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The ax falls, and then what?

Jay Strunk (left), an unemployed executive, drums during a jam with bass guitar player Gerry Franciosa (right). Strunk says the band helps his relieve some of the stress that he has because of his unemployment. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )
Jay Strunk (left), an unemployed executive, drums during a jam with bass guitar player Gerry Franciosa (right). Strunk says the band helps his relieve some of the stress that he has because of his unemployment. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )
Jay Strunk (left), an unemployed executive, drums during a jam with bass guitar player Gerry Franciosa (right). Strunk says the band helps his relieve some of the stress that he has because of his unemployment. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ) Gallery: The ax falls, and then what?

Second in an occasional series.

At 7:25 a.m. on Feb. 20, Dan Perry arrived at work at his Malvern industrial-parts company, as he always did.

Five minutes later, Perry's weeping supervisor told him that the company had eliminated his job of four years.

By 7:35, Perry was back in the parking lot, holding a box containing a few items from his desk. In the gut-punch moments of nascent unemployment, Perry looked up at the sky and asked, "What just happened to me?"

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  • The married 49-year-old executive with two teenage children was filled with a cold dread.

    "I lost my job, and I can't provide for my family," he told himself. "I'm a failure."

    In this dismal, down-bound economy, Perry's plight is repeated throughout the region.

    Joblessness continues to disrupt lives in nearly every sector, as about 210,000 people in the eight-county area find themselves without work, part of 13.2 million Americans now unemployed nationwide.

    But while the Philadelphia region is papered with pink slips, a layoff can still hit with the potent surprise of an unforeseen meteor.

    People who expected to be laid off still report feeling shock when it happens. It can impact a person with nearly the same emotional blow as a death. And it can produce a kind of post-traumatic stress.

    "Unemployment is a psychologically devastating experience," said Carl Van Horn, a Rutgers University professor of public policy who studied the damage of unemployment. "It's like having a chronic disease."

    Shame, fear, and panic can barge into a person's head after the initial trauma, noted Seymour Adler, an organizational psychologist with Aon Consulting in New York.

    "I feel like I'm in the wilderness," said Cynthia Townsend, a 57-year-old Mount Airy phlebotomist who hasn't worked in months. "Depression comes when you start to feel alone."

    What is different about unemployment in this economy is that the Great Recession is taking out people who thought they'd made themselves recession-proof - professionals ages 45 to 55 in fields such as human resources and financial services.

    "We tell people, 'Go to college. Keep your nose to the grindstone,' " said Cheryl Spaulding, president of the nonprofit Joseph's People in Downingtown, which helps jobless people. " 'If you stay inside the box, you'll be successful.'

    "Now people say, 'I did everything right. It's not fair.' It's as though society broke a covenant with them."

    Any companies with openings can now be more selective mulling the legions of overqualified job candidates. As a result, job seekers wait longer to hear back from potential employers.

    "It becomes psychologically torturous," said Sharon Imperiale, president of Career Concepts, a career-transition firm in Blue Bell.

    "We're in a place we've never been before, which makes people absolutely terrified," Spaulding said.

    "There's a gripping fear that comes," said Keith Brender, 48, who recently lost his job as an executive at a Horsham financial-services company. "There's a huge unknown out there."

     

    Children's reactions

    It was silent in Dan Perry's house, and daytime quiet always unnerves him. Eleven o'clock in the morning is no time for a worker to be home, he tells himself.

    One recent day, he stalked the rooms of his modest house decorated with family photos, no kids or wife about. "It's eerie, weird," he said. "I'm used to hubbub. It's just a house, not a home, when I'm here alone in the day."

    Searching for work, he sat at a computer beside the glass case that holds his daughter's boa constrictor, Kaa. No jobs announced themselves. Kaa dozed, and Perry soon went off again to pace his own cage.

    One evening not long ago, Perry saw his daughter, Rebekah, 16, typing up the lesson plans of her advanced-placement history teacher.

    "What's this?" he asked.

    "I'm typing her notes for $80," Rebekah said.

    That was the price of a class trip to Washington. Rebekah knew her father had lost his job and was loath to ask for money. So she asked her teacher for some work.

    Later that night, Perry lay awake in bed at 4 a.m., the small and desperate hour when, many unemployed people report, they are alert and anguished. He contemplated Rebekah and the $80.

    "My heart was heavy with sadness for how my daughter was regarding this," Perry said. Children's reactions are often profound. One employment counselor recounts the tale of a 5-year-old who hoarded food in his room after his father lost his job.

    Perry cannot not worry. "At night, I go to this secret place in my soul, and it's like I'm standing in front of a mirror alone. I have no one to hold to account but myself. And I look at myself and ask, 'What am I going to do?' There's a mortgage and cars and other things to be paid, and no one's hiring. How am I going to help my family?"

    Stay out of work long enough, some say, and you could develop a sense that there is no solution at all.

