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Two Layoffs, One Family: When a Household Is Out of Work

What happens when two incomes become no incomes? Coordination and flexibility are the keys, according to couples who are working their way through dual layoffs.

By Debra Donston-Miller
FILED UNDER: Work Life Balance.
Job Search

Fourteen million Americans are now out of work, nearly one in every 10 American workers. Among those is Charley Gosse of McLean, Va.

In late 2007, Gosse was laid off from his job as chief financial officer at a nearby private school and has been in search of a job ever since.

Also among those 14 million is Laura Gosse, who was laid off in January from her job as vice president of an online marketing company.

Laura and Charley were once dual wage-earners in a two-income family that also includes two young daughters. Now Laura and Charley Gosse are tightening their belts to make ends meet on dwindling severances, savings and unemployment benefits while conducting dual job searches for a no-income family. They’re not alone.

More than 151,000 two-income families became no-income families in 2008, the latest year for which statistics were available, raising the total to 663,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number was up 29 percent from 512,000 in 2007.

For the Gosses and others facing two layoffs and two job searches, the experience requires more than just a plan to save money. A dual job search, said experts and families who have experienced it, requires a different job-search strategy. Any plan must support and coordinate resume writing, interview scheduling and traveling. It must also take into account potential decisions about whether to relocate or accept an offer that could change life for every member of the family.

Adding structure and support

For the Gosses, it was mainly a matter of finding ways to support each other search and accommodate two schedules.

When Charley Gosse was laid off in late 2007, the family immediately went into cost-cutting mode. Laura's salary covered expenses, but she and Charley didn't know how long he would be out of work and so they went into "complete savings mode."

The couple cut back on lots of different things. They eliminated dinners out and vacations, and they let their live-in au pair go since Charley was home and could care for the children while Laura worked.

When Laura was laid off in January, they took belt-tightening to a new level.

"We both received severance of different, varying lengths, and (by that point) we'd been frugal for a year," she said. "So, it was just like, 'OK, let's tighten the belt a little more.' "

The bigger challenge was managing what was now two ongoing job searches.

"We both started looking for full-time work," Laura said. "Charley was staying home because of my situation, and when that changed, we both had to concentrate on looking for jobs."

Laura said the parallel job hunt got off to a bit of a rocky start: "We were both doing our job hunting. (Our younger daughter would come home from preschool), and we didn't really have any structure. We felt bad that we were both trying to figure out our way and she was just kind of playing by herself."

Realizing that more structure was key to managing two job searches and a family, Laura and her husband worked out a schedule where each worked at the job hunt every other day while the other held down the home front.

"That's the model of what we would want people to do," said Donna Spellman, the director of Self Sufficiency Services at Family Centers of Greenwich, Conn., a human-services agency that, among many other things, provides career and family counseling.

"If one person is staying behind with the kids, focusing on keeping things moving along smoothly, that person is creating space for the other person to do their thing," Spellman said. "And perhaps tomorrow or the next day, they switch. But it means that everybody's truly doing their part. They're not scrambling, and they're not saying, 'I thought you were going to stay home!' It's not about that."

Flexibility and part-time work

While Laura and Charley found that structure was key, they also learned that they had to remain flexible.

Their flexibility was put to the test recently when Laura obtained a part-time job that took her away from home three days a week. Now, "the days that I am home, I give [Charley] those days to do what he needs to do so we can keep moving forward," she said.

Laura added that she and Charley "switch off" when necessary — for example, when an interview or meeting comes up.

Family Centers' Spellman said it is critical that both job-hunting partners demonstrate this kind of flexibility.

"It will happen that somebody's going to get a call that's going to be very spur of the moment — 'I've got an interview, and I've gotta go,' " Spellman said. "The partners have to be flexible as much as possible.”

Laura and Charley have been working together so that each of their job-hunting strategies, resources and skills can be leveraged by the other. For example, Laura showed Charley how to use the LinkedIn network, and the couple reviews each other's resume and cover letter before sending them out.

The Hudgins family

Another no-income family, Lavoyed and Cheryl Hudgins, are also sharing the load.

Lavoyed was a special assistant to former Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, managing 800-plus employees and a budget of $130 million. Cheryl was an executive assistant for Fletcher, and before that she worked for another former governor and an Army general.

After Gov. Fletcher lost his run for re-election in November 2007, the new governor dismissed Lavoyed and Cheryl, along with other members of Fletcher's staff.

Lavoyed said Cheryl and he weren't terribly worried at the time they were let go, as Cheryl found a good job with benefits shortly thereafter. However, that job happened to be in the automotive industry, and Cheryl was laid off about two months ago.

Lavoyed, who said he and Cheryl have extended their job search and will consider relocating, stressed the importance of mutual support in a two-person job search.

"We're extremely fortunate in that we have a wonderful, solid, strong relationship," he said. "As a matter of fact, when she was laid off, I think it actually helped me because it helped me stop focusing just on myself. I had to be strong for her at that point."

That kind of mutual support has bolstered the dual job-hunting Gosse couple, as well.

"There's a lot of stress when one parent is out of a job; when two parents are out of a job, clearly that puts a lot of different stresses on the whole thing," Laura Gosse said. "But it has not been as stressful just in terms of working out the mechanics with my husband. We're compatible, and we work well with each other. Both of us have been accommodating with each other."

Lavoyed said he and Cheryl, who have three grown children between them, enjoy their time together but also recognize the need for time apart.

"Being together 24/7 has not been an issue for us," Lavoyed said. "But we do realize that there are times when we need a few hours apart. No matter how much you love each other, you need a little break once in a while. So, we try to consciously employ that tactic."

Double the stress

In today's economy, the job search can be prolonged, a fact that is all too familiar to both the Gosse and Hudgins families. When not one but both members of a couple are conducting such a search, motivation and enthusiasm can be tough to come by as anxiety sets in further.

Spellman and other experts interviewed by TheLadders stress the importance of remembering that the situation is temporary.

"For most people, it was just bad timing, bad luck," Spellman said. "It happens. There's never a good time, but it is temporary."

"The mind has to change the concept of, 'It's going to take me a while to find a job,' " said Kevin Skinner, who has a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy and is an author and radio-show host. "’It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when I get that new job.’ "

Family Centers’ Spellman said she understands that it can be difficult to maintain a positive attitude under such difficult circumstances, but that such positivity could be the difference between landing a job and not landing it.

"Attitude is three-quarters of it," Spellman said. "It's not just, ‘Do you have the hard skills?’; it's ‘Do you click on an attitude level or on a personality level?’ And so a healthy attitude and a positive, upbeat personality are going to really carry and enormous amount of weight — and that's going to be both at home and in the workplace."

“It’s only temporary”

Yet when both members of a couple are out of work, there may be no financial fallback. Even couples with healthy savings and severance can't help but wonder and worry about making ends meet.

When those ends aren't quite coming together, it's important to put aside feelings of guilt and blame, Spellman said. Remember that you didn't ask for this situation and that it's only temporary.

"You have to put your pride aside and be OK with it," she said. "The guilt, the blame — those are just wasted emotions. It's too consuming, and it's really not about that."

Spellman said the United Way, public libraries and regional Departments of Labor are great sources of information about available services.

"This is not forever," she said. "When the tables turn, you can be the one to help support somebody else."

Laura and Charley Gosse are working together to make it through this rough spot as they look ahead to their family's future.

"I remain hopeful," Laura said, "and he does, too."

Debra Donston-Miller covers work-life issues and difficult job-search situations for TheLadders.

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