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Originally published Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Laid-off professionals turn to "survival jobs"

Mark Cooper started his workday recently cleaning the door handles of an office building with a rag, vigorously shaking out a rug at a back...

The New York Times

TEMPE, Ariz. — Mark Cooper started his workday recently cleaning the door handles of an office building with a rag, vigorously shaking out a rug at a back entrance and pushing a dust mop down a long hallway.

Nine months ago he lost his job as the security manager for the Western United States for a Fortune 500 company, overseeing a budget of $1.2 million and earning about $70,000 a year. Now he is grateful for the $12 an hour he makes in what is known in unemployment circles as a "survival job" at a friend's janitorial-services company. But that does not make the work any easier.

"You're fighting despair, discouragement, depression every day," he said.

Cooper is not counted in traditional unemployment statistics since he works five days a week, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. But his tumble down the economic ladder is among the more disquieting and often hidden aspects of the downturn.

It is not clear how many professionals such as Cooper have taken on these types of lower-paying jobs, which are themselves in short supply. Many professionals are doing their best to hold out as long as possible on unemployment benefits and savings while looking for work in their fields.

About 1.7 million people, however, were working part time in January because they could not find full-time work, a 40 percent jump from December 2007, when the recession began, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Experts agree that as the downturn continues and as more people begin to exhaust their jobless benefits and other options, the situation Cooper is in will become more common.

"... layers of bad onion"

Interviews with more than 24 laid-off professionals across the country, including architects, former sales managers and executives who have taken on lower-paying, stopgap jobs to help make ends meet, found that they were working for places such as UPS, a Verizon Wireless call center and a liquor store. For many of the workers, the psychological adjustment was just as difficult as the financial one, with their sense of identity and self-worth upended.

"It has been like peeling back the layers of a bad onion," said Ame Arlt, 53, who recently accepted a position as a customer-service representative at an online insurance-leads referral service in Franklin, Tenn., after 20 years of working in executive jobs. "With every layer you peel back, you discover something else about yourself. You have to make an adjustment."

Some people had exhausted their jobless benefits, or were ineligible; others said it was impossible for them to live on their unemployment checks alone or said it was a matter of pride, or sanity, that drove them to find a job, any job.

In one illustration of the demand for low-wage work, a spokesman for UPS said the company saw the number of applicants this past holiday season for jobs sorting and delivering packages almost triple to 1.4 million from the 500,000 it normally receives.

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When Arlt applied for her job, she sent in a stripped-down résumé that hid her 20-year career at national media companies, during which she ascended to vice president of brand development at On Command Video and was making $165,000 a year. She decided in 2001 to start her own business, opening an equestrian store and founding a magazine devoted to the sport. But with the economy slowing, she was forced to shutter both businesses by last June.

After applying for more than 100 jobs, mostly director-level and above in marketing and branding, and getting just two interviews, Arlt said she realized last fall that she had to do something to "close the monthly financial hemorrhage."

$10-$15 an hour

Her new job at HometownQuotes pays $10 to $15 an hour and has mostly entailed data entry. But even though she has parted ways with some friends because she is no longer in their social stratum, Arlt said, she was glad she was no longer sitting at home, "thinking, 'Who have I not heard from today?' "

Her new paycheck covers her mortgage but not her other living expenses. Recently, she cashed out what was left of her retirement portfolio, about $17,000.

"It has been the hardest thing in my life," she said. "It has been harder than my divorce from my husband. It has really been even worse than the death of my mother."

Nearly all of those interviewed said they considered their situation temporary and planned to resume their careers where they left off once the economy improves. But there are people such as John Eller, 51, of Lee's Summit, Mo., who offer a glimpse of how difficult it can be to bounce back.

Eller had been a senior director at Sprint, earning as much as $150,000 a year and overseeing 7,000 employees at 13 call centers, before being laid off in 2002 amid the economic contraction after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A year later, he found another job, at roughly half the pay, managing a call center in New Jersey. After he lost that job two years later in a downsizing, Eller was out of work for another year before landing a contract position running two call centers in Kansas and Illinois, earning close to six figures.

But after that ended a year later, he was unable to find work for several months. In July 2007, he took what he thought would be a temporary job for $10 an hour as a baker in a grocery store. He was laid off again last October.

Survival job

He quickly landed a new survival job, working as a supervisor on the overnight shift for a contractor processing immigration applications for the federal government at a salary of about $34,000 a year. But with eight children and a wife to support, Eller said, he was still "below poverty level." The family has not been able to make mortgage payments in five months and has been on the brink of foreclosure.

In Cooper's case, relying on unemployment checks was never a serious consideration. The maximum benefit that jobless people can collect in Arizona is $240 a week, among the lowest in the country, and much less than is required to cover the mortgage on the comfortable four-bedroom home in Glendale that he and his wife, Maggie Macias-Cooper, share.

Macias-Cooper, who works as a personal trainer in a gym built in what used to be the couple's three-car garage, has seen her client base shrink to 10 from about 50 in the past year.

In addition to giving Cooper a job as a janitor, his friend agreed to pay for the couple's benefits through COBRA. Maintaining health-care coverage was paramount for the family because Macias-Cooper recently had breast cancer.

"... what I've become"

Some unemployed professionals said they decided not to seek even part-time work because it might interfere with their job searches. But Cooper rises every day at 4 a.m. and, after a time of prayer, devotes two hours to his job hunt on the computer.

"There were times I broke down," Cooper said. "I broke down thinking, 'This is what I've become.' "

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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