PAULA KLEIN, 44, Leader of R&D operations, Nortel, Ottawa I was at Nortel for 21 years, and it was a work-hard, play-hard type of environment. In the heyday of 1999 and 2000, we were really No. 1; Nortel was totally dominant. At the time, I was working on a project with optical networks, and we were one of the top optical-gear manufacturers in the world, with sales approaching $10 billion a year in that niche alone.
As employees, we were catered to, and compensated extremely well. There were huge summer parties, fitness centres, ski clubs. If you even threatened to leave, they begged you to stay, and dumped all sorts of options on you. They couldn't hire people fast enough.
This past September, though, I knew my job was in jeopardy because I was one of the few people asked to work on a restructuring plan. I would see layoff lists of people who were close personal friends whom I'd worked with for years. It was very depressing. Then we had a team meeting, and found out all of our own positions were going away as well.
My last day was Dec. 15, so there was a lot of uncertainty leading up to the holidays. But at the time, I believed I was going to have a nice severance package, which would be a bridge until I found a new job. Up until then, Nortel had been pretty generous with laid-off employees. Then it filed for creditor protection, and all severance payments stopped.
It was a huge shock. There's a group of us who are owed severance money, and we're still trying to convince Nortel to pay us. We've even had trouble just getting records of employment so we can fill out our EI claims.
In my case, I've taken money out of my savings, cashing out investments to help with car loans and lines of credit. We're far from winding up at a soup kitchen, but this has put a serious and unexpected dent in our retirement. We're being very careful to live within our means, and looking hard for new work. But there aren't a lot of jobs in Ottawa doing the sort of thing I did, so we're looking at maybe moving to Toronto or to the U.S.-wherever I can find work.
I never thought I'd see this happen to Nortel. It'll make a great MBA case study one day.
WHERE SHE IS NOW Paula is still looking for a job. Her last position was a senior one, so she anticipates that it may be awhile before she finds something comparable. She is still trying to persuade Nortel to pay her severance she's owed, and has taken legal steps to make that happen.
CORINNE MCDERMOTT, 37 TV producer, MuchMusic, Toronto I still remember the date: Nov. 27. I was working on a MuchMoreMusic show, Where You At, Baby?, where we tracked down musical superstars from the 1980s and '90s. We hung out at Huey Lewis's ranch in Montana, and visited Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider's home in New York.
We knew the axe was going to fall, but we didn't know how badly we were going to get cut. We had gone through a takeover a few years before, and our department had been untouched. Now we had a feeling it was our time. We got an e-mail that morning saying there was going to be a meeting at 10 a.m., and as soon as I got it, I knew.
Lots of people were upset; there were a lot of tears. It was brutal in the office that day. Over 100 people in the company lost their jobs, and about a third of them were in our immediate department. The channel still exists, but they basically eliminated the whole production department, including the show where J.D. Roberts got his start.
That night we went straight to the bar down the street, the Friar & Firkin. It was packed, as if our entire Queen Street West building had been condensed down into the Friar. The overall mood was not necessarily angry, but bittersweet, sharing stories with each other. I wasn't the only one who had been there for a very long time.
I was five months pregnant at the time, and I was worried about my family's future. But I was one of the lucky ones—I was given a package that was pretty attractive. It was enough for me to sit back, enjoy my family and make plans for my future. But I had what I call an airplane survivor's guilt, because while it worked out well for me, others were very upset and scared. And still are.
One benefit is that my little three-year-old daughter, Megan, loves having her mommy home. I get to take her to preschool, to swimming lessons, to ballet. It's not going to stay that way forever, but for now life is pretty sweet.
I'm not entirely sure what the future holds. I worked there for 18 years, and it's almost like a breakup. But like a breakup, eventually you do get over it, and get excited about new possibilities all over again.
WHERE SHE IS NOW Corinne gave birth to a baby boy, Riley James, and says she's treating her severance like a maternity leave. She's also working on her website, Have baby will travel
BUD GILHAM, 57, ESL teacher, Canada Liberal Arts College, Vancouver Being laid off has become the way of things these days. I think my father was the last person to have a cradle-to-grave job. He was a millwright with a great retirement package, a good pension, and lived to be 94. It seems those days are gone now, and you have to change your mindset. You have to swallow your pride a bit, because when you're starting over, you have to begin at the bottom every time.
I came back to Vancouver three years ago from China, where I had been teaching English in the city of Guiyang. I started work at a brand-new school here, which I saw as a chance to build up something new and different. I was very close to my students, who ranged all the way from high schoolers to a fellow in his 80s. We still get together sometimes, cooking up different ethnic foods for each other.
