TOPICS > Economy

Jobless Find a Creative Voice in Southern California

June 17, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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In Southern California, a photographer has been documenting the stories of the jobless -- the irony being that he himself was laid off at the end of 2008. Spencer Michels reports on the stories behind the unemployed.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, those recession-driven job layoffs. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: When Michael Foley worked as an insurance salesman, he used to doodle while on the phone making sales pitches. These days, he’s painting art full-time. The Fortune 50 company he was working for decided to move his job to another state where wages are lower.

MICHAEL FOLEY: It was a little callous. They came in, dressed to the teeth. One of the women had a little nice designer bag that probably was my month’s pay, sat it down, and basically, you know, said, “Thanks for all the hard work. By the way, your livelihood’s gone in about a month, so good luck,” and walked out.

JOE CLAUS: I’ll start photographing like basically far away and then kind of move closer and closer.

SPENCER MICHELS: Foley was one of several laid-off workers who recently participated in a photo shoot in San Jose with photographer Joe Claus.

JOE CLAUS: I’m getting up real close to them to make a connection between the viewer and that person that’s been laid off, you know, more of an emotional connection.

SPENCER MICHELS: His photos of laid-off workers were recently published in an online magazine. And now he thinks his own layoff from a graphic design job may have been a blessing in disguise.

JOE CLAUS: It’s really freed up some time for me to work on these projects that I love to do. You know, I didn’t necessarily love working behind a computer for eight hours a day inside a cube with florescent lights.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nonetheless, when he recounts the day he lost his job, the feelings are still raw.

JOE CLAUS: I was pissed. I mean, it took me by surprise, and I felt like I was loyal to the company, and it kind of hurt, you know?

Hundreds of companies downsize

SPENCER MICHELS: Nearly everybody knows some variation of the layoff story. Since the recession began last year, 5.7 million American jobs have evaporated as hundreds of companies have downsized. Yahoo, Cisco, National Semiconductor have all cut their staffs, as have Macy's, Target and JPMorgan Chase, to name just a few. The layoff scenario has become fodder for YouTube spoofs.

CARTOON NARRATOR: When announcing layoffs, it's important to use confusing jargon. Never use the word "layoffs" or "mass firing" or anything that would clearly indicate what you're actually doing.

VOICE-OVER ACTOR: Because of our fast-changing strategic priorities, we'll be streamlining our organizational structure by eliminating redundancies.

SPENCER MICHELS: In real life, layoffs are no joke. Taos, a San Jose consulting services company, laid off nearly half its workforce in 2001 during the dot-com bust. The current recession forced new layoffs earlier this year.

The firm's president, Coco Brown, says she didn't take the decision lightly. The first steps, she said, were to cut costs and to make employees aware of impending problems.

COCO BROWN, CEO, Taos: We cut executive pay first. We then went and cut pay for other internals so that we could preserve as much of the staff as possible before we finally went and said, "We're going to cut some of our headcount out."

SPENCER MICHELS: Chief Financial Officer Mary Hale, who oversaw the layoffs, says personal emotions must be balanced by concerns for the company's liability.

MARY HALE, CFO, Taos: We all have attachments to our employees. We've put a lot of effort into training them, and you have to kind of divorce yourself from that while you make a decision on a business basis.

But then you have to re-engage that emotion in order to communicate, at least we feel, to the person effectively that they're a person and that you understand they have a life that you're impacting.

SPENCER MICHELS: For 56-year-old Marion Tom, the layoff experience was emotional.

MARION TOM: They were trying to hold back the tears, and I was trying to hold back the tears. I thought, you know, this isn't personal. It's sort of a double-edged sword. I was laid off because of my high salary.

Emotional layoffs

SPENCER MICHELS: After working 32 years as a legal secretary at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, she recently attended her first job fair, where far fewer jobs were available than applicants.

JOB APPLICANT: But I've got to make more than unemployment.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Tom felt she had to try.

MARION TOM: My son just started college last year. I have a daughter that's going to college next year, so I'm motivated to work.

SPENCER MICHELS: Elaine Patterson knows how traumatic the layoff process can be, because she's been on both sides of the desk. She was human resources manager at Union Oil when the company reduced its workforce from 20,000 to 6,000 employees. Then, when the firm was acquired, Patterson herself was let go.

ELAINE PATTERSON: It's different to be on the receiving end. Right, it's like doctors who say they shouldn't operate on themselves. It felt like being operated on.

SPENCER MICHELS: She advises managers executing layoffs to avoid some common pitfalls.

ELAINE PATTERSON: I've seen so many occasions where an employee is told for years that people are their most important assets, that they're valued, that they're trusted, and then it seems that the minute the idea of layoffs comes, all of a sudden that employee is treated as if they'd done something wrong.

They're notified in a less than humane way, sometimes asked to leave before they have a chance to say goodbye to their colleagues, and that's an important part of the grieving process. It's like losing someone in a family. Or, you know, how many times have you heard about someone who has to go back and pack their box and be escorted out? It feels like you're convicted of something.

Layoff protocol

SPENCER MICHELS: Taos' CEO, Coco Brown, says what seems like callous behavior on the part of employers is often necessary.

COCO BROWN: Your employees have a lot of access to proprietary information. You know, if it's your engineers, they have access to product information. If it's your sales people, they have access to all of your client information.

And you're really trying to protect that as much as possible from whatever rash emotion might be there in the moment. And so they feel offended when you treat them as if they might be a criminal, you know, and that's a very painful thing.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some of those laid off are dealing with the pain by vigorously hunting for a new job at traditional job fairs and in more nontraditional ways.

INSTRUCTOR: Do you agree that your blog is your resume now? Some, OK. I personally believe that totally.

SPENCER MICHELS: This is Laid Off Camp, a gathering organized by unemployed workers who strategize with one another and get tips on survival.

INSTRUCTOR: If you want to embrace the social media and the things that are a little bit different, you've got to find those recruiters that are using those tools.

SPENCER MICHELS: Job-seekers were being told that printed resumes and polite letters of inquiry are passe; instead, they were instructed to use social networking Web sites and blogs.

INSTRUCTOR: I hate resumes. I hate paper resumes. I think they're the most worthless things on the planet.

SPENCER MICHELS: One of the attendees was Theresa Moretti, who didn't waste any time looking for work after she was laid off from a marketing job.

THERESA MORETTI: I got laid off at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I was out the door by 6:15 that night from cleaning out my office. And at 6 o'clock the next morning, I was on it. I applied for unemployment, and I spent the first two weeks putting the word out that I was looking.

SPENCER MICHELS: If Labor Department predictions are correct, 2 million more jobs will be cut before the U.S. economy turns around, and Joe Claus will have plenty of laid-off people to photograph.