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First Weekend Home

First Weekend Home: Laid Off

Jonathan Menjivar

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Rosanna Leisure driving a forklift
(Courtesy Jonathan Menjivar)
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For 544,000 people in the US, the line that divides the week and the weekend got a little more murky last month. The unemployment rate now stands at 6.7 percent, the highest it's been in 15 years. Some estimates suggest unemployment will hit 8.9 percent by the end of 2009. For reporter Jonathan Menjivar in Philadelphia, all these statistics recently became a reality. Not for himself, but for his mother, Rosanna Leisure. She was laid off in November from the job she had for over 28 years at a paint factory in Southern California. Jonathan doesn't remember a time when she didn't have the job.

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My first pair of glasses were thick and black. They were the kind of glasses that make you stand out on a yearbook page - aviator shaped and a little too big for my seventh-grade face. I knew they made me nerdy, but for the first time in my life, I saw gas station prices and flowers on trees in the kind of crisp detail that everyone else already knew existed. I've been thinking about those glasses a lot recently. Because they gave me so much, and under my mom's insurance they were free. Because my mom had a union job driving a forklift, and now she doesn't anymore.

We've been talking on the phone a lot recently. I started recording the calls the week after she called to say she was being laid off.

Rosanna: Hello?

Jonathan: Hi, it's me.

Rosanna: Hi.

Jonathan: So what's going on right now?

Rosanna: Well, uh, they came to me today and they told me that I don't have a choice, I'm leaving Friday.

Jonathan: Friday is your last day? That's kind of crazy.

Rosanna: It is. But at least I know I won't have to get up at 3:30 in the morning, go out in that cold weather. I get sick every year now, so...

My mom coughs as she says this. As I was growing up, my mom made the kind of sacrifices a lot of parents make for their kids. But the deal was pretty extreme in our case. Before my mom took this gig, she cleaned houses. Then my parents split up, and she felt like she needed more. She had a friend who worked at the paint factory.

Rosanna: And the reason I went there was because of you. I wanted to have insurance, because you had really bad asthma when you were a little boy.

Her first position was in the wall-covering department where they put most of the women. She stood along a conveyor belt and boxed up rolls of wallpaper as they came down the line.

Rosanna: I was terrified. And very, very naive. I had never worked around men. I wasn't used to cussing.

I don't think my mom would mind me saying that she's pretty used to it now. Over the years those "men" just became the guys she worked with. Some of them were threatened when she started driving a forklift, but for the most part, they got along. She spent almost three decades seeing those same faces every day, and now it's weird that they're suddenly all gone.

Rosanna: And honestly. I had the opinion in my heart that I would only be there for like, three years.

It was a steady paycheck. But for everything the job gave my family, it took a little bit away from my mom every day. At first that meant sore feet from standing on a concrete floor all day.

Rosanna: Now my problems are more back issues and neck issues because I constantly turn my neck and my whole body, driving backwards with a double load of paint. And honestly, I'm relieved. I never want to do this type of work again.

Jonathan: Yeah. I want you to know that I feel proud of you. And, um, I know how hard you worked over the years. And I'm thankful for that.

Rosanna: Well, I appreciate that son.

Jonathan: All right, I love you.

Rosanna: I love you too, mijo.

I called my mom again on Saturday; it was her first weekend home after being laid off. She said Friday was rough. That morning, they worked like it was any other morning, filling and shipping out their last 500 pails of paint. At around 8 a.m. they started calling people into the office in groups of five.

Rosanna: And, we just all got our walking papers. That's it. It's over.

Jonathan: Wow.

Rosanna: And even the people that were letting us go were crying. The supervisor, when she spoke to her production team in the morning, had to turn around and couldn't speak. She was crying. And at times, you know, you saw some people just not talk at all. But we sat down in groups and we…you saw a lot of tablets with pens, people were exchanging numbers. It almost felt like the last day of high school. Except this time it was not...there was no bright future in front of us.

So now at 53, my mom pretty much has to start over. She has a severance package and a girlfriend with a steady job. She even has a lead on a new gig that wouldn't involve much physical labor. But we both know it's going to be tough for her. Even as a kid, I understood that my mom's job wasn't perfect. But it gave us options. I had the chance to do something other than hard physical labor. As for my mom, she'll still have to take whatever job she can get.

  • Music Bridge:
    Milk Tea
    Artist: Takahiro Kido
    CD: Fleursy Music (Plop)
More stories from our First Weekend Home series

Comments

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  • By rick lemond

    From valley center, CA, 02/12/2009

    I remember when your mom started working at the plant. It was yesterday in my mind and so long ago in time. These things make me feel old. How fast will the next years of our lives seem to pass? Have you noticed the trend in obits to place a picture of the deceased when they were in the prime of life? You see a young pretty face placed over an age far beyond the time of the photo. Imagine all that is being said.

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