THERE'S PLENTY OF anxiety in San Manuel these days with the closing of the BHP mine and smelter and the loss of thousands of jobs. But according to an expert in coping with job loss, there are clear ways to move forward. According to Dr. Carrie R. Leana, some folks will come through the adversity better than others. More importantly, she knows who they will be.
"If you have money in the bank, if you've got a strong supportive family and a social network and you're generally an optimistic person who handles adversity reasonably well," Leana says, "those are the people that are going to do the best. Financial stability is the biggest one. People who are financially on the edge are going to tip the fastest. The people who tend to be able to cope with the situation are the ones who have financial reserves, reserves of social support, like a supportive spouse, family and friends, and reserves of self-efficacy, of being able to handle personal adversity. Some people can just weather these things better than others."
Leana understands the impact of massive layoffs all too well. Growing up in Pittsburgh, she watched the steel industry there wither and die. Huge steel mills, which lit the skies of Allegheny County day and night along the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers, were shuttered and dismantled. Today, vast tracts of empty land where mills once employed tens of thousands of workers are mute testimony to the economic devastation of the region.
A professor of the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, Leana's expertise is in understanding job loss. This led her and co-author Daniel C. Feldman to conduct an academic study into the relationships of downsizing and how people react. Their 1992 book, Coping With Job Loss: How Individuals, Organizations and Communities Respond to Layoffs, examined blue collar job losses in Pittsburgh as well as white collar layoffs in Florida following the Challenger disaster.
"What you'll probably see is what we saw in a lot of the towns in the Mon Valley here in Pittsburgh," Leana predicts. "The town is going to increasingly be made up of older people who have retirement or pensions. These towns had the advantage of being close to a metropolitan area, but despite that Allegheny County has the second-oldest population of any county in the United States. That's a recent phenomenon over the last 15 years, and the reason is there's nothing for people to do, so anybody that can leave, does leave. Sons followed their fathers into the mills, and that's no longer there. You see more and more of this exodus of any young people and people in their middle years."
With the familiar pattern of temporary layoffs due to labor disputes and economic downturns over the years, Leana expects many will simply deny the long-term problem and hope that the jobs will somehow reappear.
"A segment of the workforce will hang on to that hope much longer than others," she explains. "I think you'll have a larger segment because there's really nothing else to do. People have got to move and there's enormous stress attached to the kind of changes people are going to have to make. It isn't just a matter of looking into a job on the next block. It's uprooting your family. There's going to be a tremendous tendency for people to deny what's going on."
However, she believes that denial isn't as bad as it sounds. It may give workers time to prepare for positive change. Job applicants who are extremely negative because of the layoffs, who show low self-esteem or develop dysfunctional behaviors, can inadvertently sabotage their way out of the situation by interviewing poorly or making hasty, ill-advised decisions.
"There's all kinds of bad things that happen to people who lose their job," she notes. "Physiologically there's a lot of research associating unemployment with increased heart attacks, ulcers, more smoking, everything from small problems to very big ones. Denying it for a while may be an effective way to cope with it in the short term, to kind of get over the shock."
However, she warns, "If you deny it so long that your problems become larger on account of it, then you're going into higher stress rather than lower stress."
The families of laid-off workers will also be affected by factors beyond simple economics. Social problems are likely to escalate quickly, ranging from friction as families spending more time together increasingly get on each other's nerves to outright domestic violence and child abuse, as well as alcoholism and drug abuse.
"People have a lot more time on their hands than they are used to having and they really don't have much to do with that time," she notes. "While they have this leisure that they're not used to, they don't have any money and most things that people like to do -- hobbies, going to the movies, building things -- take money. So it's kind of the worst time to have leisure."
"You've also got a social isolation that takes place," she continues. "For better or for worse, a lot of people get a lot of their social needs fulfilled at work. When you don't have that social structure anymore, people tend to become more isolated. As people become more isolated, there tends to be a higher incidence of depression. What you see is a lot of spillover of adverse psychological effects. As people become more depressed, they become less able to do the things they need to do to get out of the situation."
According to her research, addressing traumatic job loss requires a combination of dealing with the problems and the situation.
"You need to do things that are problem-focused, solving the financial problems, finding a new job, whatever it is that is going to replace what you've lost," Leana explains. "At the same time, and this is where the reserves come into play, you have to be able to deal with the symptoms of this highly stressful situation. It's extremely stressful to look for a job under the best of circumstances and these people have the worst of circumstances. So in order to do these very stressful things, you have to have these financial, social and personal reserves."
According to her research, older workers close to retirement are likely to try and weather the situation until pension and Social Security benefits kick in. Younger workers are likely to pick up and leave. The people most at risk are workers in their middle years, between 40 and 60 years of age.
"The truth is they don't recover well, they're just sort of ill-prepared for today's job market and the idea of moving," she reports. "People get into this place facing a very tough situation and if there isn't any hope, then it's very easy to just fall off the map and many of us would under those circumstances."
Leana knows these people from her experiences in Pittsburgh. "I think there's going to be a whole group of them sitting around waiting to get old. They will just have a declining standard of living and try to hold out until they are old enough to receive better pensions and better benefits. We've seen them in Pittsburgh. They're 50 years old and they're sitting around, waiting until they're 62 for their life to get better. It's very sad."
The community can help by being proactive. Retraining programs, efforts to attract a more diversified economic base, and providing increased social services, as well as an awareness of the problems ahead, will all help the workers and their families get through the crisis.
"It's an argument of how you get people back in control of their lives and the way you do that is to make sure people have reserves to draw on," she says.
Whatever the unemployment statistics or aggregate economic indicators, it's important to remember that each person affected by layoffs is an individual.
"People cope in different ways," she says. "A lot more will find religion than used to have it before, a lot will find drinking. What you have to do is shore up your reserves and get yourself prepared for the tough job of looking for a job."