- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

BOLTON, Mass. - The kitchen clock in Avril and Ed Sobolik’s home gave out months ago, leaving the hands stuck at 6:30. In fact, it’s just short of 2 p.m. on a Friday, but the economic standstill in the home has turned days and weeks into a numbing blur, Mrs. Sobolik says.

“What we really don’t talk about is what to do differently,” she says quietly, leaning over the counter layered in bills and junk mail.

“Probably because we don’t know what to do differently,” he says.

Mr. Sobolik lost work as a tool-and-die maker in March 2001 when his job was eliminated in a merger and consolidation. A few months later, Mrs. Sobolik lost her job as an information-research specialist, a casualty of corporate cost-cutting. Since then, Mr. Sobolik has worked for all of eight weeks before he was sent home again.

The couple, who live in an outlying Boston suburb, have burned through 80 percent of Mr. Sobolik’s individual retirement account in their struggle to cover costs.

Individually, the Soboliks are like scores of other unemployed Americans in a stagnant labor market where job searches have stretched to their longest average in 20 years. But together, they are shouldering a double burden. Allies and fallbacks during past recessions, they have become each other’s constant reminder of shared economic futility.

No precise data are available on the number of married couples who both have lost work. They clearly are a small subset of the total unemployed population.

But the prolonged downturn has resulted in more double-unemployed couples such as the Soboliks, say economists and those who counsel job seekers.

One driver is the fact that, in recent decades, the number of married couples depending on two paychecks has surged.

In 1940, 67 percent of all U.S. families comprised a married couple with a single wage earner, almost always the husband. Today, just 16 percent of families fit that description and the biggest group is two-income couples, now 42 percent of all households, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

That gives many more families a backup source of income and health insurance when one spouse loses a job, but simultaneous unemployment is a reality most have not foreseen.

Some two-paycheck couples “thought [if] worse comes to worst they can lean on her or lean on him if something happens. And then they both got hit and they don’t know what to do,” said Ken Goldstein, an economist with the Conference Board, a business-research group.

Cynthia Latta, an economist with the forecasting and consulting firm Global Insight, said, “Where I think you have more and more cases is where you have highly educated couples who are both in similar industries and they’ve been particularly hard-hit.”

Economists point to sectors such as information technology and air travel that have many married couples.

“There definitely are folks in those circumstances and, of course, the pressure builds on them doubly quickly,” said Larry Elle, who leads some of the Boston-area networking groups and has run counseling sessions for unemployed workers and their spouses.

Double job loss can strain relationships by putting a hex over the subject of work, around which people build much of their identities.

“When you were both employed and you said, ‘How was your day?’ that sparked a wonderful conversation,” says Joy Dooley, who runs a support group for job seekers in Lisle Township, Ill., and also counsels couples. “When you’re out of work and you ask, ‘How was your day?’ it has a very negative connotation. It sparks conflict.”

The Soboliks can testify to that. They say their mutual aggravation is less a source of heated arguments than of simmering, largely unspoken tension.

Since the couple married 26 years ago, Mr. Sobolik has lost jobs to layoffs, left jobs of his own accord and found new work. He chalks up most of it to the gradual decline in Massachusetts’ manufacturing sector.

His last long-term job, as a mold maker for a lock manufacturer, vanished when a larger company bought out his firm and a nearby competitor, combined the two and scaled back the work force.

When he found a temporary job last summer, at a firm building plastic molds, a manager told him it could turn into a long-term position. Instead, a few weeks later, Mr. Sobolik noticed some of the molds and machines being crated. Soon after, he and other employees were told the work was being moved to a plant in China.

In the past, Mrs. Sobolik was the family anchor, usually working stable jobs that came with employer-based health insurance for the couple and their two daughters. She was at her last company for 11 years when her job was folded into a new department dedicated to Internet commerce, then eliminated when the department’s budget was cut.

After two years out of work, Mrs. Sobolik, who is 50, is convinced her husband is not doing enough to look for work. He spends most of his days working out on exercise equipment set up in a room off their bedroom, or on the sofa reading the paper. He has applied and been rejected for jobs doing maintenance at some of the local golf courses.

“I’ve got a routine,” he said, noting that his home workouts take 90 minutes, and that mowing the grass can take more than two hours.

“And the other 15 hours?” his wife shoots back.

Mr. Sobolik, who is 64 and has erased 20 years of experience from his resume thinking it will better his chances, is convinced his age makes his wife the more employable of the pair. He can’t figure out why she hasn’t found something.

She spends hours on the basement computer searching for openings for both of them, and has joined groups including Toastmasters to get out of the house and network. She has taken to wearing a pin with the word “Attitude” spelled out in tiny stones, to boost her lagging spirits.

So far, though, no job.

“I just can’t see why she can’t fit in somewhere with all that experience,” Mr. Sobolik says.

“You’re so out of control in this situation. You have none whatsoever,” Mrs. Sobolik says. “That increases your frustration. You want to stand in front of [employers] and shout, ‘I can do this.’”

Their frustration is echoed in other households with both breadwinners out of work.

In Brad and Melanie Newby’s house in West Windsor, N.J., nearly simultaneous layoffs from jobs as technology managers about two years ago started battles for their single computer, until they broke down and bought another.

Since this spring, when persistent rain limited Mr. Newby’s ability to pursue work building decks and fences, “he’s at home more and we tend to be more at each other’s throats,” says Mrs. Newby, who has landed a three-month temporary job.

Unemployed couples say sometimes it helps knowing that both partners understand firsthand what it is like to be out of a job.

“He knows my bad points and I know his bad points and we’ve learned to work with those. Yeah, sometimes we yell at each other, but it’s not very often,” says Elaine Mele, an out-of-work computer-systems administrator. Her layoff at the same time that husband Paul Svensson lost his job made their marriage stronger, she says.

But it hasn’t been easy. “Every time we do a budget, my stomach starts churning and I start getting upset,” she said.

But many couples who are both out of work say they find themselves questioning long-term plans that once seemed certain.

It has been six months since Aaron Sonnenschein, of Naperville, Ill., had to close the faltering beauty-supply business where he and his wife, Jamie, first met and worked together. In the first week of their children’s summer vacation, he went to five networking meetings and spent hours cleaning up his mother’s house, to avoid having to explain why he was home at the same time as the children.

He mulls starting another business or trying a new career, even as he helps his wife, who has begun picking up assignments as a party planner. Working side by side again is reassuring, he says.

“I even said to her we should start a catering business,” he says. “But she said, ‘Not now. You need to find a job.’”

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