The unemployed rally to give one another comfort and counsel


February 03, 1992|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Sun Staff Correspondent

WOODBURY, CONN — WOODBURY, CONN. -- The American Way promises citizens that they can touch the stars if they reach high enough.

Jim Beard's desires are a lot more simple: "All I want is a decent job where I can work 40 hours a week, go home to enjoy my family and my garden, and be left alone."

But even that goal remains elusive. The 55-year-old foundry worker has been laid off four times since the 1960s, most recently in August. His confidence in this country's philosophies -- and more importantly, in himself -- has been so deflated that he finds it hard to get out of bed.

Last week, Mr. Beard exploded with anger in a church basement in the affluent community of Woodbury.

"I feel inadequate," he said, hunched in a chair with his armsfolded close to his chest. "I feel I have wasted my whole life."

Seated around him were eight other men and one woman, all over 40, who share his plight.

They fanned his anger, blaming President Bush for scrapping yet another major weapons contract in Connecticut last week that could have bolstered the state's teetering economy. They grumbled about "the arrogance of the Japanese" and the naivete of American consumers. They complained about job interviewers labeling them as "over-qualified," another word for "too old."

So went the first meeting of Woodbury's unemployment support group.

Others like it are are forming rapidly throughout the country as the recession continues to ravage the lives of Americans and the unemployed seek emotional relief from their isolation and shame. In churches, libraries and other public facilities, the growing numbers of unemployed are gathering to share stories of pain and hopelessness.

At the same time, meetings can be unusually light-hearted, with members cheering one another with humorous one-liners.

"It had been weeks since I had been in a good mood when I lost my job," said Jonathan A. Apps, a bank operations manager who has been out of work for nearly a year. "I went to the support group, and there were people telling jokes about pink slips and overdue bills. They were making fun of interviewers, and for the first time in a long time, I laughed."

Self-help clearinghouse officials in states across the country say the number of unemployment groups or the demand for such groups has doubled in the past year. In the Maryland-Washington-Virginia area, there are at least a dozen.

But in Connecticut -- the nation's wealthiest state -- the economic devastation seems particularly severe.

Between November 1990 and November 1991, the unemployment rate jumped from 4.8 percent to 6.2 percent.

More than almost any other state, Connecticut is heavily dependent on dwindling military dollars. In the last few weeks, the state's largest private employers -- United Technologies Corp. and General Dynamics Corp. -- prepared for layoffs of up to 15,000 workers between them.

In addition, the state's banking, insurance and real estate industries have been badly bruised by the recession.

So it is not surprising that the state has perhaps the most sophisticated network of unemployment support groups.

Approximately 50 have been formed within the past year -- including one for people over 55, several for chief executive officers and one for spouses of the unemployed or the underemployed.

Often the leaders are unemployed people seeking a purpose in their idleness. They coordinate the programs with little or no money. And they bring in speakers to discuss stress management, ego-boosting, credit counseling and resume-writing and interviewing techniques.

The members represent all ages and education levels. Most of them have been laid off from executive and mid-level management jobs. Few members are blue-collar, and only a handful are minorities.

"Support groups seem to be a middle-class phenomenon," said Vicki Smith of the Connecticut Self-Help Clearinghouse.

"All are invited, but those who have always been extremely poor are too busy dealing with basic survival issues, and a disproportionate number of those people are minorities."

However, Mr. Apps, who received his first charity in the form of a Christmas food basket last year, says he can now relate to the struggles of welfare recipients and is walking only a few steps ahead of the homeless men he sees on the streets.

Fourteen years ago, he started driving delivery trucks for a bank for $15,000 a year and worked his way up to becoming a $40,000-a-year computer operations manager. It wasn't much in Connecticut dollars, but Mr. Apps was happy and secure. He bought a home, put his children in Boy Scouts and the city soccer leagues and spent many summers on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

But at 2 p.m. on Feb. 19, 1991, Mr. Apps said, "the bottom fell from under my feet." Like many other corporations, his employer was reducing its staff. He and 12 other mid-level managers were given 20 minutes to clear their desks.

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