Hard Times: Woman tackles a second wave of economic upheaval

One in an occasional series

Meg Kurek's life traced the arc of Pittsburgh's post-steel economy: a millworker's wife, she returned to school and rebuilt her life around its burgeoning biomedical industry.

The bad days took everything: her savings, her pride, ultimately her first marriage. She went back to college, got a master's degree, and set out on a life as a technology consultant for hospitals in the go-go '90s. Last year, between her job as a project manager for UPMC and her husband's work as a real estate agent, the Kureks were a six-figure family whose worries turned on new storm windows for their home in Ross and a fifth, cancer-free year for Bill.

Today, she is out of work, a casualty of an economic downturn that has struck almost every sector of the American economy. Bill's checkup with the cancer specialist is on hold because Meg Kurek, laid off after 18 months with a medical giant, has no health insurance.

"This is the month that we basically financially are falling over the edge," Mrs. Kurek said. "We had a little bit of savings. I was laid off in September. We made it all the way through the holidays and into January in decent shape.

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"This was the month where every last, little piece of money that I had tucked here, there or everywhere basically dried up."

The $180-a-month premium cable and Internet package will likely go next. The credit card bills compete with the mortgage and they're all a month overdue. Bill keeps track of spare change and noticed he's losing weight. With less coin in his pocket for a pack of chips, even his junk food habit has become a victim of a sour economy.

"I use the term jingle," Bill said. "I always had jingle in my pocket. Never had to worry about if I wanted to buy something. I didn't have to worry about could I get a tank full of gas, which is what we're sometimes worrying about now."

Can they afford gasoline? Can they go to the grocery store?

Can they get through this?

In numbers not seen since the Great Depression, Americans are asking themselves the questions that echo inside the Kurek household. It is a new chapter in the old story of Pittsburgh. A generation earlier, when Meg Kurek was in her first marriage, a layoff at U.S. Steel left a young mother and her husband waiting at first. In those days, a layoff implied something hopeful: that you'd be called back.

The callbacks never came. The Homestead Works, where Ron Saus, Meg's first husband, worked is now a shopping complex.

Today, an extraordinary number of layoffs are coming with severance packages, and the implicit message that, whatever the terminology, those who now lose a job are gone for good.

Mrs. Kurek's dry season began in September, the same month that a year of job losses accelerated into a six-month spiral. At the same time UPMC was letting her go, 321,000 other Americans were losing their jobs -- nearly doubling the previous month's figures. In October, that loss climbed to 380,000. November: 597,000. December: 577,000. January: 598,000. February: 651,000.

Since the start of 2008, the United States has shed more than 4 million jobs, with virtually every sector of the economy hit. Unemployment last week topped 8 percent -- double what it was at the beginning of this decade and the highest since the days the steel economy died.

Mrs. Kurek, 53, has been without work since September. Bill, 56, has always worked for himself, first in a convenience store in the east suburbs decades ago, currently as a real estate agent. The current downturn has shown that a man doesn't have to be jobless to lose in the recession.

Home sales have dried up. He took a second job cleaning offices, as have, by his estimate, most of the other 60 agents in his North Hills agency.

Their own neighborhood hints at the danger of falling off the precipice.

"Two years ago you didn't see one foreclosure here in the North Hills," he said. "I'm talking Ross, McCandless, Shaler. Two years later, just in our neighborhood we've had two just in the last six months."

On this day, he figured he was behind on one mortgage payment.

"That's a little scary," he said.

For the former Margaret Agnes Brogan, the scary old days once seemed as distant as Charles Dickens' London.

She grew up in a flat above the family's delicatessen on the edge of Oakland. Her mom worked the counter and her dad held a full-time laborer's job with the old Pittsburgh Department of Parks and Recreation. She was one of nine children who went through the Catholic schools of the neighborhood.

"All my education was within one ZIP code," she remembered.

At 18, she did what young women from the blue-collar class did in those days: She married her high school sweetheart. He was an apprentice machinist at the U.S. Steel Homestead Works. They bought a house in a working-class neighborhood in the first few months of marriage. The first of three children arrived in a year.

Then came the layoffs.

In those days, most people thought the layoff meant what the word implied: a temporary hiatus from work. Throughout the Monongahela Valley families froze in place waiting for the reopening of mills they later saw torn down.

"I would take the kids and I would go and get my government cheese and whatever else they were giving out at the time. I would get my free turkey at Thanksgiving," Mrs. Kurek said. "Bill collectors would call. They were mean, they were rude. They told you you had to pay or something terrible would happen to you. I would often cry because I didn't know what else to do."

Some took the bridge. She remembers a friend of her husband who decided, in the middle of a walk from Homestead to Greenfield to jump off the bridge over the Monongahela River. He died.

She remembers her husband lying in bed, clearly depressed. He drank.

"We fought a lot. Maybe not necessarily about the money, but the tension and the anger was in the household," she said.

She took a job as a clerk at the JC Penney store at Century III Mall, and returned to classes at Carlow College. Eventually, she entered a master's program at Pitt.

Her husband, she said, struggled and never found full-time work during their marriage. Sometimes she'd point out a job at a supermarket or some other spot, if only to get him back in the workforce.

"His response would be, 'There's a thousand other guys out there looking for work and they're not finding it either, so why should I bother?' "

Eventually, the marriage petered out.

