HITTING HOME

Layoffs Are a Big Story. And Now They're My Story.

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By Andrea McCarren
Sunday, February 1, 2009

I spent this past Thanksgiving Day in Rhoadesville, Va., documenting the fears of a General Motors family. Eleven of the Elliotts had built their lives around the automaker and took tremendous pride in their company. But on that overcast Thursday, the only industry they had ever known was in peril, threatening layoffs or even a complete shutdown. I understood their worries: They were staring at the possibility of losing retirement funds, as well as the camaraderie of colleagues they'd worked beside for decades.

At least I thought I understood.

Then, nine days ago, I got the phone call that really brought home the Elliotts' troubles. Along with more than two dozen colleagues, I was being laid off from my job as a television reporter.

Only a few days later, layoffs seemed to be taking place everywhere. Caterpillar, Home Depot, Sprint Nextel, Starbucks. The announced job losses totaled in the tens of thousands in a single day. I was making an abrupt and unplanned departure from the news business at the moment when what had happened to me was making front-page news across the country.

For months, my colleagues and I had been reporting on the devastating downward spiral of our economy. We'd interviewed autoworkers, retailers and others who, like us, loved their jobs and had been saving to put their children through college, buy houses or help ailing relatives. Termination, it appears, is an equal-opportunity predator.

I've been surprised by some of the responses to my layoff. An autoworker I'd interviewed when Congress was debating a rescue package for Detroit sent a simple e-mail: "What can we do to help?"

Friends, colleagues and neighbors have confided stories of their own. I've heard from the newspaper reporter who'd been abruptly fired, with a wife and newborn baby at home. I've spoken with a woman who was quietly laid off from her job in business development; her termination didn't make any headlines.

It's hard to say whether getting pink-slipped in the public eye is better or worse. When you work in local television news, strangers treat you like family. We on-camera reporters are their friends, their confidants. After all, we're in their living rooms and kitchens, in some cases every day.

In a sense, these people are my "family," too. Over the years, they've shared my life's high points -- getting married, having kids, even being promoted -- and they've been there for the low ones, sending condolence cards after my father's sudden death and, now, the loss of my job.

At the grocery store, strangers ask what it was like to cover the inauguration. I smile and answer politely. I'm used to chatting with people I've never met. It was a cold but exhilarating 15 hours on the Mall, I reply, a career highlight I was fortunate to share with my 13-year-old son. It was also one of my last assignments.

The morning after I was fired, I went to the gym. The moment I walked through the door, I spotted some employees from a local radio station doing a promotion. "Hey, it's Andrea McCarren!" one of them yelled. "From Channel 7!" My heart sank. I offered a weak, "Hey, how ya doin'?" and headed to the exercise machines. I hadn't anticipated how it would feel, after so many years, not to be "from Channel 7" anymore.

Two days later, a trainer interrupted my stationary bike ride to ask, "What, no work for you today?"


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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