    "I am now devolving into hopelessness," said Roy Berliner, 57, of Melrose Park, who was laid off in December. "Oh, it's awful."

    A computer programmer, Berliner thought he'd be snapped up. But his particular skills are not in demand.

    "I really don't want to face the day," he added. Berliner said he was poor at networking, vital to any job search. "It's very draining."

    Like too many others, Berliner hasn't had many interviews in his field - just two in five months. "I thought I had the job in one of them," he said, explaining how he had shown up groomed, polished, and confident. "It was one of the best interviews I ever had. I knew the guy from a previous job."

    But someone else got it, with no explanation offered. "It was very, very upsetting," Berliner said.

    The situation is affecting his life at home, where his wife, a rabbi, is now the only breadwinner. "My wife doesn't think I'm doing enough," Berliner said. "She thinks I just sit Googling on the computer all day. But I spend hours working on getting a job."

    Part of the pain of unemployment, psychologists say, is the strain it places on family relationships. "You see increases in separations, divorce," said Robert Chope, a psychologist and president of the National Employment Counseling Association in San Francisco.

    Single people, too, are hurting. Pamela McDaniels, 52, of West Oak Lane, tried to find solace in her church but met new worries. Telling her, "God doesn't believe in recession," her ministers expect McDaniels to tithe. "How?" she asked. "Faith doesn't pay my bills."

    Her job as a senior account representative in a credit-card company was outsourced to India last summer, and she's training for what she hopes will be a new job in medical-office administration.

    Unfortunately, her unemployment benefits will run out two months before her course ends. McDaniels has worried off 40 pounds.

    "I'm financially destitute," said McDaniels, who will soon lose her apartment when the benefits go. "I'm divorced, and my kids are grown and can't help me. I don't know where I'll live. I've been exploring shelters."

    Just saying it out loud made McDaniels tear up. She has smelled the shelters. She has heard their raucous din and does not know how she can force herself into one.

    At night in the apartment, "there is no relaxation. I go home and look at four walls and wonder about everything. I'm seriously looking at options like riding the El all day till midnight, then walking the streets till dawn.

    "I thought this time of my life would be OK," she said. "I never anticipated this."

     

    Fighting the pain

    Banging drums in a buddy's basement in Downingtown, Jay Strunk worked up a sweat as he and a bass player from his band jammed to Delbert McClinton's "Why Me?"

    "Nice song for unemployed people," said the muscled, gray-haired Strunk, a former training and development executive at Southco in Concordville, a company that manufactures latches.

    Strunk, 58, of Pottstown, had been devising plans to lay off people from his company at his superiors' behest. When he was done, he was stunned to learn last month that he, too, was being let go after 11 years.

    "Even though others are laid off, it's hard to avoid that voice that says maybe this is personal," Strunk said.

    To alter the soundtrack of his unemployed life during his job search, Strunk practices with his band. The guys cover oldies from the Eagles, among others.

    "You play 'Peaceful Easy Feeling' enough times, you start to believe you have it," Strunk said. He prefers music from his formative years, the time he was plotting the course his life might take - when he was a young man with promise, not yet preoccupied with potential wreckage.

    Music is healthy. So is coaching girls' lacrosse, said Peggy Flynn, of Erdenheim, who until eight weeks ago was an executive in an investment company.

    When she's not looking for a job, Flynn, who's in her 40s and has an MBA, works with her daughter's team. "It would be easy to do nothing and be sucked into the dark side - overeating, drinking, watching TV. I work against that."

    Psychologists say unemployed people often self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, or get lured into online porn.

    Television is a special bugaboo, and so many of the jobless decry the box.

    "If you're out of work and in front of the TV in the afternoon, that voice feeds into the brain: 'Loser! Loser!' " said Gerri Kohlhofer, 51, of Magnolia, laid off from her executive-recruiting job in January. "Get up, get out, go to the mall. Smile at someone. Drum up a conversation."

    Many unemployed people find they exercise more, spend more time with their kids, fix up their houses - all of which augment sanity.

    Ultimately, counselors like Rick Hays of Career Concepts say, it's important to keep perspective. A psychologist and a minister, Hays spent nine months in the pit at the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, 2001, digging for human remains.

    There are worse things, he preaches, than a layoff. "If you lose a loved one, you grieve," he said. "If you lose a job, you get another one."

    Even in the face of a disintegrating economy, many people can be quite resilient, said Adler of Aon. "We're amazingly adaptive," he said, citing recent studies that show that people who lose their job, then find another, report that after six months, their life-satisfaction level is the same as it was before the layoff - even if the new job pays 25 percent less.

    The critical thing, said Brender of Horsham, now in his third month of unemployment, is to stay positive, and maybe "paint the kitchen a color your wife likes."

    And always remember, he added: "There is life after unemployment. There is life."


    For help links, to comment, and to read the blog "Jobbing," go to go.philly.com/jobbing


    Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

    Alfred Lubrano Inquirer Staff Writer
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