Hit twice by layoffs, family gets moving

The desk of a laid-off worker

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TESS VIGELAND: Those March unemployment figures I just mentioned are only the latest in what is now a string of 15 awful months for American workers. More than 5 million people have lost their jobs in this recession.

Today we're putting a face on a few of them. We start with one family struggling to make the best of a double layoff. Rachel Dornhelm reports from Oakland, Calif.


Rachel Dornhelm: Back in January when they still had jobs, Yvonne and Ronnie Hart sat down in front of their computer in Oakland, Calif. They made Excel spreadsheets of their expenses on the off-chance either of them got laid off. He worked in construction, she worked at a nonprofit funded by the financial sector.

Yvonne Hart: And so there was some peace of mind of "We're set for any situation, we can handle this as long as we stay strong as a family." But I got to tell you, when it actually did happen, I mean, it was like, you know, sort of a blow. It was like, wow, we never thought that both of us would be laid off.

Yvonne was the second to lose her job. It happened just as they were packing up their 1-year-old twins to catch a plane to visit their families near Houston. On the flight they decided to just stay.

Yvonne Hart: Oh my gosh, a month ago -- two weeks ago -- if someone had been, like, "You are going to be living in Houston," I would have been, like, "No, are you serious? No way."

Yvonne and the toddlers waited at her mother's place in Texas. Ronnie flew back to Oakland to pack up their apartment.

Ronnie Hart: This should be all right, try to put the mattresses up on that side.

Ronnie spent a few days loading boxes and then it was time to put them in a U-Haul. He said when Yvonne lost her job it was a watershed moment.

Ronnie Hart: That just kind of made up our mind, like there is no other option as far as us staying here.

They didn't have the money for March's rent. And they had a lot more job contacts in Houston.

Ronnie Hart: Maybe not in these parts we're not known, but back in Texas we have a lot of friends. I have a lot of friends. A lot of good friends. A lot of family, so...

Three days later Ronnie arrived in Houston and the family started settling in.

Yvonne Hart: So this is our new house. Here's our kitchen. We have a washer-drier outside which we never had in California, which is quite nice.

Yvonne says she and Ronnie are not fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants kind of people, but this sudden move just felt right.

Yvonne Hart: Being near family is huge. And community is just . . . it's hands down the reason why we're here besides the cost of living. Actually no, even more than the cost of living because people keep talking about the cost of living in Texas is so cheap. And it is, sort of, but we have so many fixed costs.

Like car payments and their cell phone bill. But thanks to a friend they have a nice townhome at a fraction of their rent in Oakland. Another offered free childcare if they find part-time work. Other friends who are doctors have stepped up too, with help on office visits.

Yvonne Hart: The biggest piece that we still are struggling with, which I imagine a lot of other unemployed individuals are struggling with, is health insurance. Right now no one in our family is insured, which is very scary.

Yvonne says paying for the move and everyday living has eaten into their small savings. But she's also been thinking a lot about the trickle-down effect of their layoffs. She tried to get their deposit back after they broke their lease and the landlord said he just couldn't return it now. Five of his 26 tenants moved out last month after job losses. Yvonne's also worried about their former nanny.

Yvonne Hart: When my husband's job went it was "OK we have to let you go." And she has no savings. She has, you know, no backup plan. The question is, what's going to happen to her?

But Yvonne says she tries to put things in perspective when she gets discouraged. She says her mom is from Mexico and her dad is from Liberia, and they really knew tough times.

Yvonne Hart: My dad, I remember he used to tell stories. They ate once a day out of a big bowl of rice and then they would kill some game. And it's like, they had it difficult. We will get through this.

Yvonne says they're waiting for their first unemployment checks and are using their Houston connections to start their job search. She's hopeful they'll be back at work soon. But in the meantime, she says she's looking at this as an opportunity to spend lots of time with her kids.

Yvonne Hart: OK, now we're all dizzy.

Yvonne says she's focused on staying optimistic. She says, behind the miserable economic headlines she reads every day, she knows there are plenty of stories of resourcefulness and generosity and community.

I'm Rachel Dornhelm for Marketplace Money.

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