Two people, five years, five layoffs

Surviving layoffs
Michelle and Al Ford relax at their home in St. Paul, Minn. before heading to work Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011. Michelle and Al have suffered a combination of five layoffs in five years and are happy to both be working again.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

For many people, job loss is as devastating emotionally as it is financially. Imagine what it would be like to lose your job not just once, but maybe even two or three times in just as many years. Imagine the same thing happening to your spouse, as well.

For Al and Michelle Ford, the Great Recession started about a year before it became a nationwide crisis.

They were both working at the same company. Al had spent 14 years on the manufacturing side. Michelle had built a nine-year career managing customer service workers. At the end of December 2006, word came that the company was consolidating and reorganizing. Michelle got her pink slip first; Al's came a month later.

"I thought the world was coming to an end. I mean everything was just pulled out from under," Michelle said.

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The Fords have been married more than a quarter century. Michelle is 45 years old and college educated; Al is 52 and has a high school diploma. Together, they felt they had built a good life. They raised two kids, owned a house, saved their money and avoided credit card debt.

They can joke about unemployment now, but losing their jobs at the same time put a lot of stress on their marriage. And some of the tension came from having to negotiate the use of one little corner of their basement. It's where their sole computer sat, which they both needed to look for work.

"Whoever thinks of having side-by-side computers for when you both lose your job," Michelle said.

Al Ford
Al Ford goes over a list of janitorial duties he must attend to at his job at St. Catherine University. He's earning less money then he used to in manufacturing, but he loves his job.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

It didn't take long until they were back at work, Al said. The economy hadn't tanked yet.

"I got a job within four to five months and thought I would never go through that again," Al said. "But it happened again."

The Fords' new jobs carried them past what economists say was the technical end of the recession. Then both Michelle and Al again lost their jobs on the same day in early 2010 — even though they were working at different companies.

And then they were back at the computer in the basement. But now the problem was, Michelle felt like she was carrying most of the load.

"There was a breaking point for me, I don't want to say a nervous breakdown, but I had, like, a meltdown, because I was managing two job searches. I couldn't handle all my cover letters and changes to my resume while still trying to do that for him," Michelle said. "It's hard enough when you get that rejection for yourself, but when you get it for two people, it's like, 'Wow.' "

Al admits he needed some serious prodding to keep up his job search. His second bout of unemployment lasted ten months, and he needed to have Michelle riding him, as he puts it. He says without it, he would've given up.

"I'd just lay down and roll over. You've got to have someone driving you, whether it's with a stick or bat," Al said.

Michelle Ford
Michelle Ford went through three layoffs in five years but has been back at work since July, where she manages customer service workers at a medical supply company.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"And it worked really good. Couple bumps and bruises, But I'm fine. I'll live."

They both got jobs again and felt hopeful. But Michelle's new job lasted barely a year. This past spring, another business consolidation put her out of work. This time Al helped Michelle cope with the strain.

If you're keeping track, Michelle and Al suffered five layoffs between the two of them in just as many years.

It's unclear how many people have suffered serial layoffs like the Fords. The state doesn't track them. But hiring managers like Yvonne Zachman-Fiedler, chief operations officer at ActivStyle, the Minneapolis medical supply company where Michelle now works, are on the lookout for them.

"Are they job hoppers? Am I going to put a lot of money and time into training them only to lose them six months later? Or is it actually a sign of the economy?"

When Zachman-Fiedler saw Michelle Ford's job application she had some questions.

"We went through her resume and said, 'OK. You've been through a lot of companies, but why?' I need to know the story and understand the story behind it to make sure that she was going to be a keeper, because we want keepers here," Zachman-Fiedler said.

But Michelle was a keeper. And now she supervises a customer service division once again, with 30 people reporting to her.

Meanwhile, Al is content with a janitorial gig he landed at St. Catherine University.

The Fords' combined annual take-home pay is at least $10,000 down from what it was five years ago. But they still have some savings and are grateful their finances aren't worse.

Still, it's hard to feel like they're completely in the clear, Michelle said.

"I guess in this economy the way I feel is not a matter of if you're going to lose a job, but when."

Having the fortitude to find the next job was always hard, she said, but at least now they know they can do it.