Image: Patty Powers
John Brecher  /  MSNBC.com
Patty Powers of Ontario, Calif., went to work for weeks expecting to be laid off and felt relief when it finally happened.
Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 2/13/2009 11:03:05 AM ET 2009-02-13T16:03:05

The morning after she lost her job, Patty Powers expected to wake up with that feeling of dread you get when you realize that something bad has happened, like a death in the family.

Instead, she felt relief.

“I almost felt like a new opportunity had opened up for me,” she said. “I really felt worse when I was waiting.”

For months, Powers had gone to work knowing there would be little if any work for her to do because of a steep slowdown in business at the health care consultancy where she worked.

At first, her boss used the lull to encourage employees to take additional training. The staff also took on a pro bono case and was encouraged to seek out other potential business leads. In their copious downtime, they sent around computer games to play.

Toward the end, Powers said her boss literally gave her the assignment of updating her resume. Finally he called her into his office and, in an emotional hour-long meeting, told her he would have to let her go.

It was only after that that the Ontario, Calif., resident realized how hard it had been to go to work every day knowing that it might be her last — or might not.

“I really didn’t know how stressful it was until I got laid off,” said Powers, 50. “It was like a hindsight thing.”

The economic recession has pushed hundreds of thousands of Americans into a similar  employment limbo, still holding on to a job but worried that they might lose it any day.

U.S. companies announced plans to lay off 241,749 workers in January alone, the largest monthly total since January of 2002, according to data from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The pace of job cuts hasn’t abated much in February, either, with companies such as General Motors announcing plans to cut thousands more jobs over the next year.

It can often take months for companies to complete a massive layoff, leading to a nerve-racking period in which workers are left to wonder whether they will be targeted, and anxious to defend their position.

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Of course, no one relishes the thought of the unemployment line, and the nation’s soaring jobless rate has left many laid-off workers unable to find a new job at all, let alone one that is comparable to their old one.

Still, for some the most stressful part is the ambiguity of not knowing if, or when, they will be joining the swelling ranks of the unemployed.

“The condition of uncertainty is sometimes actually worse than actually knowing that you’re going to get laid off,” said Leon Grunberg, a professor of comparative sociology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., who has studied downsizing extensively.

His research showed that people who were fearful of losing their jobs but hadn’t lost them yet were more likely to suffer symptoms of poor health, such as headaches, indigestion and sleep disorders.

The widespread fear of layoffs, combined with an absence of any concrete information, also can have a deep impact on both morale and productivity, as workers find it hard to keep their minds on their jobs amid rumors about who could be next and anxiety over what will happen if they are the ones to get the pink slip.

‘Just a matter of time’
Every payday for the last two months, Jackie Hopkins has watched as some of her co-workers have been let go. And every payday, she’s wondered if she will be next.

“I know it’s just a matter of time,” she said.

The 40-year-old purchasing supervisor for a manufacturing company already has had both her wages and hours cut as the slowing economy has led to a drop in business.

Hopkins' fears are compounded by the fact that her husband, a welder, has been unemployed since October 2007. The couple lost their home of five years to foreclosure and are currently renting a trailer in Bremen, Ohio, and trying to save money wherever they can.

The situation has left her riddled with anxiety, worried about doing her best at work and consumed at home with looking at job sites and wondering how she will pay her bills and keep food on the table.

“This is something that consumes my whole life,” she said. “It’s all I think about.”

Hopkins said one of the hardest parts is that she actually has always loved her job, which she has held for nearly eight years, and would never have thought of leaving. Even now she is trying to keep her morale up despite her worries about her own future.

“You try to let the company know that yeah, you’re rooting for them and everything else, but deep down inside it’s like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do when I’m on the unemployment line?’ ” she said.

Many workers who still have jobs say they nevertheless are planning for the possibility that they won’t.

Scott Ho, a 29-year-old designer for an architecture firm, figures that if he gets laid off his best chance for finding new employment will be to transition to a career in transportation, but he knows that could take time. The Monterey Park, Calif., resident recently moved back in with his parents so he can save money and pay off debts.

He originally had planned on making that move to save up for a house, but after his company laid off some workers, he said, “now it looks more like it’s a matter of survival.”

Many workers also worry about what will happen to the people they serve if they are let go. Tricia Henington has worked as a school nurse in Idaho since 1992, doing everything from helping students with insulin shots to administering feeding tubes.

Now, with the state facing a budget crunch, she’s worried that her job may be on the chopping block.

Henington said she’s sympathetic to the school district’s budget woes, and she doesn’t want to see academics and extracurricular activities cut, even if it means she loses her job instead. Still, she said that without her position, parents and teachers might have to take on her responsibilities, adding to their burdens and stresses.

On a personal level, Henington also worries that if she loses her job she’ll have to go back to school to update her skills for other nursing work. At 52, she doesn’t relish the thought of retraining for a new job when she had hoped to retire in her current one. Perusing the job listings, Henington also frets about whether she’ll be able to find a new job that provides benefits for herself and her husband, a rancher.

There are days, she admits, when she wakes up at 5 a.m. to get ready for work and wonders why she even bothers.

“It’s hard to go to work and put on that happy, cheery face when you know, come July, you may get that letter saying you haven’t been renewed,” she said.

Hard to move on
Being in limbo also makes is hard to move on to a new job — assuming there is one in this difficult economy.

For one thing, it’s hard to find the time to search, or train, for a new job when you are already dealing with the workload of a full-time job.

There are other distractions as well. Powers, the computer programmer, said she felt like a traitor to consider new jobs while her boss was still paying her despite the evident slowdown in business.

Now that she is officially unemployed and starting her job search, she said she feels sorry for her former co-workers.

“I’m sure it’s worse for them because they have both the stress of thinking that they’re next, and the guilt of being the ones that didn’t get laid off,” she said.

While layoffs create anxiety for workers, Grunberg’s research showed that the process also can be extremely difficult for the managers who are charged with carrying out the job cuts.

Fred Smith has been in the business of building fences since 1982 and has owned his most recent business since 2004. But in recent months, he’s seen business slow considerably and also has been stuck with unpaid bills from customers who have gone bankrupt. That’s left him no choice but to lay off 19 workers for the first time.

He called it “the hardest thing in the world.”

“There’s been a lot of tears shed just for the people I’ve had to let go,” he said. “It’s devastating because they don’t know how they’re going to pay their bills.”

Smith, who runs Accurate Fence LLC in Buford, Ga., also has had to cut pay for his salaried employees, and he is trying desperately to keep the workers he has left busy enough to collect a paycheck. He said it’s tough to see how worried his employees are that they could be next.

“They’re wanting to do extra, go extra just to keep from losing their jobs, but right now the jobs are just not coming in,” he said.

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