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Lying low after a layoff

Even as the ranks of unemployed and underemployed have grown, experts say a certain segment is determined to suffer in silence, keeping details of job losses and financial pressure secret.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

For weeks after he was laid off, Clinton Cole would rise at the usual time, shower, shave, don one of his Jos. A. Bank suits and head out the door of his Vienna home -- to a job that no longer existed.

He was careful to stay away until 5 p.m., whiling away the hours at the library or on a park bench in a wireless Internet hot spot. If he had to stay home, he stashed the car in the garage.

When he lost his job as a business development manager with General Dynamics Information Technology in February, Cole was too ashamed to tell anyone except his wife and family what had happened. It made no difference that 1,200 other workers were pink-slipped at the same time. He felt as if he had done something wrong, even though he knew he hadn't.

"In this area, in the shadow of our nation's capital, so much is about appearances," said Cole, a carefully spoken man of medium height with thinning brown hair and tortoise-shell glasses, which he removes for photographs. "There was fear that other kids wouldn't play with your kids. You won't be invited to parties or be ostracized. Or that others would distance themselves from you because you might need help they won't be able to provide. All those thoughts race through your mind."

After about two months, Cole tired of the charade, and now he thinks that talking about it publicly could help him find employment and inspire others. He realized that those he once thought would shun him often reached out to help. Perhaps they saw a bit of themselves in his anxious eyes -- just one severance check away from disaster.

Even as the ranks of unemployed and underemployed have grown, career counselors, therapists and other experts say a certain segment is determined to suffer in silence, keeping details of job losses and financial pressure secret from all but close family and friends. The problem is particularly acute in affluent neighborhoods in the Washington region, experts say, where the self-worth of high-achieving professionals is deeply intertwined with their jobs. There might be 14 million unemployed people in this country, but in this town -- with its A-types and status seekers -- failure still is not an option.

Current at the club
"I have people who are not working and laid off who still pay their country club memberships. Then they're not sleeping at night and fighting with their spouses or children," said Cynthia Turner, a licensed clinical social worker who practices in Loudoun and Fairfax counties. "Still, there's shame. What I see is people willing to talk about the stock market but not willing to talk about . . . losing a job, being furloughed or laid off."

Feelings of disgrace and fear are natural for laid-off workers, experts say, but going to extremes to mask the truth is more prevalent in other cultures, such as some in Asia. During the recession of the 1990s, some Japanese "salarymen" committed suicide rather that admit to their families that they had lost their jobs; an online poll this spring of 440 dismissed Korean workers showed that one in five hid the news from their families. Stories such as Cole's are becoming more common here in this recession, because the downturn has hit more middle-class and affluent families than usual.

When Henry Brinton, the pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, set up a support group for unemployed executives this year, he modeled it on anonymous self-help groups. With those rules, a dozen congregants have felt free to tell their stories.

"I didn't want anyone to come to this group feeling as though they were going to be embarrassed or gossiped about," Brinton said.

And so a District lawyer recently bumped from equity partner to counsel says little but worries about how he's going to pay the mortgage on his freshly built dream home. And in Silver Spring, a 39-year-old journalist who can't find a TV job still goes out for dinner with friends who don't know how poor she is, pretending all the while that she's doing just fine. She orders water and a $4 side salad, then drives her (paid-for) Jaguar to whichever grocery store has Lean Cuisine on sale. (These two and others interviewed did not want their names used for the same reason that they are keeping the information from their friends.)

The number of college-educated workers who are unemployed is rising; in the Washington area, those collecting unemployment benefits who have college or postgraduate degrees more than doubled from July 2008 to last month, up to 6,227 from 2,652. But for some, the sheer numbers of unemployed in this "jobless recovery" provide little comfort and do not lessen the stigma.

One woman who has attended Brinton's group said no one but her children knows that she and her husband are jobless, their savings shot. When she walks her dog around her neighborhood of $600,000 homes, she'll tell neighbors she is telecommuting for the day. She and her husband use fictitious commitments to put off friends' invitations for dinner out or weekends away.

"I don't want people to know. They feel sorry for you, and that's a bittersweet thing," she said. "It's just easier to fib about it."

She recently put $1,000 worth of dental work on hold for lack of insurance. The pain of her cracked crown gnaws at her, a daily reminder of her predicament.

Career counselors and others trying to help the unemployed say suffering in silence is counterproductive. Experts say most people find jobs through informal networks of friends and family rather than Internet job boards or want ads.

"Engineers and the other introverted professions often say to me, 'I cannot stand networking, and I won't do it.' I say to them, 'If you won't do it for yourself, then do it for your kids,' " said Ardell Fleeson, who runs a support group for "in transition" technology executives in Tysons Corner. "You can't come up with what you want to do next by sitting at your kitchen table thinking about it. Or doing Internet research."

Sworn to secrecy
When Herndon resident Dave Lotocki was laid off from his job in human resources in the spring, his wife, a federal employee, swore him to secrecy, because she did not want neighbors to know their woes.

About two months later, a neighbor asked a simple question: "How's work?" He couldn't lie.

"I'm not a person who misrepresents reality. I was unemployed," Lotocki said. "I felt -- let's not hide behind anything anymore."

He and his wife now talk openly about their situation.

Cole, who worked in federal business development locally for more than two decades, realized he needed to start telling people about his job search when he began attending Fleeson's roundtable. There, group leaders warned he would gain little ground if he stayed in his spider hole.

So he started to talk at church dinners and to neighbors. To his surprise, everyone reacted with offers of help and leads, not the cold shoulder he had feared. "If you just let them know, people will go out of their way to help you," he said. "They also think, 'Gosh, what if it happened to me?' "

A dozen interviews
Since then, he has had more than a dozen interviews but no offers.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of the family, which includes his wife, Lori, and two children, ages 13 and 9, have spiraled downward. They are on food stamps. Dinner is sometimes cold cereal.

They haven't paid their mortgage in months. The bank said it would give them until fall, so Cole lies in bed at night wondering -- when would it be worse to be evicted? In early fall, which is sooner, or late fall, when it's colder? Are they going to have to put their three cats in a shelter? Are they going to have to put themselves in a shelter?

He hopes his story could help someone else in the same situation.

"It's a bad time to look for a job," he said. "There are far fewer jobs out there. A lot of families are suffering."

It could be one of his neighbors. Or the person at the grocery store. Or in the next pew on Sunday. That's the thing about shadows. They are all around us.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.