Thomas Seim worked steadily at one job for 23 years – and then was laid off twice in 14 months. Now he’s drawing unemployment, signed up for government help with food and health care, scanning want ads daily and just barely covering the mortgage payment on his small north Spokane home. “One thing I don’t want to do is go through a foreclosure,” said Seim, a 50-year-old single father of two teenage daughters. “If this drags on until March, April, May, I’ll be in a lot of trouble.”
The news of the larger economy is well-known: more people out of work each month, foreclosures and bankruptcies rising, investments shrinking, and a constant, numbing discussion about how bad things will get.
But every individual sits in the center of a personal economy, a web of connections that runs throughout the community.
In September 2007, Seim lost his job as a warehouse driver at Pearson Packaging when it laid off workers in response to flat sales. He was laid off again in November 2008 because Black’s Industrial, which does heating and air conditioning work, was suffering from a slowdown in construction.
Now his circumstances mean less money in the till at his favorite restaurants, fewer movie tickets sold, fewer gifts purchased in local stores for his “skimpy” Christmas. They also mean one more person in line at the unemployment office, one more competing for that job.
Those personal economies add up, cross paths, prop each other up and tear each other down. One thing Seim thought he’d try was signing up for the painters union local. Get some work painting houses. But that kind of work has slowed down, because people aren’t building or buying houses like they used to.
“They got a bunch of painters ahead of me,” he said.
Just as Seim’s recent actions have an impact on those around him, so do the things he’s stopped doing. He rarely goes to The Swinging Doors for a beer or to Arby’s with the kids, like he used to. He doesn’t go to movies – except for a recent excursion for a discount show.
“The days of going out to dinner for $20 dinners are over for me,” he said.
His main recreation these days is heading outdoors with his dogs, finding places to hike.
“I can go up in the hills and stuff, and it’s basically free,” he said.
‘That’s what companies do’
Seim was born and raised in Spokane’s West Central area, one of 12 kids. His dad was a roofer, and Seim started working young. He remembers being a janitor and on the grounds crew at local schools when he was a teen in the mid-1970s.
“A buck sixty an hour,” he said.
He started working at Pearson Packaging as a young man, as a warehouse delivery driver. He worked there for more than two decades and believed his future was secure. During that time, he got married, had two daughters and then divorced.
“After 23 years, I thought I was going to retire there,” he said.
But in fall 2007, whispers of cutbacks and layoffs began running through the company, he said. In September of that year, the company laid off 27 workers – including Seim – as a result of a difficult economy and flagging sales.
“It was devastating,” he said. “We kind of knew it was coming. We didn’t know which people were going to go.”
He’d considered himself safe, given his long time on the job. But like a sneaker wave, the economy had slipped in and taken his feet out from under him.
Although Seim managed to find another job as a warehouse driver – this time for Black’s Industrial – he was earning almost $3 an hour less than before, and his modest savings were gone. After he was on the job for 10 months, Black’s Industrial laid him off in November 2008, along with a handful of other workers.
“They felt bad about laying us off, but that’s what companies do,” he said. “I got laid off twice in two years. I’d been working steady since I was 17 years old.”
The job search
So Seim found himself wading into a job market with little opportunity – at least for someone with his skills and experience. Spokane County’s jobless rate was inching upward in late 2008, and it took another jump early this year.
Seim gets up each morning around 6, feeds the dogs, makes coffee and sits down at his computer. He scrolls through job postings on the WorkSource Web site, where he’s posted his resume and cover letter. Almost every application he fills out is an online form.
“Nowadays, looking for a job is 95 percent online,” he said. “Almost no one takes an application at the door.”
He’s primarily looking for work in the transportation and material moving category but knows he may have to look outside his experience. Thus his decision to sign up for the painters union. He’s applied for lots of jobs, he said, but “I haven’t heard back from anybody.”
Meanwhile, he’s scrimping. Seim’s unemployment benefits were set to run out in May, although jobless benefits were extended under the recent stimulus package. He’s signed up for the state’s Basic Health Plan to provide health insurance for him and his daughters, and he receives state aid for dislocated workers to cover the groceries.
His unemployment checks cover the mortgage on his small home, but he’s falling behind.
His oldest daughter, 17-year-old Kathlynn, has taken a job at Papa Murphy’s making pizzas – which has a side benefit for Seim.
“I get 50 percent off, for being a dad,” he said.
He said his kids – Kathlynn and 15-year-old Sandra – have taken the situation in stride.
On a recent afternoon, the TV in his living room was tuned to CNN and Lou Dobbs, a report about the foreclosures sweeping the country.
“I bought that when I was working,” he said, pointing to the newer TV. “I can only watch so much news. They just keep repeating themselves about how bad the economy is.”
He doesn’t find it useful to dwell on the problems – the country’s or his own.
“I don’t get down and out and depressed,” he said. “I look at life like everybody goes through bumps and bruises. I don’t plan to be out of work forever.”