Friday, January 27, 2012

Elgin layoffs a tough story to write

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
You cannot cover the evolution of a city budget with a $13 million hole in it and not expect to write about the consequences down the road.

I was born and raised in Elgin, Ill., and when I left for my first newspaper job in Rawlins, Wyo., in late 1983, I vowed I would return only as a visitor. That changed in 1994 — some would call it fate, I would call it God’s will — when I applied for a position with The Courier-News. There is much more to that story, but I will save it for another time.

It took me some time to recover from the initial shock of that awful day, and here it is nearly 14 months later and still I struggle, working part-time at several jobs whose combined wages are not even close to what I was making before I was let go.

So on Dec. 21, when the Elgin City Council approved a $268 million budget that included new fees and new taxes — and $1.8 million in staff reductions — I knew I’d feel some deep emotions when this day arrived, more so if I knew any of the people who were let go.

It’s not that I had never written about layoffs before. As a reporter, that was part of the turf when I began my career. But I had a far different perspective then. Each story was a potential scoop, and I conducted my interviews and wrote my stories with a concealed excitement. It’s not that I was completely insensitive per se, but I was in a new job doing what I’ve always believed is important work. If I was callous, it was borne of my own lack of experience with this kind of situation.

That was a long, long time ago, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since I started working as a journalist in late 1983.

Since then, I’ve watched as a lot of co-workers over the past 17 years — most of those since 2007 — have lost their jobs in an economy that has been hard on everyone but the nation’s uber rich. My own layoff, in particular, of course, helped me to reshape my views about the nation’s jobless, a list of statistics being wielded insensitively as some sort of tool by both Republicans and Democrats.

Outwardly, I handled my reporting and interviewing no differently, I think, than I would have 27 years ago. But inwardly, I was not focused on the scoop; I was wondering about the individuals, the 16 people who came to work Friday not knowing they would leave without a job, not suspecting the emotional turmoil that was about to unfold for them, the uncertainty of the days, weeks and perhaps even months ahead.

I also recalled how at one time I’d perceived those who had to make decisions like this. Intellectually, I always knew these decisions sometimes had to be made, that the persons responsible for these decisions had to be cold and heartless in their deliberations.

But over the past year, I’ve come to know some of these decision makers — there’s nothing cold and heartless about them. They are making decisions that will have a tremendously negative impact on other lives, and they do not take that responsibility lightly.

Even as I perceive the corporate world as a cold, heartless beast, I know that is not true of the people in charge, although frequently, I think, they are far too insulated from the task at hand, because they do not always know the individuals whose lives they are upending.

Regardless, they know what they are doing. At Sun-Times Media, there was one vice president I ran into after a particularly brutal day, probably about six months or longer before my own layoff. I knew him enough to say hi and, as I walked past him in the newsroom, his expression was worn and haggard.

Later that afternoon, I sent him an email saying I knew these layoffs had to be tough. “Keep your chin up,” I wrote.

He responded a day later expressing his thanks for the encouragement.

There also were several Elgin employees who were heroes, I think, on Friday, just as there were during the layoffs at Sun-Times Media. Two of my co-workers there — Chris Pummer Paul LaTour — stepped up in the face of layoffs, volunteering to be laid off, effectively “taking the bullet” for two other employees who may never know their jobs were next in line. It is entirely possible their actions postponed my own layoff down the road, and I always will remember them fondly for that.

Similarly in Elgin, some individuals stepped forward to take a voluntary buyout — two month’s pay and six months of health insurance coverage, likely saving the jobs of others. My hat’s off to Public Services Director David Lawry and Senior Recreation Supervisor Deb Barr for their selfless sacrifice.

Dec. 2, 2010, was not a good day for me, but there were plenty of days both before and afterward that that were pretty lousy for other people at Sun-Times Media.

On Friday, Jan. 27, it was a crummy day for more than a dozen employees of the city of Elgin. My heart goes out to them.

My advice to them? Get on with what you need to do — file for unemployment, update your resume and start looking for work. But take time for yourself to grieve, as well.

Also, realize this is not the end of the road, simply a change in direction, and this new direction is rife with possibilities for your future. Even with the challenges ahead, that is something about which you can choose to be excited.