Bob S., a 50-year-old computer specialist from Scarsdale, was laid off from his $175,000-a-year job in March after years of steady employment. He, his wife and their two children began living off the family’s savings, canceled their vacation plans and began eating all their meals at home.
After several months, his wife, Gloria, a physical therapist, decided to go back to work. It took a few weeks, but she was able to land a job that offered health insurance — a key reason for her return to the workforce.
Now, with his wife working, Bob — who has still not been able to find a job after a nearly eight-month search — has to make sure he is home or has friends or family to meet the school bus when his children, ages 7 and 10, return home in the afternoon.
The story of Bob and Gloria S., who did not want their real names used because of the potential for embarrassment, is one of many that the Jewish community’s central charity has begun to piece together from Jews in the city, Long Island and Westchester who are struggling to make ends meet after having lost their jobs in the Great Recession.
As the magnitude of the recession became apparent earlier this year, UJA-Federation of New York took $6.8 million from its reserves and created Connect to Care, its most far-reaching response to the economic slump to date. The new effort has included hiring social workers and pulling together the agencies in the charity’s social welfare network in order to address the economic crisis, according to Roberta Leiner, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission.
Since Connect to Care was launched in May, it has served 8,132 people through October, a number that continues to mount daily, according to federation officials. The program provides individual employment assistance, financial counseling, legal services and mental-health counseling. In addition, it has held dozens of group workshops on such things as coping and dealing with families during the economic downturn, resume writing, networking to get back into the workforce, and the legal aspects of credit card debt. A total of 104 clients have found work.
“This is the biggest employment crisis I’ve ever known,” said Arlene Wittels, chair of the Suffolk County Connect to Care Committee. “I was born in the late ’30s and heard of the Great Depression, but I have never seen as much fear as I’m seeing now; people are afraid. And this situation affects almost everybody because they know someone who has been touched by this crisis or can empathize with them.”
With the national unemployment rate at 10.2 percent and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke saying it is likely to remain “quite high” into next year, more and more steps are being taken to help Jews in need. For instance, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty opened its first soup kitchen in the city last week with more to follow. And UJA-Federation has increased to 5,500 the number of food packages it is distributing this year for Thanksgiving — the number on Long Island jumped more than one-third from last year.
There is also little hope of a quick recovery. The Philadelphia Fed’s latest quarterly survey of economists predicted that unemployment would hover around 10 percent throughout 2010. And Bernanke said Monday that when the recovery does come, it is likely to come with little job growth.
Pearl Kamer, chief economist of the Long Island Association, the Island’s largest business group, explained that “employers have gotten massive productivity increases in the last six months” despite having laid off employees.
“When you are able to produce more with fewer workers, you will be reluctant to hire in the ensuing recovery,” she said. “And that’s very difficult to turn around. … It may take two or three years.”
Kamer pointed out that New York City — which had a 10.2 percent unemployment rate in September compared with 8.8 percent statewide — was particularly hard hit because of its disproportionate dependence on the financial services industry.
“That’s where the recession started,” she said. “Whenever there is a recession caused by turmoil in the financial sector, the unemployment rate remains high over a period of time.”
Middle- and upper-middle-class Jewish men appear to be among the hardest hit by the recession. For example, Wittels said, of those who have appeared at employment career workshops UJA-Federation is holding throughout the area, 65 percent have college degrees and another 35 percent have graduate degrees.
And Leiner said 36 percent of those requesting help had a family income of at least $75,000, and 25 percent had a family income in excess of $120,000. She noted that 68 percent seeking assistance were unemployed.
Another 12 percent had found full-time work but were seeking financial advice after a loss of their savings or because they were facing foreclosure or were overextended on credit.
In addition, Leiner said, half of the clients were between the ages of 36 and 55; another 28 percent were between 56 and 75.
Bob and Gloria S. sought help at Connect to Care’s office in White Plains shortly after it opened on June 1, while they still had savings in the bank, according to Jill Schreibman, the agency’s social worker in Westchester.
“Many have gone through their savings by the time they come here, but not all,” she said. “We don’t want them to come after nothing is left. We have a financial counselor who can help them with credit card issues and help them in budgeting.”
Many clients have never before been on a budget, Schreibman said, pointing out that some of her clients had a salary in the high six figures — one or two had made in excess of $1 million — and that the average salary of those seeking help was $150,000.
“People with such salaries live a lifestyle commensurate with their income,” she said. “More than one has a large home with at least five bedrooms and three baths. And more than one is facing foreclosure.”
Because of the economic downturn, Schreibman said, they are unable to sell their homes to avoid foreclosure because the amount of their mortgage is often more than the current value of their homes.
Many clients are quick to tell social workers that they were contributors to UJA-Federation over the years and never thought they would become beneficiaries themselves.
“There is a tremendous amount of embarrassment when they come,” according to Devorah Weiss, the Connect to Care social worker at the Joan and Alan Bernikow Jewish Community Center in Staten Island. “These are people who said they never dreamed they would be in this situation.”
She recalled seeing a husband and wife in their early 40s who together had made $70,000 a year. He was in a technical field and she was in education, and both were laid off within months of each other.
“They have four kids and a mortgage and were living a good, ethical, honest life with no extravagances,” Weiss said. “One of their kids had some medical issues and because they were unemployed they had lost their health insurance. Their unemployment insurance was running out and they had received a turn-off notice from the electric company because they had been unable to pay the electric bill.”
A number of single mothers who were making $40,000 to $50,000 had also come to Connect to Care after losing their jobs. “They were referred by a friend or they saw our ad in the newspaper,” she said. “They come in not knowing what to expect.”
Since the office opened, Weiss said she has seen 120 clients.
“For the size of the Jewish community here, that’s a lot of people,” she said. “I saw 11 clients just this week. And people are just beginning to find out about us; the numbers are increasing.”
For instance, she said, a 50-year-old unemployed woman came in for help paying her electric bill. While there she met with a financial consultant, another specialist reworked her resume, she was taught how to find jobs online and how to prepare for a job interview, and someone else helped her receive food vouchers and food from the food pantry in the JCC.
“They watch as I call on the phone to the different people and say I’m sitting here with a client,” Weiss said. “So they feel cared for — not alone and abandoned.”
In addition, she said, area rabbis are also pitching in to get the word out about Connect to Care. But Wittels said that Suffolk — where about half the Jews are intermarried and not affiliated with a synagogue — offers “an extra challenge.”
“We’re looking for portals where we can find Jews who need us,” she said.
Some of the hundreds of workshops held in all seven counties are held in synagogues, Leiner pointed out.
“This is a community-strengthening initiative that has brought agencies and synagogues together,” Leiner said. “Having social workers in area synagogues enabled us to ratchet up this program quickly. And 25 percent of the people coming were referred by their rabbis, which we attribute to the fact that rabbis spoke of the program in their High Holy Day sermons.”
Wittels said her son-in-law, a lawyer in New Jersey, told her that his firm is “laying off young lawyers with promising careers. To me, it’s frightening. These are scary times.”
Connect to Care will be holding job fairs at the JCC of Staten Island on Dec. 1 from 4 to 7:30 p.m., and at the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack on Dec. 9 from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. For information on other job fairs and Connect to Care, call UJA-Federation’s central resource line, 1-877-852-6951.