Tuesday, December 14, 2010

First stunned, then pain and grief

When I walked into the Aurora office of Sun-Times Media-West about 4 p.m. on Dec. 2, I was smiling and ready for a good night's work. But as I approached my desk, my supervisor called to me, "Ted, we've got a meeting."

At first, as she walked away, she appeared to be moving toward an office along the building's south wall, where she had sometimes met to talk with members of the Web staff. But when she veered toward her left, my stomach lurched. Now she was leading me in the general direction of the Human Resources office, and in light of all the layoffs this company has made since October, I knew this could be bad.

I prayed for God's protection and strength, and I prayed He would give me grace, even as I felt myself going numb. "Judy," I whispered, "am I being laid off?"

Her answer, along the lines of "We've got a meeting," clearly answered the question.

I had feared something like this since October, when the latest round of layoffs began. It seemed like each week we lost several more people as cuts were made, apparently department by department. Most I learned of after the fact: I generally came in around 4 in the afternoon, usually after these people    journalism professionals I had come to know, respect and love    were gone and their desks vacated. On those days, I was sometimes greeted by, "Did you hear ... was laid off today?"

But today was going to be my turn to pack and leave. My stomach ached suddenly as I sat down with Judy and the HR rep.

I hardly heard a word my supervisor, who seemed intent on not letting her eyes meet mine, read a perfunctory statement about the company striving to be more efficient and thanking me for my years of service. She then faded into silence and left as the HR rep went over the information she had for me; I listened, numb to the core:

>> I would soon receive in the mail a form allowing me to apply for COBRA which, given the company's decision in recent years to first cut back and then to lop off all severance, essentially meant we would not be able to afford the federal program that was supposed to fill the health insurance gap between jobs.

>> I would be paid for unused (none) and accrued (uncertain) vacation time.

>> The company would not contest my unemployment claim.

>> Then I was told I must to turn in my key card and employee ID before the HR rep asked me to leave the building. I could make an appointment to return to pack up my desk or someone would pack it for me and ship it to me.

This was the only point at which I became irritated. I informed her that, given I was now without a job and living 24 miles away and had no new income coming to cover the cost of such a commute, I would not be returning. Nor did I want my already overworked co-workers having to also pack up my desk. "Do you have a box I can use?" I asked her. She found one.

I returned to my desk -- my other fellow Web editors apparently had just left the area so I could pack without creating any kind of distraction, I suppose. Still, there were others with whom I had worked for some time seated in the desks around me. As I packed, I called my wife.

"I've been laid off," I told her. Next to me, I heard a co-worker mutter, "Oh my God." He passed the word around to some of my closest friends as I continued to push things into one box, then into a second. His hand gripped my shoulder and he nodded a few words of encouragement and sympathy.

Then began the saddest part of the day: Saying goodbye to folks, some of whom I had worked with for my entire 16 years with this company, despite untold layoffs, cutbacks and two changes of ownership. They came with open arms, sometimes teary eyes, to hug me goodbye and express their regret that I had been chosen. I suppose some also thanked their lucky stars that they'd escaped this sweep of the scythe.

First came Char Gillette, then Nick Petersen and then Char's husband, Joe. More came and left. I shot over to the editorial director's corner office to express my sincere thanks to him, and as I headed back to what now was my former desk to gather my boxes and leave, members of the Web staff with whom I had worked the past three years returned to bid their farewells.

Then Nick Petersen grabbed one box for me and we headed out the door and down the steps toward the parking lot. As I pushed first one and then the second box into the trunk, I saw Nick Reiher come out a door on the far side of the building. His head turned swiftly from side to side as he scanned the parking lot. When his eyes locked on me, he moved quickly. I could tell he was cold    he had come out of the building without a coat, wearing just a short-sleeve shirt. Despite my numbness, even I was feeling the chill as the wind cut through us, and I was wearing a winter coat.

Few words were necessary as he joined Nick Petersen and I. The blood shed by this company over the years had run deep and hurt many people. Mine now flowed with theirs.

We hugged goodbye.

As I drove the 24 miles back to Elgin, I used my cell phone to call several folks    my Dad, my best friend, my pastor, the whole time trying to stop my eyes from welling up as I kept pace with the rush-hour traffic.

Then the grieving really began    my first-ever loss of a job, let alone a job I had enjoyed and loved; the loss of a place where I could come daily to work with people I'd known and respected and, even more importantly, had come to think of as almost another family.

And my grief turned to dismay as I realized more and more fully how this layoff, this loss of income, would affect my wife and children. I sobbed once, wiping back tears so I would not have to pull over.

Part of me wanted to weep, but that would have to wait.

Part of me felt betrayed by a company for which I had shown the utmost loyalty, often working long hours, frequently without additional compensation, for so many years. Worse, this was a job for which I willingly made sacrifices    that my family had sacrificed time with me for    because of my apparently mistaken notion that hard work and loyalty would in some way count toward job security.

And yet, amid the waves of grief, I did not feel any anger over this betrayal. Hurt, yes, but no anger.

Newspaper readership has been dropping since World War II, a decline that hastened with the advent of the Internet and Web sites like Craigslist, which lured away the precious classified advertising that for so long had been the backbone of newspaper revenues. Newspapers generally were shortsighted about this new technology and were likewise slow to react in learning how to make it work for them.

Throw into the mix the 2001 recession and the more recent one that The Associated Press has dubbed "The Great Recession," and it becomes easy to understand why many newspapers have folded or are closing. And amid those trends, I made a move three years ago to my first career change    from print editor to a Web editor.

Now I face another transition. God willing, I will find greater joy for my family and wisdom for myself as this latest change occurs ...