Back to Work
Four post-recession stories
Compared to most of Michigan, Ann Arbor rode out the recession fairly comfortably. But even here, many people lost their jobs due to circumstances beyond their control--and needed grit, smarts, and luck to get back to work.
Told why the Observer wanted to interview him, Eliyahu Gurfinkel, 51, burst out laughing. "You caught me on my first day of employment as a nurse at U-M!"
If Elli Gurfinkel's name is familiar, it's because his photographs were one of the highlights of the Ann Arbor News during its last years. Yet he was growing restless even before the paper closed in 2009. "While I got this joy from photo stories, some assignments were more interesting than others," he admits. "I was never into sports photography." So, while some of his colleagues held onto their jobs hoping to ride out hard times, Gurfinkel took a buyout before the paper closed--the equivalent of six months' salary.
Gurfinkel had hoped to make his living as a freelancer, embracing the potentially lucrative specialty of wedding photography. However, he quickly found the work too precarious: "I like the security of a regular check." His next career was born when his mother needed gallbladder surgery. As she recovered in her hospital room, he was impressed by the nurses caring for her. "They were so kind, they were so warm, they were so compassionate! This seemed a wonderful way to help people at the worst time of their lives." Soon afterwards, he began taking life science classes at Washtenaw Community College.
On a day off from his new job, the photographer-turned-nurse relaxes in the modest but artistic Water Hill home that he shares with his wife, Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel, and their two young children. Slight, with close-cut dark hair and stylish geek glasses, he points to the home office where he holed up while studying medicine.
"My kids and wife hardly saw me," he recalls. "My head was always in a book. As soon as you are done with one
exam, you have to start studying for the next one." Making it through nursing school, he says, was the "hardest thing" he's ever done in his life.
That says a lot, considering Gurfinkel was just eleven when he and his family moved from the Soviet Union to Israel. He struggled to adjust to a new language and country and spent a lonely period living with relatives in Tel Aviv while his parents went through a six-month Hebrew immersion program and lived in temporary housing.
He met his first wife, an American, in film school at Tel Aviv University. They moved together to San Francisco, where he attended San Francisco State. When the marriage broke up, Gurfinkel decided to try photojournalism--he had been taking pictures since he was eight, he says, with a "little Russian camera."
"I'm used to change," he says--and he was "raised with the notion I can do [anything] if I apply myself." After completing prerequisites at WCC, he was accepted into a nursing program for college grads switching careers. He was lucky, he says, that relatives helped his family financially while he was in school and that Washtenaw gave him a scholarship.
After a rotation at Mott Hospital, Gurfinkel decided he wanted to work with kids. "I have good rapport with children," he says. "I think I can ease their fears." Hospital jobs in pediatrics are hard to get, but his determination and hard work came through again: he was told he was one of just five nurses hired from a pool of 200 applicants. Excited about his new career, Gurfinkel is also elated that he now has time to help his children with their homework--instead of doing his own.
"I called to some people, 'If you're not being let go, could you help me pack?'" Judey Henretty Kalchik remembers. "I had twenty-three years of stuff."
As Borders struggled to survive, "Layoff Day" became a ritual at its south-side corporate headquarters. In the morning, the targeted workers would be called in by their supervisors, who read from a prepared script. The building then filled with the sharp, ripping sound of packing tape as people clearing out their desks sealed boxes of personal possessions.
Leaving for the last time, "we all walked past the receptionist we passed every day," Kalchik recalls. "It was wildly diverse how we handled it. We're weeping, we're crying, or else we're stoic."
Kalchik cried. "I was devastated," she says. "I loved that job."
Kalchik had started as a part-time clerk at a Waldenbooks store (then owned by Borders) in suburban Pittsburgh in 1987. Married and the mother of two young daughters, she later moved into full-time work, then into management. Divorced, she moved to Ann Arbor in 2003 as Borders' senior manager of store operations. Her job was to make sure the hundreds of U.S. stores were running smoothly. "We told them how to open, how to respond to guests' concerns. We worked with the merchants so they knew how to sell the book," recalls Kalchik.
She grew close to her "incredibly talented" team. They got a special thrill organizing store parties around the country promoting the latest Harry Potter books. Outside work, life was also good; she met and married Ken Kalchik, a U-M architecture grad who's now a licensed residential builder.
Then came Layoff Days. The company's involuntary alumni, many of whom have stayed close, now identify themselves by the year they were let go: "I'm part of the Class of 2010," says Kalchik. "Probably the biggest club I'm ever going to belong to."
The night she was laid off, Kalchik began checking out jobs on the Internet. She was out of work for four months before Art Van, the Warren-based furniture chain, found her resume on Monster.com. A month later, she was hired as a management trainee--starting near the bottom again. About a year ago, she moved into her current job in communications, making sure, for example, that stores understand current deals and promotions. She praises the company's owners, the training she's received, and the fact that, like Borders, Art Van promotes from within. The hour-and-a-half drive to Warren was an adjustment, but the antidote to boredom came naturally: books on tape.
