One year later, unemployed Germans discover the real costs of reunification

July 02, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- The cost of German unity was driven home to Irmgard Gebauer yesterday when she was fired from her job as bookkeeper in a television factory.

Along with 3,588 of the factory's 6,860 workers and up to 1 million other eastern Germans, Mrs. Gebauer lost her job on the day a series of special government subsidy programs ended.

The programs had helped to cover the true magnitude of unemployment caused by the fusion exactly one year ago yesterday of East Germany's inefficient command economy with West Germany's market economy.

When official figures are released next month, they are expected to show up to a doubling of the eastern region's 9.5 percent unemployment rate.

Yesterday also was the day that the multibillion-dollar cost of unity hit western Germans. A $30 billion package of controversial tax increases that will squeeze an extra $900 a year out of the average four-person western German family went into effect.

It was, as the popular tabloid Super! put it, "the hardest day of unity."

The euphoria that existed on July 1 of last year, when the two Germanys united their economies and currencies, has been replaced by the painful realization that the stiff increases will cover only one-third of this year's $100 billion earmarked for the east and the $600 billion needed over the next decade.

Mrs. Gebauer would be happy to be paying higher taxes. But unemployed and 54 years old, she knows she has little chance of finding a new job.

"They only want women in their 20s and 30s. I don't feel so old, but they tell me I am," she said.

Since last November, Mrs. Gebauer had been on a special "short- time" program that gave employees their full salary but required them to work only a certain number of hours per week.

Along with Mrs. Gebauer, about 800,000 employees lost this status yesterday, meaning that most will be added to the 850,000 eastern Germans already classified as unemployed.

In addition to this was the end of a job-protection plan for civil servants. In Berlin alone about 27,000 former East German and East Berlin bureaucrats lost their jobs yesterday. By the end of the year, 400,000 employees of East Germany's bloated bureaucracy will be out of work, according to the public employees' union.

More eastern Germans are expected to lose short-term status at the end of September and December.

By the end of the year, about 4 million of eastern Germany's 9 million employees could be out of work.

Part of the reason for the uncertainty about the figures is that some of the newly unemployed will be picked up by job retraining programs.

But because the financing is uncertain, it remains to be seen how many workers actually will get a slot. So far, only 70,000 are being retrained.

Mrs. Gebauer has applied to be retrained but has been ruled too old to qualify. She said she has been told to stay unemployed a year until she is 55 and can qualify for early retirement.

But with her pension being based largely on her earnings during her last years of work, she stands to be a poor retiree.

She acknowledges the benefits of unification: "Since currency union last year, we've been able to buy a lot more.

L "The shelves are full, and we can travel. It's not all bad."

But reflecting the sentiments of many of her countrymen, she adds, "I never thought that unity would mean that after 34 years of hard work, I would end up unemployed and poor."

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