Jobless numbers have faces

Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2001

NEW YORK -- Perry Esposito didn't need a government report to tell him the jobs are disappearing.

The auto mechanic -- cut from the payroll at TWA last month even as he was consoling his fiancee, an American Airlines flight attendant also fresh out of work -- has already met face-to-face with the new economic reality.

''I saw grown men cry -- 50-year-old men with a balance on their mortgage and one or two kids in college,'' Esposito says of the scene Oct. 7, when he and his co-workers at John F. Kennedy International Airport were sent home for good.

''I could walk into another airline and they'd normally be happy to have my skills. But I can't go apply at another airline because they're in the same situation,'' says Esposito, of Baldwin, N.Y.

The tough news for Esposito and others prospecting for jobs is that they are far from alone. Businesses slashed 415,000 jobs in October, the largest monthly cut in payrolls in more than 21 years, the Labor Department reported Friday.

The cuts punished workers in the airline industry, battered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But they also reached far beyond to nearly every sector of the economy, from manufacturing to retailing to technology. That pushed the unemployment rate to 5.4 percent last month, up from 4.9 percent in September, the highest since December 1996.

The October surge was fed by a nonstop series of layoff bulletins that piled up throughout the month -- including 6,000 job cuts announced by Sprint Corp., 11,000 at auto parts supplier Dana Corp., 3,000 at Unisys Corp. and 4,900 at Sears, Roebuck and Co.

The spike in unemployment was far worse than analysts had expected and compounds the 213,000 job cuts reported in September and 54,000 in August.

But the numbers, sobering as they are, tell just half the story. For the other half, the human side, listen to people like Esposito, or to Bob Pryor of Canton, Ohio, who works in a factory that will soon be shuttered.

''I've been here 22 years. I started on my 18th birthday -- Sept. 24, 1979,'' says Pryor, whose employer, Ansell Healthcare Products, is closing its Massillon latex glove factory this month. Of the 200 workers at the plant, about half have worked there at least 20 years, he says.

Pryor said he does not know yet whether he will get severance pay, and he said the company has not yet offered job training or assistance to find other work.

''I don't know what I'll do,'' he said. ''But I'll find another job. The way I look at it, they are taking my job, but they're not taking my life.''

Out of work in Las Vegas, Romelda Simon is also struggling to get by. For Simon, who lost her job making change for slot machine players at the Luxor casino in mid-September, one of the most difficult parts of losing her job is trying to explain things to her children.

''My daughter asks if we can go to the movies,'' said Simon, a 48-year-old mother of four who found her usual $400 a week plus tips wage cut to a $198 in unemployment benefits. ''I have to tell her no. It breaks my heart.''

Simon said she's reduced the food budget and isn't buying new clothes for the three children -- ages 17, 10 and 6 -- living with her in her fiance's house. She applied to get them into a subsidized school lunch program, but was turned down.

Other workers who have recently lost jobs say they've also been forced to pare spending and rethink their options.

Mike Kube, who lost his job as a ramp worker for United Airlines at Seattle's Sea-Tac airport on Oct. 31, figures he's lucky. He just finished paying off his truck, lives with his mother and his savings account and unemployment checks should keep him going for a while.

But he's cut back on food, and stays home more at night.

''I'm kind of in limbo, I'm waiting to see what's going to happen,'' he said. ''I know I can't just maintain the same lifestyle and have it just keep going without something other than unemployment.''

Yoav Shalom, who lost his job as a limousine driver a few weeks ago, is still waiting for $1,400 in back pay. He was relieved when his landlord told him it was OK if he was late with the rent he and his wife pay -- $2,500 a month for a house in suburban Long Island.

''It's kind of a hard time, but we need to be strong,'' he said.

Other recent pink slip recipients express similar determination. But people who've been out of work for many months warn that finding openings is proving very difficult, and the newest layoffs will increase already fierce competition at the few firms that are hiring.

''It's really tough out there right now. I don't know what to do anymore,'' said Judy Fuentes of Jersey City, N.J., flipping through a notebook filled with ads for job openings she's pursued since losing her job as a cafeteria guest services manager in July.

''I'll go through all these pages and I'll just send and send and send (resumes) and nobody's biting,'' said Fuentes, who counts her family lucky because her husband's job as a cook remains stable.

Diane Powell, of Palo Alto, Calif., says she's also been working steadily to find a job since she lost her position as an analyst at Hewlett Packard in late August. A generous severance package, including sessions at a career center, has eased the way. Since she's free of debt, Powell figures that with the $230 weekly unemployment checks, she can make it until February without a job.

''I hope I can find a job before the next wave gets laid off,'' she said.

''It's going to be hard. It's getting kind of scary.''

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