More co-worker couples losing both incomes at the same time

Sunday, February 8, 2009

It is a well-known risk to lack diversity in an investment portfolio. Now couples employed by the same company are learning a similar lesson, the hard way.

As layoffs mount across the country and in all sectors, couples who are co-workers are increasingly vulnerable to losing their families' twin sources of income at once. The lack of variety in job skills can also make it difficult to bounce back, especially in a struggling industry.

It may seem harsh for an employer to lay off both spouses simultaneously. But companies risk lawsuits and union contract violations if they consider workers' family status in determining who to eliminate.

And whatever the financial risks, it is simply unrealistic to expect couples who fall in love on the job or while studying the same field in school to be thinking about revenue diversification, said Stephanie Coontz, a family studies professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

"I imagine that people will try to be more thoughtful about not putting all their economic eggs in the same basket, but I doubt if they will start trying to meet people outside their field just for economic reasons," Coontz said.

People searching for a lifetime partner say the idea of choosing mates based on their careers would add too much complication to an already difficult process.

"Most of the single people I know are happy just to find another single person they get along with, let alone worry about what kind of job they have," said Margaret Warren, 45, a Pensacola artist and computer consultant who dates a restorer of antique automobiles.

It was a shared love of journalism that helped spark romance between Pam Podger and John Cramer.

When the Roanoke Times in Virginia began cutting costs and offering early retirements last year, the couple thought they had found safe harbor and a fresh start out West at The Missoulian, a 28,000-daily and 32,000-Sunday circulation newspaper in Missoula, Mont.

Less than 10 months later, the publisher laid them off, unsettling the new life they had begun with their two toddlers.

"Do I wish one of us had a sudden yen to go into medicine, law, business? Sure, some days," Podger said.

Podger now freelances and teaches part time, while her husband has a part-time job at a smaller paper owned by the same publisher.

Such double layoffs would have been extremely rare just a couple of generations ago.

Before the 1970s, families weathered economic downturns by sending the non-working spouse, typically wives, into the work force. But today roughly 53 percent of all married couples, and 64 percent of married couples with children under age 18, rely on two incomes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In theory that should have increased financial security. Instead, couples often use the extra income to buy bigger homes, nicer cars and other luxuries, said Rick Harper, director of the University of West Florida's Haas Center for Business Research.

"In the 1980s, both spouses worked and the savings rate for families went from 12 and 14 percent to essentially zero," Harper said. "In this decade, households smoothed over the rough spots by taking equity out of their homes. Now there is no equity left to take."

There are no statistics on the number of couples who have both lost jobs. Nearly 3 million jobs were eliminated last year alone. On Friday, the Labor Department said 11.6 million were unemployed in January.

Meeting at work is among the top three ways people find spouses, along with being introduced through friends or at school. But workplace relationships have inherent risks, such as awkward breakups, and many companies discourage co-workers from dating. Large companies often have policies that separate spouses into different departments.

But this deep and lengthy recession is revealing a pitfall that could not have been foreseen when high school sweethearts Victor and Lauri Cox married in 1976. They very soon landed jobs at the General Motors plant in their hometown of Clarkston, Mich., and figured they had found financial security.

For three decades, that was true. Victor Cox made good money pulling parts for shipment to dealerships worldwide. Lauri worked at a GM supplier and later at the plant. But last August they were both laid off.

GM has since found positions for the couple at an Ohio plant, but they are the among the lowest in seniority and will be the first laid off if that plant cuts production. The stakes are considerable: the Coxes are still paying a mortgage on their Michigan home, renting a town house in Ohio and worried about their children -- ages 23, 20, 17 -- who are back in Michigan trying to finish school and find jobs in uncertain times.

Victor said he occasionally thinks it would might have been easier financially if his wife were a nurse or a teacher -- something other than an auto worker.

"When we aren't working, we watch the news and think about whether we are going to have a job. We are hoping and praying that they (GM) don't declare bankruptcy," Victor Cox said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: