White-collar workers find it hard to let go of 'it can't happen to me'


October 21, 1991|By Timothy J. Mullaney

Dennis Yeagle has seen an unemployment line or two in his day. But the ones he began to see as Maryland's economy slumped early this year amazed even him -- and he manages the unemployment insurance office in Towson.

"The whole area where they come to file claims was packed," he said. "Like a cinnamon roll."

Professional, technical and managerial workers account for nearly a quarter of Maryland's unemployed, said Chuck Middlebrooks, an assistant secretary of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. And the 146 percent jump in professionals registered with the state unemployment service in fiscal 1991 dwarfs the 37 percent boost in overall new unemployment claims, he said.

"It's a change in the economy," Mr. Middlebrooks said. "It's impossible to have moved as far into a service economy as we have without having a different distribution of unemployment."

In Mr. Yeagle's office, about 38 percent of his claimants are professionals, technical workers or managers. In Columbia, it's more like 45 percent, which Mr. Middlebrooks said is the highest of any DEED office.

But more than just the numbers have changed. This recession is different, more of a white-collar recession. Joblessness is still higher among construction workers than bankers, but this recession has hit thousands of Maryland white collar workers who never dreamed it would happen to them.

"So many of these white collar types, it's the first time they've ever been unemployed. We had a few who broke down while they were filing their claims," Mr. Yeagle said. "The warehouse guy, the construction guy, he'd been there before. He knew what to expect. . . . They're not distraught. It's no big deal."

And professionals react to firings and layoffs very differently than blue-collar workers.

Their skills are more specialized, so they have more trouble finding new jobs. And they're used to being in control of their lives, and expect that control more than construction workers who get laid off most winters. So they take the loss of their jobs much more personally.

"A lot of them have been off work three or four days and haven't even told their wives," said Margaret Askew, who manages the DEED unemployment office in Columbia. "We've had people say they felt like committing suicide, all kinds of stuff."

Below are the stories of four people who have found themselves out of work this year or last. These people aren't demanding extended unemployment benefits or trying to tell anyone that the economy has done them wrong. In the economic "wars" of 1991, they're simply telling tales from the front, tales for our time.

Sarah Veilleux

July 11 was one of the happiest days in Sarah Veilleux's life, as the 25-year-old financial analyst for Commercial Credit Corp. and her fiance bought the $200,000 home in which they plan to settle down. July 26 was one of the worst: Sarah was fired.

Miss Veilleux, now a job-seeker and part-time MBA student at the University of Baltimore, is a good example of the jobless professional. She's hungry for success, measuring her career against an informal plan she carries in her head (until July 26th, she says, she was a decade ahead). And she went through an intense period of shock -- almost grief -- and embarrassment when her job was eliminated and she became a victim of the white-collar recession.

"I had a hard time dealing with it," she recalls. That feeling was not eased by the knowledge that while she was being fired, her parents were en route to Maryland from Maine to visit her new house. "I felt like such an idiot. . . . I'd never been slapped in the face before."

At first, she wouldn't even tell her parents about being fired -- she was too embarrassed. On the Monday after she was let go, she told them she was off to work. Instead, she went to the unemployment office.

Like many young, ambitious white-collar workers, Miss Veilleux figured she was smart and educated and basically in control of her life. "I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be eliminated." She pauses. "Obviously -- I had just bought a $200,000 house."

She was wrong.

Her boss came into Miss Veilleux's office at 3:30 on Friday, July 26. "I knew I was in trouble," she says. The boss handed her a letter and asked if she had any questions. That was it.

She called her fiancee for a ride home, and his car was blocked in. She waited for him outside the Commercial Credit building -- it was raining, and, of course, she was wearing a new suit -- and tried to be civil to co-workers who said hi, having no idea what had just happened. Eventually, she struck out for his office on foot and found him.

"I started to cry in the car," she says.

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