Near the end of 2008, the school started becoming late in their payments to teachers, and then they wanted to put me on commission. It was obvious something was wrong: Student numbers were down. When I demanded to get paid, references started to come up in conversations about my age, and how they were thinking of letting me go. It was just not a fun place to be any more.
I was laid off this past January, and I was actually happy about it. I've been through this before in life, and I try to look at it as an opportunity to find something better. Last time this happened, about seven years ago, I had been working as a night auditor at a hotel. As a result, I basically made my own job: I started my own video-production company, doing projects like interviewing First Nations elders so their stories could be passed down through the generations.
This time I'm on my own, separated from my wife, and with my three kids grown up. In some ways it's better that way, because you don't have to look at the faces of your wife and your children, wondering about when you're going to eat next. Being a father is the greatest thing that ever happened to me, but it does add a lot of pressure to you if something like this happens.
The first time I was laid off, at a MacMillan Bloedel paper mill about 25 years ago, I was in a small town where the Protestant work ethic is very prevalent. There, if you lose your job, you're a failure as a man, as a husband, everything. These days I'm in a big city, and the attitude is more like, "Oh well, it's a sign of the times." It actually takes some pressure off, because you're not a failure—you're just like everybody else.
WHERE HE IS NOW Three weeks after Bud was laid off, a new English language school hired him to teach ESL and writing. Although he was hired on contract, he is optimistic that it will be extended
AYNSLEY DELUCE, 32, Marketing strategist, Capital C, Toronto Nov. 28 was the day, and I knew before it even happened. I had a weird feeling that morning, and walked in and told my colleague, "I think today might be my last day." She just laughed at me. Then I was sent a note—"Do you have time to chat?"—and was taken into the boardroom, where an HR person was waiting for me. My feelings were a mixture of "Wow, I can't believe this is the day" and "All right, let's get going."
I was stunned, but also kind of excited, because I was already maintaining split lives. My husband and I had launched a website last February called ParkingSpots.com, and I had been working on it evenings and weekends. I never had the courage to work on it full-time, but this gave me the courage. I didn't have a choice.
The first thing I did was to call my friends who had been let go from various companies, to talk about what it all means and how it reflects on you. The best advice I got was to not waste any time, to start moving right away. Don't sit on your laurels, because it's "go" time.
I realized to make this work, I'd have to take on marketing contracts on the side. So I called up eight well-connected people I knew, and asked each of them to connect me with five more key people. Since then, I've been diligent about meeting as many folks as possible, and bringing them into my network, which has led to a number of strategy assignments.
I'm actually more disciplined now than I have been at other jobs, because the onus is all on me. If I don't work, I don't make money. I'm up at 6:30, have an espresso, go to the gym and put in a full day. I have a healthy amount of fear, but I'm also confident that I'm never going to let myself fail. I'm going to make sure I cover my monthly bills, no matter what.
You can't feel sorry for yourself, because you're not the only one; you've got to look at it as an opportunity, or else it will completely destroy your confidence. You have to get out there, because sitting at home and applying for jobs online is never going to get you anything. And don't burn any bridges, because you never know when you're going to need people again. I actually wrote my CEO a note in January, thanking him for giving me the opportunity to spread my wings. I can't imagine how hard it is to have to let people go. That would be totally heart-wrenching.
Being laid off is kind of like having a dirty little secret. No one really knows how to address it: "I'm so sorry," "You must be heartbroken," "This must be so hard on you." But it's actually a rare chance in life to start totally fresh.
WHERE SHE IS NOW Aynsley has been keeping busy with freelance marketing contracts and building traffic for her website. Between the two, she says that she is earning more than enough to stay afloat and is no longer focused on finding a full-time job.
KEN MASICH, 41, Engineer, Pure Energy Services, Calgary I'm a professional engineer in the oil and gas industry, and I'm kind of a troubleshooter. If a company like EnCana needed services at their wells, they would come to us, and we would find the people and equipment to go into the field and get it done.
The boom times in Alberta were amazing. It was so hard to find qualified people. Probably half the crew I had were from other countries, because to find someone from Alberta to work in the field was near impossible. Real estate became absolutely ridiculous: If you saw a place you wanted and didn't put in an offer right away, it was gone the next day.
I knew we were headed for trouble when the price of oil and gas started going way down. In January and February, the oil companies release their budgets to the public, and we could read all about how they were cutting back on activities. The numbers told us there was going to be a very big slowdown.
t was Feb. 18 that I was laid off, but who's counting? Someone from HR and one of the managers came by, and said because of the economics of it all, they had to let me go. I could see they were pretty choked up about it. At least they let me clean out my office, and didn't escort me to the door right away.
I was pretty shocked-I'd worked for 18 years straight without ever being unemployed. I was hired right out of university, always put in long hours, and was never laid off by any company. A lot of people in my life are more stunned than me that this happened. They're like, "What? You?"
