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Sudden layoffs take Clearwater couple from comfort to concern

CLEARWATER — Cyndi and Steve Phillips are newly unemployed and face two tremendous decisions as they struggle to salvage a middle-class life.

First: Whether to switch careers, a choice confronting many jobless workers today.

Second: Whether to move out of state for work and leave behind a son from Steve's previous marriage, a choice that shows how every job loss comes with very particular burdens.

"I feel like we have an anchor here," said Steve, 39. "And if we cut that anchor, we lose ties, and if we don't cut that anchor, we could sink."

The couple met in 2004 on a school construction job in Tampa. Married nearly three years, they've spent their working lives in the now battered building industry.

At the end of March, the Tampa company where Cyndi had spent five years as a project manager and cost estimator laid her off.

Then, three weeks later, Steve was laid off from his job installing communications equipment in buildings, work heavily dependent on new construction and renovations.

Just like that, the recession wiped out the couple's combined income of $110,000 a year.

"Total disbelief," Cyndi said of her reaction.

The couple has a house with a $1,400 a month mortgage and an 8-month-old daughter. Even as they face hard choices that could mean upheaval, they are pressed by more immediate worries.

Unemployment, which will total about $600 a week once Steve's kicks in, won't cover their expenses, and with their small savings they can only make their mortgage payment for a few more months.

They've given up their Lifestyle Family Fitness gym membership, yard service and nights out. The small vegetable garden, once just a pleasant hobby, is eyed as a means of trimming food costs.

They gave up the premium brand dog chow for a cheaper alternative, which they think caused their boxer-lab mix Lola to develop skin splotches and itching.

Such steps aren't near enough, though. The couple need to generate income quickly or they could lose their Highfield Drive home. Attempts to find work in their fields haven't been fruitful.

"I haven't really allowed myself to panic or go into total meltdown," said Cyndi, 36. "But it's getting to the point where we are going to have to make a substantial change."

They have thought about expanding the small photography business they have, or taking the leap into a new field or even going back to school to get training that could help them land work.

Those paths take time, however, and there are no guarantees.

"If we go in a different direction," Cyndi said, "who's to say the money is going to be there?"

Moving to find work in the building business is one option. They have heard of construction-related jobs in Texas, California, Georgia and Hawaii. And Steve thinks there's good money to be made overseas with his skills.

But the prospect of moving presents the couple with a terrible choice.

Steve's son from an earlier marriage, 12-year-old Jamie, spends time with him, Cyndi and his half-sister on weekends. Though they don't see Jamie every day, he's a part of their lives.

They're comforted that Jamie's mom takes great care of him and that he's in a good school, but the thought of not being there for him is hard.

"He's just started middle school this year," Cyndi said, "any kid just entering his teens, it's a tough time in their lives."

Adding to the trepidation is an experience Steve had when Jamie was 4. He went to Maryland for a few months on what became an unsuccessful job pursuit.

It was hell being so far from his son.

"There were … a lot of nights that were very troubling, a lot of crying," Steve said. "Talking on the phone didn't cut it. I told myself I would never do it again."

The shock of the back-to-back job losses has waned, but as they face such consequential decisions, they remain jarred by how swiftly their circumstances have changed.

"Before, we were on the shore and those people out there were in the boat," Steve said of the jobless. "Now, we're in the boat.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 727-445-4166.

About this series

Coping is an occasional series detailing how North Pinellas residents cope with the recession. If you have an interesting story to tell, or know of someone else who does, please contact Will Van Sant at (727) 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com.

Sudden layoffs take Clearwater couple from comfort to concern 05/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 2:18pm]
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