Professionals taking huge pay cuts if they have work at all
updated 3:20 p.m. ET, Sun., June 6, 2010
PROSPER, Texas - Advised by a Walgreens superior that a promotion was "very highly likely" if he transferred to the drugstore chain's Dallas division, Chris Cummings uprooted his family and bought a spacious house in this hopefully named suburb.
"The sky's the limit," he was told.
But instead of a promotion, the company for which Cummings had been an assistant manager three and a half years cut his hours so drastically that he had to take a second job. In March, he was laid off, and his part-time second job became full-time.
And so that is how a 40-year-old father of four with a master's in business administration from the University of Notre Dame finds himself bagging groceries at Sprouts, a local health-food store.
"I never thought I'd be here with the education that I have and that I'd worked hard on," Cummings said before a recent shift in the checkout lane at the Sprouts in nearby Frisco. "Probably where the frustration comes most is when I get the alumni magazine and I see what my classmates are doing. And that's not a good feeling."
The federal government says the "Great Recession" is over — has been for months now — and that we're well into the recovery. But don't tell that to Cummings, who has seen his income cut by three-quarters and can't afford health insurance for his family.
Or Af Shirinzadeh, who went from a $100-an-hour chiropractic job to part-time work as a docent in an Atlanta museum that features plasticized human cadavers.
Or welder Mark Sepeda, who had to move his family of six from a spacious home in Nevada's lush Carson Valley to a two-bedroom apartment when the Las Vegas building boom came to a screeching halt.
Or Paul Lechner, who, with a mixture of gratitude and dejection, accepted a job stocking shelves at a Super Target after two years and hundreds of applications failed to land him a position in advertising, the field for which he trained.
Yes, the stock markets have largely rebounded. Housing and car sales are back up. And though job creation isn't robust — last week, the Labor Department reported private employers added just 41,000 jobs, down from 218,000 in April and the fewest since January — the economy is growing again.
But, if "recovery" means getting back to where you were before things fell apart, many aren't even close. To people like Lechner, 43, who came to North Carolina's Research Triangle full of hope for a bountiful future, it's meant resigning himself to lower expectations:
That any mental stimulation he gets will come from crossword puzzles, conversations with his wife or the weekly pub trivia nights with the guys — not from his work. That if he ever manages to get another job in advertising, it'll probably be too late for any awards or recognition. And that his 4-year-old son, Jerry, will likely be his only child.
"An optimist sees the glass as half full. A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. I see the glass as twice as big as it needs to be," Lechner says.
The American landscape is littered with huge and half-empty glasses, and men and women like Paul Lechner.
90 percent pay cutAf Shirinzadeh holds out a preserved human lung and smiles as two young women make grossed-out faces.
"Step on up," he says. "There is no teeth on this one. It doesn't bite."
The joke draws the women in, and within seconds they are holding actual human organs while Shirinzadeh talks to them about the science behind what they are feeling. He beams.
As a docent in the "touch booth" at "Bodies ... The Exhibition," Shirinzadeh gets to lay his hands on human bodies, albeit dead ones.
"I'm so grateful for this job," says the 38-year-old suburban Atlanta man, who was laid off last year from his job as a chiropractor and spent six months on unemployment looking for any kind of work. "I'm able to educate others, and share my knowledge, and keep myself sharp."
The job pays a tenth of what Shirinzadeh made as a chiropractor, and it's only three or four days a week. The layoff has forced him to rethink his plans for the future — and re-evaluate his past choices.
Shirinzadeh's wife, an elementary school teacher, has gone back to graduate school to get a credential that will give her a bump in pay. Shirinzadeh would do the same, if he wasn't already saddled with considerable college debt — and if the couple could afford regular day care for their 2-year-old son.
His father had wanted him to become a medical doctor. The son wonders if he made the right choice in becoming a chiropractor.
"I didn't think it was going to be like this," he says. "I thought, 'I'll be a doctor of chiropractic. I'll work hard, save up a bunch of money, maybe retire early.' Now it's like, work until you die."
An earthbound viewWhen the economy was up, so was Mark Sepeda.
The 50-year-old welder walked the iron atop some of Sin City's newest skyscrapers. The Encore Las Vegas Casino and the Mandarin Oriental hotel at the massive $8.5 billion CityCenter are among the more recent pleasure palaces he's helped to soar.
These days, Sepeda's view on the world is strictly earthbound.
Since being laid off in January 2009, Sepeda has been reduced to soliciting freelance auto mechanic work through online classifieds and word-of-mouth referrals. His family's tiny apartment is just east of the Las Vegas Strip, within sight of the skyscrapers he helped build.
They used to live in a house in Gardnerville, a Carson Valley town not far from the 24/7 casinos of Reno and the serene beauty of Lake Tahoe. "We had a huge backyard over there, too," he says. "You could park your boat and your RV back there and still be able to drive your vehicle around it."
Now, the kids sleep two to a room (two of Sepeda's daughters share a bed with the family pit bull, Milo). At night, Sepeda and his wife, Sue, bunk on the living-room floor.
When Sepeda was working iron, it was a matter of pride that his wife could stay at home and focus on the kids. She recently took a job at a car wash that pays $15 an hour.
"Now is when the wife and the kids step up to help me, because I can't do it all by myself no more, like I used to," he says. "They used to want for nothing."
When Sepeda isn't working on cars, he spends his days training for other hands-on jobs and trying to find steady work anywhere he can.
He's been close to getting hired as an apartment maintenance person at a couple of complexes, but needs certification in pool maintenance. And after some night school, he's seeking to become a card-carrying smog technician.
"I've learned this town is about cards," he says. Another thing he's learned: In this economy, you make your own luck.
‘A lot of promise’Joe Lechner was a plumber, Betty Lechner was a secretary, and they drilled a simple truth into their elder son's head: A college degree was the key to success. It had taken him 16 years and three different schools, but Paul Lechner finally got it — a bachelor's degree in advertising, with a concentration in copywriting and minor in marketing.
Lechner had a half-dozen good years in his chosen field before he was laid off in 2006. His wife, Julie, had just given birth to their son, and it seemed a perfect time to move closer to the grandparents, to start anew.