Canada’s financial system of daily lending to large companies. “The panic started and liquidity dried up.” Manning had survived the consolidation that happened when ABN Amro sold LaSalle Bank to Bank of America in the middle of 2007, but as credit in the United States tightened, so did his ability to complete any deals. “It was like a slow death,” he says of the march toward his layoff this past May. “Quite frankly, it was a relief.” Armed with a “fair and decent” severance package, Manning took the summer off, road-tripped up and down the West Coast, and came back ready to “reinvent himself,” he says. Personally, Manning knows he’s better off than most: He and his wife paid off their student loans; they have only four years left on their mortgage payments; their two teenage kids go to public school; and Manning had the foresight to convert his entire 401(k) to cash in late 2007, just ahead of the stock market implosion, a move that he estimates spared him at least $80,000 in losses. “Many of the jobs that were eliminated are gone and not coming back,” says Manning, 46. He sees a coming boom in rental apartments—the flip side of the real-estate crash—and, in December, got a job with a company that buys and manages large-scale apartment buildings. Now a regional vice president of investment sales for Michael Franks LLC, a real-estate investment company in Palatine, Manning admits that leaping into a new industry can have its downside: He predicts he’ll make less annually over the next few years than in his old job, which paid in the low to middle six figures. That said, he’s glad to be working again. Says Manning: “We’re all facing a new reality.”
CHRISTINA MARIE FOX
As an English literature major at Wheaton College, Christina Marie Fox probably didn’t think she would still be in the restaurant industry at age 39. But job after job—starting with her afterschool stint refilling the salad bar at Buehler’s Restaurant in Wooster, Ohio—kept pulling her back in. In late October, Fox was laid off from her job—which paid between $65,000 and $75,000 a year—as the personal assistant to Rick Tramonto, the highflying chef. “I knew my position was an extra—a position that you have when you have extra money,” she says. Fox had been mentally preparing herself since last July, when the first round of layoffs hit co-workers, and the economy began to spiral downward. She cut back on luxuries like trendy clothing and music concerts, and saved enough to live without working for four months. So when the day came, Fox was ready. Honestly, I didn’t feel like it was a reflection on my work or me at all,” she says. But in the months since her dismissal Fox reports that her job search has been frustrating: She has not received a single response to e-mails sent to her friends and contacts in her network, even from those who asked for her resumé. She had to tap her savings when unemployment payments of $321 a week, after taxes, could no longer cover the $820 in rent for her one-bedroom apartment in Ravenswood and $485 per month for health insurance, plus utilities, gasoline, food, and her cell-phone bill. Her budgeting regimen now includes grocery shopping at Aldi and bartering with neighbors for cat sitting when she’s out of town. “You have to be creative,” says Fox, who recently decided to scale back her plans to celebrate turning 40 in May. “I was thinking it would be fun to rent out a space and hire one of the chefs I know, but realistically I probably shouldn’t be spending my money on that,” she says. “So I’m warning my friends: It’s going to be a dance party and it’s going to be a potluck.”
Photography: Andreas Larsson