July 07, 2003 12:00 PM

LARRY SCHENONE, AGE 47

Engineering manager

Out of work: 18 months

Previous income: $100,000

Currently working at: Sears

Current income: $17,160

When Larry Schenone heard rumors that some of his colleagues might be laid off, he went to check with his boss. From the look on the man’s face, Schenone could tell the rumors were true. In fact it wasn’t just others who were in trouble: The supervisor said Schenone would be hit too. He recalls, “It knocked the wind right out of me.”

Eighteen months after losing his job as an engineering manager for a St. Louis defense contractor, Schenone has recovered from the shock. But he still can’t find his way back to the career that had been on a steady ascent for 23 years. Once commanding more than $100,000 annually, the father of three now works up to 30 hours a week at Sears, making $4.50 an hour plus commission to hawk tool sets and paint. Even with wife Kay’s salary as a preschool teacher, their combined incomes won’t cover the mortgage on their Wildwood, Mo., home and other regular expenses. With a negative cash flow of about $500 a week, the Schenones are depleting their savings—including money earmarked for their children’s college educations. “The worst-case scenario would be to have to move,” Schenone says. His job search has so far proven fruitless, painful and sometimes desperate. Still, he holds out hope. “I’m still of the school of thought,” he says, “that those who work hard will succeed.”

He has tried to attack job hunting with the same vigor he put into his management position at Systems & Electronics, Inc., where he routinely worked 11-hour days. Schenone has sent some 200 résumés and endured 16 interviews, in person and on the telephone. “It’s easy to get depressed,” says Schenone. “You’ve got to figure out a way to deal with it.”

The Sears job is one stopgap, but that too has its awkward moments—like the time Schenone ducked out of sight to avoid a former colleague who had strolled into hardware. “I was embarrassed,” he says. Not that he’s unwilling to talk about his situation—in the right setting. In February 2002 Schenone started Gateway Engineering Network, a support group for out-of-work engineers. The members meet weekly to exchange job leads and try to buoy each other’s morale. “Helping others,” he says, “makes you feel better about yourself.”

The truth is that Schenone has rarely felt worse. The Moline, Ill., native had worked steadily since he was 12, when he pitched in at a relative’s candy and ice cream company. After earning a college degree in mechanical engineering in 1978, he held a job at Deere & Company until SEI lured him in 1997, offering a significant pay hike and putting him through an MBA program. Then business headed south.

The loss of his salary has meant drastic changes in a once comfortable suburban lifestyle. Gone are the $300 birthday parties, the vacations, the summer camps for the kids. Teen Allison grasps the situation, but her younger siblings aren’t there yet. “They think to get money all you have to do is put your card in a machine,” says Kay, 38. Hard times typically strain marriages, but Schenone says the struggle has “brought Kay and me closer—I depend on her more.” Still, it’s rough. “You cry out to God and say, ‘Why are you doing this to me? Why are you ruining my children’s lives—or my wife’s? They don’t deserve this.’ ”

Their suffering has been mitigated by the generosity of friends and strangers. Their Catholic school agreed to defer the $3,500 annual tuition for two of the kids until Larry gets a job. Mia’s Girl Scout troop volunteered some cookie profits to help her and Kay attend a mother-daughter overnight. Another man who heard about the Schenones’ plight started sending small checks about once a month—which Larry accepted reluctantly. He hopes to do the same for someone else someday—soon. “I know a lot of people who lost their job but who found a new job quickly,” he says. “And I find myself thinking, ‘When is it my turn?’ ”

DONNIE WIRTH, AGE 25

Foundry worker

Out of work: 9 months

Previous income: $1,840/ month

Currently unemployed

Current income: $912/ month

Six years ago Donnie Wirth landed the job he thought would last a lifetime. At Columbus, Ohio’s Buckeye Steel Castings, a foundry where his father and grandfather had labored before him, Wirth worked eight hours a day in 110° heat, trimming excess steel from newly molded industrial castings. The job was dangerous—he crushed a finger and badly burned his left thigh—but it paid the rent on a three-bedroom house and allowed his wife, Melissa, to stay home to care for the kids. Says Donnie: “Things were going pretty good.”

Not anymore. Last October the foundry shut down, leaving Donnie and his dad, Don, scrambling for work and fretting about their family’s future. At night, “I wake up and I can’t go back to sleep,” says Donnie. “Mostly I think about my kids and what I’m going to do for them.” His father, meanwhile, finds it hard to meet even the most modest expectations. “I’m not greedy—I just want to be able to pay my bills and have a little extra money to go to the movies or go out to dinner once in a while,” says Don, 51, who had worked at Buckeye for 28 years. “We just want a little breathing room.”

For the past nine months the pressure has been suffocating. Donnie now takes home $912 in unemployment benefits each month—about half what he used to make—and relies on food stamps to feed daughters Haley, 3, and Aulbrey, 20 months. He has applied at sheet-metal shops and construction companies but either has too little experience or the wrong kind. “The fact that he’s stressed out stresses me out,” says Melissa, 24. “I do get ticked off more easily,” admits Donnie. The anxiety trickles down to Haley, who has been known to announce that her family is poor. The Kirkersville, Ohio, couple have put a stop to all entertainment and, faced with shut-off notices, recently sold their second car, a 1985 Chevrolet Astro van, for $300, leaving them with a 1992 Geo Metro with 217,000 miles on the odometer.

Donnie’s parents have cut back too. “I’ve learned paper towels are a luxury,” says his mother, Kathy, 49, who sticks to discount supermarkets and generic products. A few months ago she turned to the Salvation Army for help with groceries and an electric bill, “but I hate to ask, because there are people in worse shape than we are,” she says. “It takes a lot out of your pride,” adds Don. “People look at it like, ‘There are jobs out there—you’re just too lazy to find one.’ I’ve worked from the time I was 14.”

In August 2001 he and Kathy bought their first home—six months after they celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. “It was like we finally had a little security in our lives,” says Don. Now they face not only the possibility of losing the three-bedroom Centerburg, Ohio, house but also the burden of $7,000 in unpaid medical bills—with no health insurance for Kathy (Don is insured through the Veterans Administration). Since Don was laid off, Kathy, who suffers from bipolar disorder, has received 8 of her 11 prescription medications free through a pharmaceutical company-sponsored program but worries that she may one day have to fork out $1,200 a month. Even more troubling, Buckeye’s pension fund lost millions in the stock market plunge, leaving Don’s share in doubt.

Don says he has applied for dozens of jobs, most of them for positions that pay about half the $16.75 an hour he made at Buckeye. When the foundry reopened in March with new owners, Columbus Steel Castings, he also applied there—unsuccessfully so far. He suspects his position as president of the United Steelworkers of America local that represented Buckeye’s hourly workers makes him an unappealing candidate. “They probably think, ‘Why put the fox back in the henhouse?’ ” says Don, who worries even more about his son’s predicament. “It’s disheartening,” he says, as his wife chokes back sobs. “Every parent wants to see their children do better than they did.”

For Donnie unemployment has one up side: more quality time with his kids. “Now as soon as Haley wakes up, she’ll say, ‘Where my dad?’ ” says Melissa. “And if I’m outside, she’ll be out the door in her pj’s looking for me,” adds Donnie, who keeps busy weeding the yard and repairing the back porch. “I’m just trying to take it one day at a time. Something will come along and everything will be fine—I hope.”

Susan Horsburgh and Tom Fields-Meyer

Fannie Weinstein in Kirkersville and Wildwood

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