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Letter: A story of a layoff

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I was laid off on Jan. 29, 2009 after nine years as "legal editor" (editor in charge of content, editing, trafficking, and signing off of pages 2, 3, and 4) of the New York Law Journal.

Here's how it went down:

I called my boss at the newspaper at 10:45 a.m. and ask if we were still on today for a meeting on an 80-year-old columnist who has been using the same source 20 times within the 2,000 words allowed for his column. She says, "Yeah. Definitely. Thanks for reminding me."

The previous e-mail from our London parent company in October said no raises or bonuses in 2009. Its September e-mail had admitted financial trouble because of big losses due to "toxic investments."

At 11:30 a.m., my boss called: "Could you come to the HR (Human Resources: as if they were dealing with human 'coal,' 'water,' or 'oil') room?

"Yeh, sure." Being 54 years old and having worked in NYC for 29 years, I know what it's about despite no e-mails about the London firm's woes in the three months since the October e-mail.

The door shuts on the glass-walled HR office. Everyone saw me walk there alone. Everyone sees me sitting there with the just-out-of-Harvard HR director (ominously with the newspaper since its acquisition in December 2007 by the Brits) and my boss.

Boss: "As you know, we've been making layoffs."

Me: "No, I didn't know that. There's been no news. This is out of the blue."

Boss: "We've laid off a couple of people, I though word would get around. ... At any rate, your position has been eliminated."

The 25-year-old Harvard grad, with no emotion and no glance at my face: "Effective today. I have a package here with papers to sign and aids in job hunting. You can clear your desk out by 12:05."

Me: "I did not hear about layoffs. The last email said no raises or bonuses in 2009. What does this package contain?"

Harvard grad: "It's there."

Me: "When do I have to sign it?"

Harvard: "It's in there."

Boss: "I think it's 45 days."

Harvard: "It contains two weeks for vacation owed and nine weeks for your nine years here. Your health benefits run for three months. Your computer has already been shut off."

Me: "I have a lot of personal files on my computer and in my desk after nine years here."

Harvard: "We can try to get those to you. We can bring some boxes and have stuff shipped to you."

Me: "How old are you?"

Harvard: "What difference does that make?"

Me: "I wish you well with your career." (To my boss:) "You don't have to worry about anything. I have an already scheduled lunch date with one of our book reviewers. I'll go to that at 12 and come back and finish packing."

You stand, pick up the package, turn without a sound and walk back to your cubicle (one you share "Dilbert"-like with an older man also to be laid off later that day. It is one of 40 cubicles you can see as you look south on the Broadway side of the building and another 40 cubicles you see as you look towards the Wall Street side).

You begin to organize your desk. Your iMac is black. None of your 20 co-workers says a word. In five minutes, your boss comes and says "I'm afraid I have to take your building pass. You can come back from lunch as a visitor."

When you got back from your lunch, there were no handshakes while you packed with every eye on you.

Later, you walk dizzily across Broadway which overlooks the World Trade Center hole and Wall Street one block down. The NYPD has a 24/7 permanent post of three to four squad cars, lights constantly flashing and five to 10 six-foot six-inch 300-pound officers strolling about in ill-fitting uniforms. The uniforms remind you of Hitler's Brownshirts just before World War II. Their caps balance on their too-big heads, their pants are hitched up to their belly buttons, and their knee-high leather boots are polished black.

You sit at a Starbucks competitor to get the dizziness to stop. You wrack your brain for computer files you'd like Harvard to "try" to give you back: your novel, the ones about your son's doctor appointments, the ones about your union activity -- Say, where was that union today, anyway!

You call Harvard and ask for those files from your computer.

Harvard: "OK. We'll try." Noncommittal. The corporate shark doesn't commit except when going for blood -- when feeding.

You leave at 1:30 pm. As you wait for one of six elevators, the whole 20-member crew walks through the elevator landing toward the HR room. "I guess they're going to be 'informed' now," you say to yourself.

This time one person waves good-bye and the 20-year-veteran kiss-up who sabotaged the union and made it impotent says "sorry" as he cranes his neck over the crowd. Out of the 20 there, you feel in your bones that he is the only safe one.

You now have a three-month comp package to help you find another job in NYC, where in EACH of the past three months law firms and financial institutions (who could have used your editing talents) have laid off 20,000.

Steve Homan is a 1972 graduate of Worthington High School.

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