Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Downward Spiral--Getting Laid Off

Editor's note - My original intention was to expand "The Downward Spiral" short story into a short (80,000 words or so) novel. That effort has stalled, but is not completely dead yet. In any event, here is an excerpt from the novel version in which I tried to place myself in the shoes of an unaware American who gets blindsided by Peak Oil reality when he loses his job during the great economic crash of 2008-2009. I originally posted this on the old LATOC forum and it was received very favorably.

- Bill

Your boss just gets crankier and crankier. He really starts dumping the assignments on you, forcing you to work late more often than not. One day you try to object, but he tells you if you don’t like it you can hit the streets. You get the message and don’t say anything more. That afternoon you call Amy to let her know you’re going to be late yet again and she abruptly disconnects the call.

Whenever you get a chance, you begin desperately scanning and other job websites, even finally going on Craigslist. But just as you suspected, there are almost no openings for people with your skill set. The news media reports that over half a million Americans are now losing their jobs every month. You find it difficult to even comprehend such a figure since it is the same number of people as live in a midsized city. You resign yourself to the fact that however poorly your boss treats you, you have no option but to try and hang on.

Rumors of layoffs have been swirling around your office for weeks. In early February they become facts as 25 employees from the Pittsburgh branch get the axe. The next day it is as deathly quiet in the cubicle farms as it was the day after the buildings collapsed in New York. Kim has taken to saying a prayer in her cubicle every morning begging God to not let her get laid off. You would do the same thing if you thought it would do any good, but you just haven’t kept up with your church attendance as you’ve gotten older and don’t want to feel like a hypocrite.

Early on a Monday morning in March, two grim faced guys show up at the office wearing nearly identical black suits with white shirts and red ties. They immediately head for the district manager’s office and close the door. Their presence causes a small discussion circle to gather just outside your cubicle.

Those are the corporate headhunters, Brad says.

Do you think Meyers is being recruited to go to another company, someone else asks.

No, dipshit, Brad replies testily. Not that kind of corporate headhunters--the ones that managers bring in to fire people because they are too chickenshit to do it themselves.

After an hour the two black suits emerge from the regional manager’s office and go into the conference room and close the door. A few minutes later, Jermaine, who works in the next cubicle row, gets a call at his desk. Jermaine was the last person to join your office, having been hired just over a year ago. You kind of like him, but have never had a chance to get to know him that well. What you do know is that he once played football at a small college and has two young daughters at home whose pictures decorate his cubicle walls.

He hangs up the phone and rises slowly on legs that have become visibly unsteady. Eyes follow him silently as he walks towards the conference room. Once he’s inside the door closes behind him. Some of the employees make excuses to walk past the door, straining to hear what is going on within. At one point there is a muffled commotion, but no one can hear what’s being said.

After half an hour Jermaine emerges, looking as pale as it is possible for someone of his ethnicity to look. In his left hand he is carrying some kind of fancy brochure labeled, Changing Careers.

What happened, one of the secretaries asks as he returns to his cubicle.

I got laid off, he says slowly.

Oh shit, comes another voice.

What are you going to do?

I don’t know yet. He looks down and considers the slick folder in his hand, then tosses it angrily against the cubicle wall. But that shit certainly isn’t going to help.

By lunchtime, Jermaine has packed up his belongings and is gone. You never see him again.

Three more employees get calls at their desks that afternoon, two of them from other office suites within the building. The routine is always the same. The employee goes into the conference room, stays for awhile and emerges with a fancy brochure and no job. You spend the day in your cubicle popping Tums like M&Ms, but nothing will quell the gnawing ache in your stomach.

That night at home you don’t tell Amy what is going on, not wanting to upset her since there’s always the chance they won’t call for you. At dinner Amy rambles on about the horrible day she had at school. The children were perfect little brats. Clearly their regular teacher had never enforced any discipline in the classroom. She would like to have sent several of them to the principal’s office, but it doesn’t look good when substitute teachers do that. You nod your head in agreement, but are barely listening. All you can think about is the haunted expression on Jermaine’s face when he left that conference room.

