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Workers recall the moment they became jobless

Some were called in by the boss and told to close the door behind them. Others received a brisk and impersonal phone call from a manager. Another was asked to come in on his day off to talk about “some people issues.”

Employers cut the jobs of 533,000 U.S. workers in November — the worst monthly drop in 34 years. For many, the sting of being told they were no longer needed marked the moment the nation’s dire economic troubles became their own.

In interviews across the nation Friday, workers without work recalled how they found out they were out of a job.

For two years, Mark McDonald kept a tomato crate under his desk, mindful that he might need to pack up on short notice. He knew that a job with CTG Inc., which supplies contract workers for IBM, came with uncertainty, given the big computer company’s reputation for sudden, drastic cuts.

But when two managers in the Research Triangle Park, N.C., office stopped by McDonald’s work station on the morning of Oct. 17, he was still caught off guard.

McDonald was checking e-mail and sipping hazelnut coffee. It was four days short of his 40th birthday. The managers had come to tell him that today would be his last day at work.

McDonald’s first thought was that he had done something wrong. The managers, rather than give reasons in front of the office staff, asked him to join them in the conference room after he had packed.

As McDonald worked in a fog, an account representative nearby began crying softly. Russ Hemenway, a team leader in the service test group for IBM, came over and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“Mark,” he said, “if you need help finding another job, use me as a reference right away.”

When he arrived at the brightly lit meeting room with his crate, McDonald was given a couple of forms to sign. One was to cancel his contract; the other informed him he could be rehired if things turn around.

In the seven weeks since then, McDonald has had a half-dozen job interviews. He is confident he will find something soon. But he is also sure things will never feel the same.

“I worked with a very special, unique group of people, and it just all of a sudden abruptly ended,” he said. “I think on my next job, I’m going to be holding my breath.”

Raymond Morgan knew that business at Wheels Inc., a suburban Chicago corporate auto leasing firm, was struggling and that his boss mentioned plans for a smaller staff. But Morgan felt good about his own job.

That was until the 60-year-old Morgan was called in on his day off. His boss wanted to talk about “some people issues.”

“I knew then,” he said Friday on his way to an Illinois Department of Employment Security office.

Morgan said he didn’t go into a panic after he got the news. He didn’t cry or get emotional because he is a “weathered individual.”

“I just took time to decompress, and now I finished decompressing and Monday I get started on a new job search,” he said.

Morgan admits being angry about what happened to him. “But I know it’s a business decision and they have to make those decisions,” said Morgan, who is married but separated from his wife and has two adult children and a 9-year-old daughter.

But just a few years shy of retirement, Morgan knows finding a new job won’t be easy: “Age is a way of getting rid of people.”

Brenda Junkin knows the exact minute that the nation’s economic woes hit her — 7:48 a.m. Tuesday.

The lifestyles reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer had been told along with other newsroom employees to wait by the phone that morning for layoff announcements.

Junkin had an upset stomach all the previous night and hadn’t really slept in two nights.

As she waited that morning, the 54-year-old got a grim text message from a colleague: “I’ve been axed.”

Then at 7:48 Junkin’s phone rang.

Editor Susan Goldberg told Junkin that she been selected.

“As if you’re winning a gift to be laid off,” Junkin said.

The rest of the 60-second call was a blur. Something about coming in to pick up her things.

“I really kind of went into a fog. I just sat there. What do you say?” said Junkin, her voice breaking. “I kept thinking, ‘Does she even know my face?’ It was really impersonal.”

The call ended. Her 12 years at a job she loved were over.

“I cried. I just cried,” she said.

Junkin called her husband, her son and her sister. Then calls poured in from co-workers; many were crying. Some of them she barely knew. But she let them speak to her answering machine. She couldn’t bring herself to pick up the phone.

“There was no way in hell. I needed to hide for a while,” she said. “It would have been just too sad.”

It happened on a Monday. Loan officer Elizabeth Avalo was busy processing a $400,000 mortgage for a client when her boss called everyone in the Pinecrest, Fla., office of IndyMac Bank together for a meeting.

Avalo hoped it wasn’t bad news. She had moved to Florida two years before from Massachusetts to get away from a divorce and live closer to family. Avalo had worked in the mortgage industry in Massachusetts for 18 years and loved it. Some years she made good money, $80,000 even. Her income wasn’t as good in Florida as it was up north, but she had saved enough to put down the first month, last month and security deposit on a nice rental house for her and the kids.

A conference call number was dialed, and the voice of her manager’s boss broke the silence.

“Unfortunately, things aren’t going as well as everyone planned,” the disembodied voice on the speakerphone said.

Everyone was fired, effective in August. Tears came quickly for Avalo.

The first thing she did was call her mother.

“In 30 days I don’t have a job,” she wept as she sat in her cubicle. “How am I going to pay the rent?”

Someone in the office suggested they get some fresh air. So Avalo and a few others walked across the street to a little cafe with a cheery green awning. She had an espresso. She took a deep breath. She had to figure out how not to let her children see how scared she was.

“Thank God for credit cards,” she thought.

Five months later, Avalo is still unemployed. She is $36,000 in debt. She sometimes cries at the unemployment office while holding her folder of resumes. She doesn’t care if anyone sees.

The first warning that Angel Amezquita’s construction job might be in danger came in early October.

“The boss said, ‘It’s kind of slow. Don’t come in the rest of the week,”’ the 33-year-old New Yorker recalled. “I had a funny feeling in my stomach.”

That was it, though, until the morning of Oct. 27, when Amezquita arrived at the East Harlem job site wearing his hard hat. A foreman pulled him aside and told him he was one of three people being let go.

He was upset that his boss had delegated someone else to tell him the bad news. It stung all the more because Amezquita was one week short of his first anniversary at the job, which would have led to a more secure position and better benefits.

Amezquita went home to his wife and assured her everything would be OK.

“I don’t know whether it will actually be all right or not,” he said. “But I had to give comfort.”

He is hoping to find work in time to buy Christmas parents for his two young children.

While he looks for work, Amezquita avoids passing by his old job site if he can, even though it is near his home.

“It’s just the frustration that comes over me,” he said. “I don’t want to see any of those guys.”

Associated Press Writers Tamara Lush in Miami, Joe Milicia in Cleveland, Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, N.C., David Caruso in New York, and Deanna Bellandi in Chicago contributed to this story.

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