Professionals had thought, 'It couldn't happen to me'

November 21, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

GEORGE Crosby's engineering career started at Westinghouse. He assumed it would end there. Right ending, wrong script. After 34 years with the company, Crosby was laid off.

Carol Diggs had a $40,000-a-year job, a house in the suburbs and, she thought, a future with her banking firm. When her supervisor called, Diggs was expecting a promotion. Instead, she and her position were cut.

For 20 years, Jeff Hider followed a white-collar blueprint for success. He climbed the corporate ladder by leapfrogging from one company to another. Then the ladder broke. In a flash, Hider's job was eliminated, along with his six-figure income.

Stunned by unexpected layoffs, these Baltimore-area residents joined the growing ranks of experienced professionals who mistakenly believed they were beyond the grasp of a troubled economy.

Some manage to parlay their bad luck into better jobs. Many take significant salary cuts to maintain a semblance of their lifestyle. Others continue the oft-frustrating search for steady employment.

George Crosby, 57, was laid off in February. Nine months, 50 resumes and three job interviews later, he wonders if he'll ever again work as an engineer.

He isn't surprised by his lack of success. "There are a lot of younger engineers out there to eat up the available jobs," he says.

Crosby, who lives in Columbia with his wife and two children, earned $52,000 a year at the Westinghouse plant in Linthicum. His wife, Sabra, makes $12,000 as a teacher's aide in Howard County.

The family lived comfortably before George's layoff, in a contemporary $200,000 house on a large wooded lot. There are three vehicles in the driveway, including a van. Both children take private piano lessons.

Rumors of impending layoffs at the plant last winter didn't worry Crosby. "I didn't know it would be me," he says. "The company had always taken care of its veteran employees."

He received the pink slip on a Friday afternoon. Crosby was testing electronic equipment in the company lab when his supervisors summoned him. Crosby was handed a letter, which he has practically memorized.

"It said, 'Due to the fact we aren't getting the A-12 radar contract, we have had to reduce our forces and we have to let you go.'

"They handed me a resource guide to help in finding a new job. They said, 'You are part of the layoff. Do you have any questions?'

"I just sat there with my mouth open. The meeting lasted 10 minutes."

Stunned, Crosby returned to clean out his desk. The remains of 34 years' work fit into four cardboard boxes. Then he went home.

That weekend, he says, "was kind of a blur."

When he returned to the plant the following Monday, to tie up loose ends, Crosby learned that his name had been removed from the company computer system. "I had no access to it," he says.

Westinghouse did its part to cushion the blow. Laid-off employees received free career counseling and job networking instructions at several workshops and seminars. The company also dealt Crosby his entire pension in one lump sum -- $250,000 -- which he immediately invested in a tax-deferred retirement plan.

He is helping to support his family with the monthly interest from that account. But interest rates keep falling, and Crosby fears he may have to eat into the principal. When he worked, Crosby's take-home pay was $4,000 a month -- more than twice as much as he receives now in pension interest.

"We've never been fully back on our heels, but we've cut back on a lot of things," he says. "We've stopped buying steak and roast beef and started eating casseroles and pasta. We eat out, but only at fast-food joints."

For their wedding anniversary recently, the Crosbys dined at a Red Lobster restaurant, where they had a coupon for free appetizers.

Crosby wants to sell one of their three vehicles, which have gone nearly 400,000 total miles. The childrens' clothes are bought in discount houses in Pennsylvania, where there is no sales tax.

"My wife and I have stopped buying clothes for ourselves," he says. "And we cut up most of our credit cards."

The family's health benefits are covered by Sabra's employer.

Crosby now works occasionally as a substitute math and science teacher at Centennial High School, for $57 a day. He says he wants to return to college and obtain a teaching certificate.

Meanwhile, he continues to mail out resumes. He also putters around the house playing the handyman, fixing the kids' bicycles, repairing the TV set and "doing all those things that I used to pay someone else to do."

Household chores are also his bailiwick now.

"Once you get the vacuuming and the laundry done, half the day is gone," he says.

"I'm happy to have him home," says Sabra. "We've got a 'to-do' list a mile long. We miss the income, obviously, but we try to worry about things as a couple. The worst thing a spouse can say at this time is, 'How are you going to take care of me?' "

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