The next day the firings resume. You and the other older employees at least take small comfort that everyone summoned thus far has been a newbie. You are beginning to think you’ll survive all of this when Kim gets a call at her desk.

What, she exclaims. No! There must be some mistake. She listens for another moment and then hangs up the phone. She rises from her chair looking like she's just seen a ghost. Then she makes her way to the conference room.

A few minutes after she enters the room, the door opens again and from your cubicle you hear her screaming and crying.

You can’t DO this to me. I have over 20 years in with the company. I’ve always been a good employee. You bastards! I don’t even KNOW you.

Two uniformed security guards hurry through the office suite and enter the conference room.


Ma’am we have orders to escort you out of the building.

The guards emerge from the conference room, each one holding one of Kim’s arms.

You don’t understand. I have four kids at home and I’m divorced. How am I going to feed them?

We have orders to escort you out of the building, ma’am.


Kim tries to break from their grasp, but they hold on tightly. Her legs move, but her feet barely touch the floor as they drag her out of the suite.

Oh my GOD, she yells as they wait for the elevator. What am I going to DO!

The elevator doors slam shut behind them and cut off her words, which is almost a relief. One of the black suits closes the conference room door. His face is a mask. You’ve worked with Kim ever since you started with the company, but you never see her again after that day.

The headhunters leave the office early that afternoon, which at least provides a temporary relief to the employees. In the break room, the discussion is all about Kim.

Why do you suppose they fired her?

Are you kidding? She’s been coasting for years. All of that Jesus crap had gone to her head.

They haven’t been happy about how much time off she takes to deal with her kids.

Hey, whaddya expect? If the company wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one. (Nervous giggles all around)

That night you mention to Amy that Kim got laid off.

Really, that sucks, she replies before resuming another rant about the rotten children for whom she is substitute teaching.

That was supposed to be your segue to tell her what is happening at the office, but she doesn’t allow you the opening. So you say nothing. But Kim’s firing has you really scared since she had more seniority than you do. That night you toss and turn in bed for hours, unable to sleep.

The next two days pass and you don’t get the call. A dozen of your coworkers get summoned instead. You feel bad for them, but each time you are secretly relieved to have been spared. In a more reflective moment you wonder if this is how soldiers in battle feel when their buddies get hit.

Friday comes at long last and as you’re driving to work you feel a little bit of hope. It is the first day of spring and a bright, sunny one at that. The buds on the trees are bulging and green shoots are beginning to appear in flowerbeds in your neighborhood. Best of all it is your understanding that the headhunters are leaving your office after today. You’ve almost made it.

When you get to the office, the red message light is flashing on your phone. You dial into your voice mail as your computer is booting up. The voice on the machine is officious and abrupt. The caller addresses you as mister and uses your surname. He asks you to stop by the conference room promptly at nine o’clock.

All of the sudden you get tunnel vision and your computer screen seems to move very far away. Your heart begins racing and the ache in your stomach returns with a vengeance. After a moment’s paralysis, you glance down at your watch and cruelly realize that you have to wait a full half-an hour before the guillotine blade falls.

Coworkers trickle in to the office. A couple of them say hello as they pass by. It takes all of your energy to return their greeting, hoping they don’t notice that your voice is cracking. Your computer has finished booting up, but you don’t bother going to your e-mail box as you normally would. All of the sudden the messages contained within have become irrelevant.

At the appointed time, you rise from your chair and make the long walk towards the conference room. As you approach the door, you feel the eyes of your coworkers on the back of your neck. You can almost hear the whispers and silent prayers.

Looks like he’s next. Thank God it wasn’t me. Hopefully, he’ll leave some good office supplies in his cubicle--we’re always out of everything these days.

You knock at the door and the same voice that left you the message sternly instructs you to enter. You open the door and see the two guys in the matching black suits with the white shirts and red ties sitting down on one side of the conference room table. They don’t stand as you enter the room. You wonder momentarily if they’ve worn the same outfits all week, but the thought is snapped when one of them gestures for you to sit down across from them.

