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When Even a Sponge Feels the Squeeze | The Nation

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When Even a Sponge Feels the Squeeze

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This morning, my 9-year-old son and his friends were engaged in a heated discussion. They were excitedly rehashing the plight of striking workers struggling for higher wages and more vacation time. In the end, one of the workers, emboldened by union organizing fever (supporters of The Employee Free Choice Act beware!), destroyed the workplace--they got their jobs back but at lower rates and what amounted to a giveback of benefits. 

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Annabelle Gurwitch
Writer and actress Annabelle Gurwitch currently prognosticates on both politics and pop culture on National Public...

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As Sarah Palin goes back to Alaska, take a moment to appreciate some other Sarahs.

Incessant cries for help--and money--from people running campaigns are destroying my peace of mind.

Were these boys contemplating the possible aftermath of the Circuit City announcement that employees were being fired but could apply for their old jobs at lower wages? Perhaps they had heard of angry retaliation following Citicorp's CEO Charles Prince III's (2006 compensation: $26 million) intended elimination of 17,000 positions cut costs and streamline operations.

No, the boys had just seen an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants! Sponge Bob and Squidward's employment woes were neatly mirroring the frustration of working people all over the country who have more in common with the experience of a sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea--and who labors long hours for low pay and has an exacting boss--than the picture painted of low unemployment rates and job growth by the current Administration.

Perhaps as Robert Druskin, Citicorp COO (2006 compensation: $15.7 million) noted, they simply had to shrink the company in order to stay competitive. But no one wants to be deemed "one too many layer," and no matter how the management parses the decision--you've been fired, booted, got the axe, you're out of there--it stings.

Three years ago, after being fired myself by Woody Allen, I began collecting severance stories. I found these chronicles so compelling I expanded the project into a book and a documentary film. Since the completion, people across the country and employment spectrum have been kind enough to share every kind of justification and euphemism imaginable being employed in the marketplace today to convey the message that "your services are no longer required."

Here's my Top Five List:

1.You're being unexpectedly leisured.

2. We're promoting you to customer!

3. You remind me of my mother. (Older workers take note!)

4. Congratulations, we're putting you on the accelerated retirement track.

5. You're not being fired, you're just being unhired.

Yes, these are all true! Of course, not surprisingly, for the folks I've met, their number-one concern is the fear of losing healthcare benefits. This is shared not only by assembly line workers but highly paid multidegreed professionals. A few weeks ago I addressed the Los Angeles County Bar Association Annual Luncheon of Labor and Employment Law. Afterward, one attorney confided in me that over the past few years she had built a private practice that she enjoyed and that was thriving; but being a single mother, she could no longer afford the insurance premiums and was contemplating a sad return to a paper-pushing corporate post.  

Her story brought to mind another sobering tale I heard on the road. Bait and Switch author Barbara Ehrenreich and I were attending a community meeting in Thousand Oaks, California, when a woman who might have been my grandmother recounted how she had become aged out of the workforce. She held several masters degrees and had enjoyed a renumerative long-term faculty post at a university. The department had been downsized, and she was now only able to secure a much lower-paying clerical position at Barnes and Noble.  Just another example of one of those terrific opportunities in the service sector, one of the few areas that has seen growth in the employment rolls.

With these stories in mind, I tried to explain to the boys the many issues facing workers today, but in the end they just wanted to make crabby patties and sing the Sponge Bob theme song. If they were a little older I could have offered them some of the sage advice I've acquired from the outplaced among us. 

Here it is:

Try to get other people fired with you. With the massive layoffs taking place, this shouldn't be hard, and it makes the postmortem drinking so much more pleasurable. In this economic climate, when Human Resources calls--don't answer the phone. They can't fire you if they can't catch you! Lastly, if you have to work in America today, for goodness sake, be the CEO or COO of a large corporation. According to the Economic Policy Institute, at the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, it takes a full fifty-two-week year of work to earn what the average CEO earns before lunch on Monday. It's enough to make you want to apply for a job at the Krusty Krab.

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