Though she still has good memories of her Borders years, Kalchik can't shake the sound of the tape guns on Layoff Day. "That noise," she says, "is the thing that lingers."
When Anne Jackson was laid off from a downsizing high-tech firm in 2007, she wasn't too worried. An experienced technical writer with a solid work history and strong references, she didn't expect much trouble finding a new job. Unemployment insurance would carry her till then. "For awhile it was fine," she says.
"I wasn't very disciplined about looking for another job," says Jackson, now fifty-five, smiling the way you do when a life lesson comes hard.
Dark-haired, with soft brown eyes, the Ann Arbor native (Pioneer, '75) soon found a temporary, paid-by-the-hour writing job. A family member with health problems needed her attention, and she'd welcomed a more flexible schedule. Rather casually, she applied for full-time jobs online.
But when her extended health insurance ended after eighteen months, she started to get scared. Her husband, Pete Held, is a self-employed handyman, and Jackson's job had provided their health benefits--crucial, as she is an insulin-dependent diabetic. Buying health insurance for themselves and their two children came to $1,500 a month. "That put an incredible amount of stress on us," she says. To pay the bills, "Pete had to work seven days a week, sometimes eight to ten hours a day. We were just getting more in debt. Credit cards--we're still paying debts off."
Jackson began looking more intensely, posting her resume online and checking the U-M website weekly for job openings. But she found that more and more jobs were open only to applicants with master's degrees in technical writing. Although she had worked in the field for seventeen years she had only a BA in English.
Vacations and eating out became things of the past. Jackson was borrowing against her retirement savings and doing odd jobs--gardening and giving violin lessons--when a friend tipped her off that Michigan Radio was hiring a receptionist. Amazingly, she'd held that same job before, when she was twenty-five.
She was interviewed last July, and a staffer who had worked with her thirty years earlier spoke out in her favor. She went back to work in August. "It's like my life has come full circle," she says, bemusedly.
A lot had changed in the interim. Michigan Radio's format had shifted from classical music to news, its staff had doubled, and it had moved from the LS&A Building to the Argus Building on the west side. But Jackson had stayed a fan and enjoys again being part of what she describes as a creative and friendly group. And the benefits include health insurance--that, she says, is "phenomenal."
A builder since age twenty-three, Joe Grammatico Jr., had weathered dips in the economy before. It wasn't easy to grasp that this time was different. "I feel I got caught in a tsunami," says Grammatico, now fifty-two. "Not on high ground--nothing you can do!"
Home building was in his blood. His Italian immigrant grandfather was a mason, and Joe learned construction from his dad. During his long career, Grammatico says, he "literally built hundreds of homes." But during the recession, credit dried up, prices plunged, and new home sales fell more than 90 percent. Grammatico says that 2005 was a good year, but 2006 was much slower, and "2007 was pretty much the end of it." Though he stayed busy remodeling and maintaining his properties, "Months go by, and you realize you're not making any money."
Grammatico says he tried "to hold on by credit cards, to keep the wolves away. Then I had an equity line run out of money in '09. All I had left was a half-empty shopping center.
"I had to make lemons out of lemonade."
The "lemon" was Scio Town Center on Zeeb Road. His biggest tenant, Kitchen Port, had closed during the recession. With no new tenant in sight, Grammatico--hearty looking, with a wide smile--decided to open his own store. A friend was storing furniture in the Kitchen Port space, which turned his thoughts to a high-end furniture consignment shop.
"I don't know a lot about the furniture business," he admits. "I do know a good deal." He began checking out Craigslist for high-quality furniture in good condition and soon was driving in a truck around Metro Detroit, picking up chairs, tables, sofas, and other items.
He opened Westside Furniture Consignment three years ago. Because he didn't have to buy any inventory, startup costs were minimal. And "right away I had people coming through the door. I remember selling a couple of couches the first day."
At first, he and his small staff would "jump up and down with joy when we had a $500 day." Eventually, "We did $1,000 days. Some months we had $2,000 days. Last year, we had a $5,000 day!" when someone paid $3,100 for a three-piece cherry bedroom set. He takes a fifty percent commission on each sale and has opened a second location, in Jackson.
The stores carry other things besides furniture. An old-fashioned carousel horse and a giant stuffed lion were on sale last month--along with fur coats, forties-style bar chairs, and good china. "This is a fun business," Grammatico admits. But, he stresses, "I am not getting rich. Joe is not getting rich!"
Because he never declared bankruptcy, he's still deep in debt. Last summer, he, his wife, Allison Losacco, and their eleven-year-old son had to move when Bank of America foreclosed on their home--one he'd built but couldn't sell.
The move from a five-bedroom house to a small condo upset their son, but he finds solace in hanging around his dad's interesting store. With home building finally showing signs of life, Grammatico says, he might go back to that business again on a smaller scale--maybe one house a year. But even if he does, he's keeping the store.
This article has been edited since it was published in the March 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. Judey Kalchik's final title at Borders and Ken Kalchik's current job have been corrected.
[Originally published in March, 2013.]