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‘Haven’t gone shopping for clothes in a year’

Nikhila Natarajan's American dream crumbled when her husband, Anand, lost his job at US investment bank Bear Stearns amid last year's financial turmoil. He did find another job — but at half of his earlier pay, and life has not been the same. She tells HT more about life after recession...See special coverage

world Updated: Sep 16, 2009 07:01 IST

That Saturday morning, it was Anand’s turn to fetch baby from her music class down the road. As usual, at quarter past 11, I was ready with hot chocolate in a thermos flask, a sipper, car keys and trying to nudge Anand out of the house. “It’s getting late, Anand,” I said, bugged with him for not getting off the phone. He was speaking non-stop to a string of New York recruiters with that local twang which is so jarring. “Niki, do you realise, next Friday could be my last day at work,” he mumbled.

So, I’m talking of late June, when the winter has really gone and there are flowers on the trees. Mentally, I braced for a repeat of 2008. Now, it’s almost a year since we pitched tent in Virginia. We moved south from New York after Anand lost his earlier job to the Bear Stearns crash. After five months without a job and mounting debts, Anand landed a job with a government arm in Washington, D.C.

Within weeks of joining, Anand knew he was stuck in a doghouse. Initially, the bad pay – barely half of what his Wall Street job paid him – made him wince, but as the months passed, more trouble came along. Anand and his colleagues, some of them with at least 15 years of work experience behind them were being made to physically cart heavy files from one building to another. An Indian woman left within weeks of joining because she did not bargain for "manual labour" as part of the job. http://www.hindustantimes.com/images/America.jpg

Anand is being paid for a 40-hour week but has been working at least 50 hours plus being on call on weekends. In today’s America, where six unemployed people are competing for each job, I guess that’s no big deal. Adding shifts or hours are the first options for companies everywhere before it becomes imperative that a new hire is necessary. Reports say more people are jobless for longer periods in the U.S now than at any time since the late 1940s.

Anand’s boss has been threatening to end his contract since January this year. Anand has sent out hundreds of applications in the past nine months and not a single interview call came through -- until last week.

The signs are everywhere. Even in my now limited world of full-time mommyhood I see the change.

We haven’t gone shopping for clothes in more than a year now; we haven’t dined out for ages. Many of our favourite stores have gone bankrupt, we see a lot more homeless people hanging around in the parks, crime is on the rise, we often find trouble makers prowling around our apartment block or near the library – places you would not have seen them before. We pay our babysitters at least $ 4 dollars less per hour than last year’s rates.

For the last couple of weeks, Anand and I have been planning for worst-case scenarios, which is basically no job plus bills to pay and our apartment lease that runs out in mid September. To cut our losses, we requested the leasing office to let us go “month-to-month” rather than extend the lease for a year and lock ourselves in.

So many people have moved out from our apartment complex that the leasing office is offering us a month-to-month rate at just $ 10 dollars more. Usually, it’s a couple of hundred dollars more.

For many months last year, the playschool in a hep neighbourhood near my place had put my baby on their waitlist, saying no slots. Now, they’re calling to say she can join anytime because far too many people living in the area have put their homes on sale and taken their kids out of play school.

Talking of homes for sale, that’s the one market that’s picking up now. In the last two months, three identical town homes in my neighbourhood got sold, each for a higher price than the previous one. But they say the job market is usually the last to mimic recovery in other sectors.

The latest numbers brought total jobs lost since the recession began in December 2007 to 6.9 million. Among the 14.9 million unemployed Americans in August, 4.99 million were out of work for more than 26 weeks.

Anand may have added to those numbers but he escaped in the nick of time. He was to be let go in September-end. Almost on cue, he got an interview call a couple of days ago, the first after almost nine months of trying. He knew he had to clinch it now because a second chance may take forever.

He got the job.