‘I sat there every day and cried before going to work’

By DW Gibson
June 15, 2012

Editor’s note: This week, Reuters Opinion is publishing five excerpts – one each day – from D.W. Gibson’s new book, Not Working, an oral history of the recession. Gibson spent months traveling across America talking to people who had been laid off.

Teresa Baseler is 55, and has two grown daughters and a husband in Omaha. This is her story.

I worked at M. for 31 years. So yep, I just kept moving up and moving up and doing very well.

Most of the stuff that I did I was trained on the job. I knew that if my job ever ended I didn’t have a college degree. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make the money elsewhere.

I was a senior buyer. I bought all of their furniture, all of their equipment. I traveled around the country for them when they had to open up new facilities and made sure that all the furniture got installed, things like that. I had a team of three.

April of 2008 they called us in to a meeting, and we were given an organizational chart and told, “Here, we’re going to reorganize. We’re gonna need to cut back, and here’s the chart. Here’s the hierarchy and the jobs that are going to be available, and pretty soon we’ll give you the job descriptions so that you can then apply.” That same year in February I got my annual appraisal. Rated above average as always throughout my 31 years. Got my $7,000 annual bonus shortly thereafter and then got told, “Well, now everybody has to apply for jobs”.

So we applied, and it wasn’t until August when we finally got called in one at a time to be told whether we had a job or not.

There was a severance package involved, and I wasn’t going to jump ship before I was able to get a hold of that, so you just kind of sat there. It was just waiting forever. You just wanted – just drop the hammer. Do it. Tell me I’m here, or I’m not. You know just every day, it’s just anxiety going in: “Do I have a job? Do I not have a job?”

In my case the whole team was let go. My first assistant was 41 years with the company. My administrative assistant was 25 years with the company, and I think what happened was that we were too expensive to keep. After you’ve been there so long, you’ve got the 401(k), you got five weeks of vacation, you get bonuses, you get higher in the salary range.

It’s how do you handle it at that moment, you know, it’s just: Put on the public face and fall apart when you get home. So that’s what happened. The next day I was a mess. I didn’t want to see anybody. I didn’t want to talk to my friends who got left behind at the company. You just wanted to sit in a chair and stare.

I was scared, even though it’s not a hard-luck story by any means. They gave me six months’ severance pay. I knew I had money to fall back on. But it was just still devastating; 31 years of going to the same place. What do you do, you know?

I think it goes back to being too expensive to keep because I was in the upper end of the salary range. Although I was wiling to take salary cuts and apply for jobs at lower levels.

And a lot of people were, you know, I’m gonna take my time. I’m not one of those people, you know, I’m just driven, I had to find something, I gotta do something. I kept thinking, what do I do? Where am I gonna go?

I finally got a job at P., where my daughter had worked. I had applied for a customer service job. I went from making $60,000 a year to $30,000.

This was structured to the point where, you know, you’re monitored on your production and your compliance to your schedule. So every morning when you go in, you get on the computer, and it tells you when your break is, when your lunch is. And every day it could be different. And I remember the first day after training, I had been on a call that went five minutes long, and I thought, well, that’s fine. I’m going to break five minutes late… Oh, no. You got dinged for going late, and you got dinged for coming back early. And if you had to go to the restroom… that’s an unscheduled break. I didn’t need that structure. So I drove myself crazy trying to meet all those matrices.

I was so scared… everything is automated, and although I had programmed computers, I think it was just my state of mind at the time, I felt like I couldn’t learn. I felt like, “Is it that I’m getting old?” I can’t do it. I would sit at that kitchen table every morning and cry. I can’t go there. I can’t do this. I can’t get it. I can’t. And I was doing fine. I was earning production awards. I was the new gal with the balloon at her desk every day, but I’m one of those people. I’m so driven – if I can’t be the best, I don’t want to play – so I made myself crazy there. You know you doubt yourself… I mean the self-esteem was gone. I quit wearing makeup. I let my hair go gray. I gained weight. I just felt worthless, and I sat there every day and cried before going to work. I can’t do this anymore, I can’t do this, I can’t do this.

I’m one of those people that internalizes it a lot. And like I said, couldn’t sleep, blood pressure went up, went to the doctor, and he says, “You know, you just have to live simpler. You just have to cut back.”

And I said, “I might have to get two jobs.”

He said – and this was very sobering – he said, “With your health, two jobs would kill you. You can’t do it.”

So that’s always in the back of my mind, you know?

You just do what you have to do. My husband and I have talked about this. We’ll probably always have to work. But yeah, you internalize that, and I think that’s why three years later, it still hurts me so bad. I can’t let go of that frustration, that bitterness, and that anger… it’s strange that it just haunts you for that long. And even now, almost three years later, bringing this up, I haven’t slept well for the last two nights just thinking about it.

You know how sometimes it’s comforting to go back and relive some things even though it’s a tragedy? When my dad died of cancer, I spent six weeks sitting by his bedside in hospice. Those were some of the best times we ever had, and it’s comforting to revisit some of those scenes in your mind.

Not this….this….just….hurts. You know? Why we put so much of our self-esteem into our job, and you know that’s part of who we are. I don’t know… Maybe it’s because this was my dream all my life, and now it’s gone.

3 comments

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The last two sentences speak volumes. This woman has (or had) all her psyche wrapped up in her job. This is a real issue for older workers. Aside from the financial implications of a later in life lay-off there is all this emotional baggage.

Employers have no loyalty to the worker. In the end, business is responsible to the shareholders or business owners. Profitability is job #1. It’s simply a fact of life.

It’s easy for employees to get attached to their jobs but in today’s world attachment is a recipe for heartbreak.

Learn to separate yourself from your work. You are not your job description. Socialize outside of the work place. Develop interests outside of your job. Perhaps go to school after work. Volunteer!

Do something so that you have an identity outside of your job. Somewhere to go, psychologically, when and if that job goes away.

On more thing. Save, save, save for that rainy day. When you are laid off or lose a job later in life for any reason there is a very high probability that your earnings will never recover. In that case your only financial friend will be your assets.

Younger workers. Are you listening?

Posted by Missinginaction | Report as abusive

I sympathize with several of Missinginaction’s points, especially the latter half of his or her post. I do want to quibble with the second paragraph: yes, profitability is essential (who can run a company that loses money every year?), but business can be responsible to shareholders without being irresponsible to employees.

It is a false dilemma to suggest that one has to choose between profitability and employees — look at great companies (all the best-to-work-for lists) that are magnificently profitable. Achieving profitability and maximizing profitability are not necessarily the same thing. There are many ways in which employers maximize for the short-term while foolishly creating perverse incentives.

My brother’s own successful tenure as an executive for one of the nation’s most successful companies proves that it need not be a “fact of life” that “employers have no loyalty to the worker.” Sure, that loyalty can’t be the ONLY consideration, but heaven help us as a nation if we normalize and accept uncritically that maximizing profitability matters AND treating employees well doesn’t.

Posted by carlrosin | Report as abusive

[...] ‘I sat there every day and cried before going to work’ [...]

The whole notion of profitability needs to be reassessed. What the workers take home in pay needs to be included as profit! You work, you produce something, you get a return. Putting all the emphasis on what the moneyed class gets out of an investment as they sit on their collective butt and watch others slave is wrong-headed, and typical of the current narrowly focused capitalistic accounting ethos that needs re-thinking.

Posted by franabulax | Report as abusive