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A tale of joblessness, Long Island style

Economic woes hit many corporate fast-trackers. Comparable jobs are hard to find.

By Ira BreskinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 23, 2002



WESTBURY, N.Y.

A year ago, Eugene Rogers enjoyed a six-figure salary, a fancy job title, and a challenging career in the world of high-tech startups.

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Then Sept. 11 and a prolonged downturn in technology intervened, and Mr. Rogers found himself out of work and on the public dole. He has endured the frustration of sending out 1,300 résumés and having no job offers come in. He has faced the anxiety of watching his savings dwindle month by month. And now, instead of racing to keep a young company afloat, he is scrambling to keep his family in its spacious colonial house.

Welcome to joblessness, Long Island style. As the nation hangs between recession and recovery, many of the unemployed are fast-trackers pushed out of high-paying corporate posts.

Their circumstances generally don't involve the hardship of empty cupboards, but the challenges they face are significant. Often they have expensive lifestyles – including high mortgages and private-school tuition – and career trajectories that can be hard to maintain when job searches coincide with industry-wide slumps.

"They are not the people who come right to mind when you think about the jobless, but their situation is just as difficult," says Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the leading local business group.

Here in some of New York City's greenest suburbs, people who earned more than $100,000 made up 5.8 percent of those collecting unemployment compensation during this year's second quarter. Although that's only about 1,000 Long Islanders – experts say such numbers haven't appeared on unemployment lines here in recent memory. That takes into account the early 1990s, when this region absorbed the loss of thousands of high-paying defense-industry jobs as Grumman and other longtime employers cut back.

For the most part, Rogers and other members of this new class of economic refugees aren't part of the ultrarich Hamptons set. In fact, the group includes civil servants and local tradesmen as well as corporate commuters, labor experts say. But their salaries were sufficient to underwrite a comfortable lifestyle in now-pricey Long Island, once the original crabgrass frontier.

"They are some of Long Island's best and brightest and earned commensurate salaries," Ms. Kamer says. Median 1999 household income on Long Island was $68,351.

JOB loss brings a bevy of unfamiliar financial and psychological challenges. The ability to land new work in a virtually jobless recovery can hinge on a variety of factors including age, experience, and adaptability.

Edward Law of Mount Sinai is learning about that first-hand. His pink slip from a local cable-TV firm arrived in February. Earning just shy of six figures, Law saw warning signs before the layoff, and cut back on extras like restaurant dinners. Subsequently, he's been clipping coupons, buying in bulk, and generally deferring purchases until they're absolutely necessary.

Mr. Law has been forced by the tough job market to broaden his search. With an MBA from the University of Notre Dame, he's pursuing management posts that take advantage of his expertise in finance (the job he lost was as a project manager in technology).

Such flexibility, acknowledging the difficulty of snagging another job like the old one when demand has shifted, is a smart strategy, labor experts say. "Once a snake charmer, always a snake charmer," is a common, but often counterproductive, mindset that's difficult to shed, says Thomas Conoscenti, a regional economist in Nesconset, N.Y.

Law has added motivation to be flexible: He and his unemployed wife, a social worker, are the parents of 10-month-old twin boys. "Before having my sons, [my] attitude [was]: whatever it takes to get the job done. Now I place much more value on family and the time spent with them."

That means Law may have to weigh marathon commutes tied to higher-paying jobs against his newfound priority of family.

Like Law, who is completing a federally sponsored course to improve his marketability, Rogers has enjoyed some traditional and nontraditional help along the way.

He has reason to be happy just to be alive. As chief operating officer of a high-tech startup in midtown Manhattan, he had been scheduled to meet with potential financial backers on Sept. 11 in the upper reaches of one of the World Trade Center towers. The meeting was canceled because talks several days earlier had progressed quicker than expected. But the nascent company and its financing fell victim to the ripple effects of the terror attacks.

Over the past 11 months, Rogers and his family have relied on now-eroded savings, his wife's new part-time job, cash generated from a second home mortgage, and government grants. They have also cut spending, downshifting from two cars to one.

One windfall: His 13-year-old son, by making the dean's list, qualified for a full scholarship to cover the $20,000-plus annual tuition at his private school.

Still, weekly unemployment checks of $405 (the maximum in New York State) don't make much of a dent in a monthly mortgage of about $3,000. Significant housing assistance this year from the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped keep lenders from foreclosing on the home.

For now, Rogers plugs along, saying he's not only optimistic but has a newfound appreciation of the mundane, like the smell of ingredients in the bread he bakes.

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