Relatives, Friends, and Faith Help Four Families Survive Layoffs

Spouses, children, and relatives find their lives altered when a family member loses a job. For many, open communication is the key to surviving the hardship.

JUST before Thanksgiving in 1993, Jugal Malpani received the shock of his working lifetime: His job as an engineer for a large manufacturing firm north of Boston was being eliminated as part of a downsizing. Despite his excellent performance reviews and an advanced engineering degree, his 11-year career with the company was over.

Rather than break the news to his wife, Sumitra, at the bank where she works, Dr. Malpani held off until evening. And because their older daughter, Smita, then a freshman at Wellesley College, was in the middle of exams, the couple waited a week to tell Smita and her younger sister, Sonal, who was in eighth grade.

From then on, Malpani's layoff was open family discussion. ``We try hard to communicate,'' he says. ``It's very important to have good communication.''

Like pebbles tossed into a pond, layoffs produce a ripple effect. The loss of one job alters the lives of spouses, children, parents, even other relatives. How family members respond and communicate can profoundly affect their success in dealing with necessary changes and belt-tightening, according to employment experts.

For the four families profiled here, the support of relatives, friends, and churches was crucial in helping them deal with very difficult cutbacks and losses. Jugal Malpani

Seated at the dining-room table in their attractive raised ranch home on a wintry Saturday afternoon, the Malpanis reflect on the challenges they faced after his layoff and the practical steps they took to maintain family unity.

One of their first steps was to assess their finances. Malpani had always followed the advice of financial experts who suggest keeping six months' salary in liquid assets. Even so, a primary concern was maintaining Smita's tuition payments.

``I went to Wellesley and told the financial-aid office about the change in my status,'' Malpani says. ``I wrote down what my severance package was and what our total resources would be for the 1994-95 academic year. They said they would see what they could do.'' As a backup measure, Smita also applied to the University of Massachusetts.

After reviewing the family's financial situation, Wellesley College gave them an interest-free loan and an increase in financial aid, making it possible for Smita to stay.

``I was very pleasantly surprised by their response,'' Malpani says, underscoring the importance of being candid about one's financial status.

Like legions of other families affected by downsizing, the Malpanis were concerned about the well-being of their children. At one point their younger daughter, Sonal, became moody and ``was not her usual cheerful self,'' Malpani recalls.

The couple called a school counselor for advice. Smita also spent more time with her sister. ``This year she's been very happy,'' Mrs. Malpani says.

Mrs. Malpani considered increasing her hours at the bank from 30 to 40 a week. That would have required a move to another branch office and a longer commute.

The couple feared that placing more strain on the family could negate any small economic gains. Instead, they redoubled their efforts to pare spending. Among other economy moves, they postponed household purchases and repairs and canceled a planned trip to India.

Today Malpani is again employed as an engineer at his former work place, but with a difference. He now works for a contract firm. He receives his previous salary but no benefits.

``There's no vacation, no holiday pay, no sick days, no pension plan,'' Mrs. Malpani says. ``That's like taking a 30 to 40 percent cut in salary.''

In addition to his full-time job, Malpani attends evening classes, working toward a graduate certificate program in biotechnology in case a career change becomes necessary. To compensate for the lack of family time during the week, the couple sets aside time on weekends for their daughters.

Throughout those hardships, Malpani says, he has received support from his wife, children, relatives, and friends. Adds Mrs. Malpani, ``A lot of people have real difficulty, and their relationships get bad. But this brought us all closer.''

Janet Graham

For some families, unemployment reverses traditional roles. When contracts were dropped at the hospital where she worked, Janet Graham of Belmont, Mass., lost her job as a child psychologist. Her layoff coincided with a divorce, necessitating a move to a basement apartment.

During a three-year job search, money was tight. ``No more vacations, no more clothes,'' Dr. Graham recalls. To help out, her children, then in their 20s, sent gifts and small appliances.

Graham's first response on such occasions, she says, was to be touched by their thoughtfulness and generosity. ``But then a second later I'd think, `Hey, this is backwards. This is embarrassing. I'm supposed to be the parent. I'm supposed to have the extra resources. I want to be their backup.' It seemed premature that the kids were having to take this on when they're still trying to get established.''

Today Graham is again working as a child psychologist, this time in a suburban school system. Although she expresses concern that the earlier role reversal ``changes your image of being a parent,'' she also finds benefits. ``It was a chance for them to show their maturity, their compassion, their sense of responsibility, and the family connection,'' she says. ``I'm thrilled to see what good kids I have. That is a plus.''

Alan Ross

Alan Ross, of Sharon, Mass., faced a similar role reversal after he took a layoff package from Digital Equipment Corporation, based in Maynard, Mass. Divorced, he found his grown children offering much-needed moral support as he asked himself, ``What do you want to do with your life now, Alan?''

Mr. Ross became certified as a math and physics teacher, only to discover that teaching positions were not in great supply. ``I used to complain to my children quite frequently,'' he recalls. ``They'd say, `Don't worry, Dad, you'll find something. We love you.' ''

Last summer he accepted a job as a software support representative. Although he earns less than he did at Digital, he says he welcomes the chance to be back in the corporate world.

Glenn Cunningham

Some families must make other major adjustments. When Glenn Cunningham of Winchester, Mass., was laid off after 22 years as an engineer in the power industry, he and his wife had to take the difficult step of selling the house they had lived in for 14 years. They moved to smaller quarters in the same town.

During 23 months of unemployment, Mr. Cunningham found solace and aid from a variety of sources. ``My wife was certainly my first line of help and support throughout the process,'' he says. ``I really can't praise her enough. She picked up extra hours at work, and she really kept me strong. My children were also very supportive.''

The couple also found strength in their religious beliefs.

``Unemployment was an experience like no other in being dependent on God and His promises, and to a certain extent on others in a way we hadn't been before,'' says Cunningham, who recently returned to work as a contract engineer in his original field. ``I prefer to give. It's hard to receive. That's one element where it was very much a learning experience, learning to be dependent, to exercise our faith in new ways, and to appreciate the prayers of the many - and there were many - people in our church who indicated their support and prayer for us.''

The family's interdenominational church, Grace Chapel in Lexington, Mass., also sponsors support groups for families affected by downsizing - one group for unemployed people, another for those whose spouses are unemployed.

``Losing one's job is not an overall pleasant experience,'' Cunningham says in obvious understatement. ``But as a believer in Jesus Christ I believe that God is in control, and we have to trust in Him no matter what we go through, even though it's a very difficult experience from a human standpoint. We had the support of family and friends and church, and we were able to make the transition.''

At the same time, he emphasizes the importance of taking practical steps, such as using outplacement services and local networking groups. ``There's a lot of help out there,'' he says. ``Once you are unemployed, you have to take responsibility for yourself and do what is necessary to market yourself.''

Malpani offers similar advice. ``Never give up hope,'' he says. ``Many times it just looks so bleak that you want to give up. But every day you must wake up and work hard to get a new career and a new job. If you don't have that energy, your efforts are not really fruitful.''

For those with secure jobs, he cautions: ``Downsizing is happening all over. It's good not to overextend yourself financially. Keep a cushion.''

Summing up his experience, Malpani says, ``As a community, we still don't know how best to go about solving this problem. But when you've gone through it yourself, it makes you very sensitive to always try to help somebody else who is in this situation.''

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