Two Make It Through Five Layoffs In Five Years

Dec 12, 2011

Over the course of the recession, 7.5 million Americans lost their jobs, and some of them were unfortunate enough to collect more than one pink slip. Serial layoffs can be personally devastating, but they can also darken a resume and raise concerns for potential employers.

Al and Michelle Ford of St. Paul, Minn., know about multiple layoffs all too well. Their version of the Great Recession started about a year before the official one was declared.

At the end of 2006, word came that the paint supply company where they both worked was consolidating and reorganizing. Al had spent 14 years on the manufacturing side of the company running a paint production line, and Michelle had logged nine years managing customer service workers.

Within a month of each other, the Fords each got a pink slip. Michelle panicked. "I thought the world was coming to an end," she says. "It was just like everything was pulled out from under."

One Round Of Layoffs, Then Another

The Fords had been together 20 years and raised two kids. They now wondered if they'd be able to hold onto their three-bedroom house in St. Paul and avoid draining their retirement savings.

They can joke about it now, but at the time the job hunt itself was stressful. It involved negotiating the use of one corner of their basement, where a small brown desk houses their sole computer. They both needed it to look for work.

"Whoever thinks of having side-by-side computers for when you both lose your job, you know?" Michelle says.

She's 45 and has earned master's level credits; Al is 53 and holds a high school diploma. Both ended up rebounding fairly quickly from that first layoff. Al says the economy had not tanked yet; he landed back in manufacturing, doing blue-collar work.

"I got along and got a job within four to five months, and thought I would never go through that again," he says. "But it happened again."

Their second round of layoffs came in early 2010. In a bizarre stroke of bad luck, the Fords got pink slips on the same day, even though they were working at different companies.

Al's unemployment lasted 10 months, and he took it hard. He says he needed to have Michelle riding him to keep applying for work. Otherwise, he would have crumpled.

"I'd just lay down and ... roll over," he says. "You've got to have somebody driving you, if it's with a stick or bat or whatever. You've got to just be driven."

Eventually they both found jobs again, but Michelle's barely lasted a year. Another business consolidation this past spring put her out of work again. If you're keeping score at home, that puts the Fords' total number of layoffs at five between the two of them.

Explaining Gaps In The Resume

In Minnesota, officials don't have a good way to keep track of people like the Fords, who've suffered serial layoffs. But employers are often keenly aware of them.

Sue Bergstrom is president of hr connection, which caters to people on the front lines of hiring and firing. She says she's seeing more and more people who have been laid off multiple times in their careers.

"It's showing up on their resumes and sometimes making their job search more challenging," Bergstrom says.

When HR professionals see multiple layoffs on a resume, she says, they might think the candidate was a poor performer. So applicants might want to explain the situation upfront, she says. But the initial online application might weed them out before then.

"People don't even see candidates' resumes until it's further into the process," she says.

'A Keeper' At Last

Yvonne Zachman Fiedler, an executive at a medical supply company in Minneapolis, did see Michelle Ford's resume — and she worried that maybe Michelle was a job hopper.

"With Michelle, we went through her resume and said, 'OK. You've been through a lot of companies, but why?' " Fiedler says. "I need to know the story, and I need to understand the story behind it to make sure that she was going to be a keeper, because we want keepers here."

Michelle turned out to be a keeper. Now she's again managing customer service employees. Al is back to work, too, this time as a janitor. They still have their house and some savings, but their annual take-home pay is $10,000 less than it was five years ago.

As the Fords string lights on their Christmas tree, they say they're now more cautious about their holiday giving.

"There would be years when, I mean, the presents would come out three, four [or] five feet [from the tree]," Michelle says.

Even though they're both working now, the Fords seem conditioned to think that the next layoff is never far away.

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