"I said, 'Either you can come with me or you can sit here in my dust,'" she recalled. "Apparently, he sat there in my dust. I just moved on."

After moving on, Mrs. Kurek landed jobs in the health care sector, specializing in data technology.

One of her longest-standing jobs was with Cerner Corp. a health care data management firm. The pay was good. The travel was constant.

In 1996, she married Bill Kurek, a seemingly indefatigable salesman. His entire life he has worked for himself, first running a convenience store in the east suburbs. Later, as the real estate market blossomed, he moved into home sales.

"I've never been laid off," he said.

Five years ago, doctors pulled a tumor from his throat. A round of chemotherapy and radiation began.

Mrs. Kurek wanted more time at home, less in airport security lines. Two years ago, they found the home they wanted: a rambling, two-story brick house built in the 1970s and not touched since.

"I wanted to come home, stay home, be home, sleep in my own bed," she said.

She applied for a job managing data projects at UPMC. The pay was in the high range. The work was in Oakland.

The economy was in trouble.

"I was far enough up the food chain that I had some sense of what was going on," she said. "I just felt that if there were going to be some cuts that it would be easy to look at the line item that said Meg Kurek and say, 'What has she done for us lately? Who is she? Maybe we need to reduce here.' "

In September, she got the word: Her position was being eliminated after 18 months.

Her severance package included a month of salary and a month of health care. Picking up the cost of continued health coverage under the COBRA agreement would have used up virtually all of her monthly unemployment check.

In the one bit of perverse luck to visit the family, Bill crashed one of the cars just before their remaining month of medical insurance ran out.

He is waiting for some money to turn up -- he has a line on two house closings -- so he can receive an overdue root canal.

The precipice between survival and disaster is evident as the Kureks wonder about Meg's health -- she is diabetic -- and whether Bill can receive the five-year anniversary examination and tests to make sure the cancer hasn't come back.

A heart attack could be the difference.

"I guess it won't be a good outcome," she said, invoking the bloodless language of the health care business. "Either I'm going to be very poor or I'm going to be dead. One of the two."

Precisely where Meg Kurek's job went, and where her husband's real estate market sank, can be like tracking down the wind. It came from somewhere, but the elements that fed the storm are so disparate, so varied, so ephemeral, it takes a man like James Angel to explain.

He's a native of Beaver County, a Ph.D. in finance, associate professor at Georgetown University and he is, in his words, "about to start ranting on you."

Mr. Angel's rant goes this way: a wave of bad loans, primarily in a housing market filled with inflated mortgages that drove housing values to fictional levels, began to default. The downturn in housing hit hard. Then came the doubling of gasoline prices, which drove down the demand for cars.

The process accelerated: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac entered a sort of receivership. Lehman Brothers and other firms, heavily invested in unregulated instruments interlaced with so many of the bad loans, began to implode.

With the process under way in an already soft economy, economic leaders didn't step up. He blames, in particular, then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

"They let all the counter-parties to Lehman take a hit and started bringing them down," Mr. Angel said.

As financial institutions tumbled, Mr. Paulson went before a congressional committee to argue for a $700 billion bailout plan to halt the spiral.

His testimony combined a level of surprise with an apparent acknowledgment that the Bush administration had no contingency plans for reining in the decline. In a three-page proposal, it asked for $700 billion and a free hand.

"They didn't know what was going on. Then they created one of the PR blunders of the century: they let the world know they didn't know what was going on," Mr. Angel said.

Almost overnight, confidence in American investments evaporated and the credit markets froze. Businesses could not borrow to meet payroll; projects stopped in mid-spade; stores emptied.

"I remember walking into Wal-Mart one night last October. It felt like something out of a ghost movie," Mr. Angel said. "What happened was everybody just put everything on hold. All of the inventory that was in the pipeline, that people were expecting to sell, they couldn't sell. All of a sudden you had this glut of unsold merchandise there."

And with that glut, nobody was lending. Nobody could borrow. The general good faith on which America's free market floated had evaporated.

Bill Kurek said he noticed that a few months ago. They are called "short sales" -- agreements to sell for less than the outstanding debt, something that avoids foreclosure, gets a lender at least some of his money back, and moves the house out of receivership.

When the housing market started to implode last summer, the short sales tended to be modest homes.

"I see some high-end short sales," he said. "It's getting more widespread."

Life has given Meg and Bill Kurek at least one happy ending before. Hers was the climb out of poverty in an era when steelworkers sat at home, impoverished, yet continued to see themselves as middle class. His was a clean prognosis at the last cancer checkup.

She has sent out her resume and kept up hopes. There are some nibbles. Possibly a job is waiting. Until then, the household change is still counted, the credit cards watched, the worry about health care ever-present.

Some old habits have helped.

"I still save my rubber bands and my plastic bags because I grew up in a household that did that," she said.


"Every once in a while," she said. "Mostly what I'm afraid of is having had the experience in the first marriage of quarrelling and not being nice to one another and things like that.

"Every now and then my husband and I now -- and he's a wonderful man and we have a wonderful relationship -- but we will kind of snip at one another and I think, 'Oh, I hope this never gets any worse.' "

Dennis B. Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965. First Published March 8, 2009 5:00 AM


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