When you are seated, the one on the left begins what must be his usual spiel to start the session. He explains that the company’s financial situation is very dire and some cutbacks have to be made, as if you don’t already know the reason you are sitting there. He says you shouldn’t look upon this as a failure on your part. In fact, many people in your situation end up finding a better position elsewhere and end up realizing that changing jobs was the best thing that ever happened to them.

The one on the right picks up one of the Changing Careers folders and hands it to you. You place it on the table in front of you without opening it. He explains the terms of your severance package: $1500 for every year you have served with the company, which in your case--he actually has to use a calculator to add it up--is $24,000.

You’ll have to pay taxes on that, of course, he adds, smiling for the first time. The smile disappears as he goes on. You’ll receive full pay out at salary for the balance of your unused vacation days, but no reimbursement for unused personal days. The company will continue to pay your health insurance premiums for six months or until the day you begin other employment. You’ll be eligible for unemployment insurance to be paid by the state for up to 26 weeks. All company property in your possession shall be returned as soon as possible--and oh by the way, you get to keep the full balance of your 401K account.

You interrupt for the first time since they began speaking. Well, of course I’d keep my 401K account. It’s my money.

He smiles again. You’d be surprised at how many people we talk to think the company has the right to take back their 401Ks. He rolls his eyes at the other guy and they both chuckle. As an expression of humor it has the same effect as seeing a Great White swimming full speed towards a shark cage with you in it.

Do you have any questions, he asks.

And there it is. Sixteen years of your life has come down to this: half a year’s health insurance, a stock market crash-depleted retirement account and barely enough cash in your pocket to live on for four months. You feel a little bit like a wife who has been dumped by her husband for a younger woman. Thanks a bunch for giving me the best years of your life, hon. Now get the fuck out.

You decide that the only manly thing to do is to not make a spectacle out of yourself like Kim did. You don’t ask them any questions, but instead shake their offered hands as you get up to leave.

Good luck, tiger, the one on the left says with a wink. You’re gonna be fine--you’ll see.

Your coworkers watch silently as you shuffle back to your cubicle. A box has been thoughtfully placed on your desk. You don’t stop to figure out who put it there, and slowly begin packing it with stuff from your desk drawers and overhead bins. Lots of things that always seemed important like training manuals suddenly no longer have any value, so you place them in the trash. You’d like to call some of your long time clients to let them know you won’t be serving them anymore, but your phone and computer were disconnected while you were in the conference room.

A couple of your coworkers stop by to wish you well as you’re packing, but most stay away. They are the survivors and you’re already dead to them. The elderly receptionist gives you a little wave as you leave the suite. Hers is the last face you see among those you have worked with for most of your adult life. Two other people are riding the elevator when you step on. They see the full box you’re carrying and immediately stop talking. The doors open one floor below and they quickly flee without saying anything.

When you reach the lobby, you are intercepted by one of the security guards who escorted Kim out the other day. I’ll need your building pass before you go, sir. You put the box down at the security station and remove it from the lanyard around your neck. Momentarily, you glance at the photograph of yourself, smiling happily. The last time you renewed your pass was when you returned to work right after your daughter was born. Oh, how you wish you could return to that time when you were still gainfully employed and the future seemed bright. But you can’t. The guard takes the pass in his huge hand and nods. Then you pick up the box and walk slowly through the revolving doors and out into the midday sunlight.


  1. This will haunt me today at work. FWIW, this is exactly how many layoffs are conducted. I watched many Petroleum Engineers and Geologists cry as Security escorted them out of the building during the oil layoffs many years ago. So sad. I remember specifically one engineer who had checked with his boss before buying a house. His boss said he was safe, so he made the purchase. On layoff day, he was one of the first to go.

  2. @BJ - Gawd, that is awful. I really hope that if there is a hell there is a special place reserved in it for people like that engineer's boss.