The WSJ has a sad story about the woes of executives who, fired and given comfortable severance packages of months or even a year, maintained their old life style and are now facing economic ruin. Judging from the number of fathers I see escorting their kids to school around town, this is a story playing out in Greenwich, too.
By MARY PILON
SILVER SPRING, Md. — Paul Joegriner hasn’t worked since March 2008, when he was laid off from his $200,000-a-year job as chief executive officer of a small bank. But you wouldn’t know it by appearances.
His wife, Marzena, shuttles their two young children to private school every morning. The family recently vacationed in Virginia Beach, Va., and likes to dine on Porterhouse steaks. Since losing his job, Mr. Joegriner, 44 years old, has had several offers. He’s turned each down in hopes of landing a position comparable to what he held before.
The family’s lifestyle over the past year and a half has been propped up by a $200,000 severance package and another $100,000 in savings — funds the family has burned through rapidly. By Mr. Joegriner’s own calculations, the family will be out of money in six months if he doesn’t find work.
“It will be D-Day,” he says. “But on the outside, no one has any idea that we’re in trouble.”
Mr. Joegriner is a member of what might be called the severance economy — unemployed Americans who use severance pay and savings to maintain their lifestyles. Many lost their jobs in 2007 and 2008, and thought they’d soon find work. Now, they’re getting desperate. Last week, lawmakers passed a bill extending unemployment benefits up to 20 weeks. Unemployment benefits, which typically last about 26 weeks, were expected to run out for 1.3 million people by the end of the year, according to the National Employment Law Project.
All of that is unfortunate, but here’s the truly sad part of this tale:
Originally committed to staying in the Washington, D.C., area, Mr. Joegriner expanded his search. In September, the family flew to tiny Gillette, Wyo., where Mr. Joegriner was in the final interview stages for a CEO position at a credit union. The salary was $60,000 less than what he earned before, and uprooting his family from Maryland would be difficult. But they all seemed excited about a possible move.
A few days later, Mr. Joegriner received an offer and a contract. Despite the earlier enthusiasm, doubts began to surface. “What if we went all the way out there and they laid me off?” After fruitless negotiations, he turned down the job. The reason: The position didn’t include a guarantee of severance pay. Says Mr. Joegriner: “I just couldn’t take the risk.”
At 56, I’ve had to remake a career several times. Each time, after some rough going, things turned out to be better than before. But you can’t allow yourself to be paralyzed by fear. When, after being passed over for partnership at a law firm I struck out on my own and prospered, I’d get calls from friends who were laid-off corporate attorneys who wanted to know how I’d done it, how I survived. I’d take them to lunch, encourage them, assure them they could do just fine, but when I got to the part about no benefits and no guaranteed paycheck they’d get a sad look in their eyes and say, “I hate what I’m doing, and ‘d love to go out on my own, but I can’t take the risk.”
And there is a risk. When I quit law to try to make a living as a writer I failed. Book sales of 20,000 are gratifying but won’t put three kids through college. So after a couple of years I reluctantly got into real estate, where I discovered that I could make an excellent income from writing – I just had to sell houses to people who came in through my real estate column. It wasn’t how I envisioned making a living from writing, but okay. And when I was fired by Greenwich Post for offending an advertiser I lost that venue and, I feared, my source of clients, so I started this blog, from a combination of pique at the Post and an attempt to continue my visibility among the 1000 real estate agents in town. I ‘ve never made a better decision.
So here’s this poor schnook in Washington D.C. who could start a new life in Wyoming but won’t take the risk. He wants a guarantee of a successful outcome even though his present state of unemployment is telling him that there are no guarantees. I’m no Dr. Pangloss, but if any of you are facing the same situation as banker Joegriner, I urge you to toss away your fear and move forward. At least it will be different than your current dilemma and the odds are pretty good that the same talent that helped you succeed once will do it again. As the sneaker company says, “just do it”.
So endeth the morning sermon.