If a company understands the value I bring, then this period of unemployment could be very quick. But a lot of firms have hiring freezes right now, or are on the block. One friend of mine works at another company where they just laid off 1,000, and now there are less than 1,500 people left. This could just be the start of layoffs for the industry-companies are doing stuff they've never done before, like reducing their production year-over-year.
But I'm trying to stay positive, because I know I'm not alone. I've had some great help from family and friends, who have been absolutely outstanding and supportive, all watching out for opportunities for me. It's times like these you really find out who your friends are.
WHERE HE IS NOW Ken is still looking for work. He spends most of his time working on his resume, talking with headhunters and networking with people in his industry.
KEVIN WATSON, 46, Software engineer, TireStamp, Hull, Quebec Just last summer, it looked like the company I worked for was really taking off. We had a big backlog of orders, constantly filling boxes and shipping them out. Then those orders just started dwindling away, and we got the inkling that all was not well in Oz.
I knew we were in real trouble, so I actually started looking for a new position last fall. Then, in late November, they asked people to take drastic cuts in pay, or even work for free. Rather than showing up for nothing, I figured it would be better if I got laid off and got unemployment insurance.
I was very nervous up until the point it was time to leave, and then all the anxiety and the fear just went away. My wife and I sat down and took a look at all our finances, figuring out what we could do and couldn't do. We looked at our monthly bills, and how much we would save if we went to the most basic plans for phone and cable. Normally we might have gone on a family ski trip, but not this year. We don't go out to restaurants, and aren't using our credit cards any more. Most of all, we stopped going to Wal-Mart, because every time you go in there you walk out with at least $100 worth of stuff.
The good news is that in previous years, we'd bought investment property, a fiveplex in Ottawa. We decided to sell that, and made about $130,000. My wife also went from part-time to full-time work, so really we're only short $1,000 to $2,000 a month compared to where we were. At our current burn rate, we're good for at least another year. Because we paid off all our debts, we're better off financially than we were before.
My days are actually pretty full. At first I was like, "What do I do now?" Then I put together a strategy to find work again, making calls, scanning Internet postings, researching hiring managers. I've gotten some nibbles, but employers seem to be looking for very particular skill sets, because there are so many talented applicants to choose from.
We have two kids, a boy and a girl, and they're aware of what's going on. They've been really good about it, and haven't bugged us to buy things. This all happened right before Christmas, so we had to scale back their Christmas lists to one gift that they each really wanted. My wife and I didn't get anything.
WHERE HE IS NOW Frustrated by what he saw as inefficiencies in existing Internet job-searching tools, Kevin decided to build his own Web program for those seeking employment. The result was so successful that it found jobs for both Kevin and his wife.
JOHN MACDONALD, 29,GM assembly-line worker, Oshawa, Ontario I'd been working at GM for 12 years, and started on the midnight shift in 2004, assembling Chevy Impalas. I started out hanging doors and then moved to installing windshields. The speed at which we move is pretty impressive: We're building 500 cars a shift, so the total time I had to install all the glass was about a minute and 12 seconds. If you fall behind, a light goes on over your head and a supervisor comes over to ask what's going on. You become pretty much like a machine.
I'd been laid off once before, for the first half of 2008, when there was a big dip in car sales. I came back to work in June, but I was well aware of where this was all heading. I had been taking a course in economics, and everyone was saying it was only going to get worse. The big fallout happened by mid-December, when my supervisor on the shop floor pulled us all over in a big group, and told us our shift was no longer going to be working come the new year. There were about 700 of us. Then they started building fewer cars on the other shifts, which affected about 400 more.
My last day of work was Dec. 23. Since then, I've been keeping busy, taking online courses, staying involved with the union. I've applied at a few different places, and have been looking to get into clerical work, to be in an office somewhere. I haven't heard back from anyone yet.
I haven't applied at any other automakers, because there basically aren't any manufacturing jobs left. Every car company is feeling this, not just the Big Three, but Honda and Toyota as well. I got a small bit of money from GM to tide me over through this transition period, and have 14 weeks of unemployment insurance left. After that I have no savings, and my family can't help me out, so I'm definitely looking for work right away.
A lot of my co-workers are extremely concerned about what's next. Most of the people on my shift had gone through layoffs before, at plants in Windsor and St. Catharines. Some of them used to drive in from Niagara Falls every day, just for a job in Oshawa. Now they ask me, "Do you think we're going back?" I have to tell them, "No, not this year."
WHERE HE IS NOW John has nine weeks of employment insurance left, and is still looking for a job. He's hoping to find clerical work in a non-profit organization, but beyond a few interviews, has not had many leads.