Thousands of public workers throughout southern New Jersey — including teachers and police whose jobs were once thought to be recession-proof — now face the anxiety and pressure that comes with a layoff notice.
Many public workers are going to work either knowing or fearing that they or co-workers will soon lose their jobs due to state aid reductions to schools and municipalities.
Patrolman Jason Rigby is one of them. He’s had to deal with things that most people don’t expect in the small farming community of Hammonton. He once arrested a trio of gang members who were waiting at the train station with an AK-47 and a sawed-off shotgun. He was surrounded by hundreds of agitated migrant workers at a blueberry farm, where police dogs were the only thing keeping the crowd from erupting into chaos.
But the 30-year-old Hammonton man’s work record may not be enough to save him from a budget ax. The town notified Rigby and nine other municipal workers last week that they may be laid off. The reason: budget cuts. Rigby continues to work while he waits for his official termination.
Rigby is one of thousands of workers statewide facing similar uncertainty.
“This is a stressful job as it is, because you never know what you’re walking into. And now I have to drive around knowing that in a few days, I might not have a job,” said Rigby, who has worked in Hammonton for five of his nine years as a police officer. “Plus I have a kid on the way, a 2½-year-old daughter and a wife at home to worry about. So it is very hard to keep a clear head with everything that’s going on.
“It’s hard. It almost makes you feel underappreciated,” said Rigby, whose second child is due on June 1 — the same day his health benefits would expire if he is laid off. “Like all of the hard work that you’ve put in over the years went unnoticed.”
The Mullica Township School District recently announced that it would be laying off a dozen staffers.
Special education teacher Jeannine Holt has seniority with eight years in the district, but she still doesn’t know for sure whether her job is safe.
“It’s very concerning. It makes it difficult to sleep at night,” said Holt, 36, of Hamilton Township. “You feel like you’re walking on eggshells when you’re at work, because you don’t know when the next shoe is going to drop.”
While Holt is optimistic that her seniority will save her job, a colleague she works with every day has already been told her job was eliminated.
“When you find a match that you can work well with, and then they’re just taken away, it’s very upsetting,” she said. “And you know it will be very difficult for them to still come to work for the next 60 days. But she has her game face on, as always, because the thing she cares about most is the kids.”
She said the emotional effects of the budget cuts are palpable.
“Everybody is scared because they don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone next year,” she said. “It’s depressing.”
Say goodbyes, develop contacts
Karen Jacobs, a clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University, said people who are laid off often suffer bouts of depression and a blow to their self-esteem.
“It is a loss, and usually an unplanned loss, which can be very devastating to someone’s idea of their own self worth,” she said. “And it is a loss that can be very physically and emotionally hard to take.”
Instead of dreading their final days of work, Jacobs said, people facing layoffs should approach them proactively by saying goodbyes and establishing networking contacts to help them get a new job.
“The first thing they have to realize is that it is because of the situation, not them, that this is happening,” she said. “They should reach out to a safety net of people, such as family and friends, to help sustain a regular daily routine. And they should keep taking the time to care for themselves, emotionally and physically.”
If people still struggle to cope with the loss of their job, Jacobs recommended they go to a support group or talk to an occupational therapist. Information on both can be found on the American Occupational Therapy Association’s Web site, www.aota.org.
“What this is, is really a transition period,” said Jacobs, a past president of the association. “Things will change. And what people should be doing in the meantime is using any skills they have — professional or otherwise — to find another job.”
The effects of the budget cuts extend beyond those already in the work force.
Students may need new plan
Theresa Nhan, who first studied criminal justice in college, decided to go back for a second bachelor’s degree — this one in education — about a year and a half ago. The 34-year-old from Egg Harbor Township took a break from school to raise her two children. But during that time, she regularly worked as a substitute teacher. She figured becoming a teacher was the perfect fit.
“Maybe it’s a motherly thing, but I love being in front of a classroom. It is a great feeling to be able to teach kids and see their reaction to learning,” said Nhan, a Richard Stockton College of New Jersey student who is scheduled to graduate in May.
When Nhan settled on becoming a teacher, the job market was, as she described it, “great.” But with school districts statewide now laying off staff, Nhan’s future is less certain.
“I am worried,” she said. “There are going to be many more highly qualified people looking for work. There could be 200 people going for the same opening for next school year.”
Jill Perry, associate dean of the College of Education at Rowan University, said only 19 school districts have registered for the annual job fair, less than half that of previous years.
“It is a difficult conversation with students,” she said of their job prospects. “It’s heartbreaking. We have been talking about being more prepared.”
That means getting multiple certifications to become more marketable. For elementary teachers in particular, extra certifications in math, reading, bilingual and special education could give them an edge.
Perry advises students to think outside their comfort zone. She said many students want to work in their hometowns. But this year they might have to travel, consider an urban district or even leave the state. She said many states accept the New Jersey certification.
She also suggests students consider substituting to improve their skills and get a foot in the door of area school districts for when a job opening may appear.
And she does tell them to consider jobs in other fields, at least for now.
“All of our students must have a major other than just teaching,” she said. “They may be able to use their skills in another field.”
Even though Nhan said she isn’t afraid of competition — due to her substitute teaching experience, being highly qualified in multiple subject areas and her ability to speak four languages competently — she, like many of her classmates, is already preparing her backup plan.
“A lot of the people in my classes are thinking about using it as a chance to start working on their master’s or go for another certification,” said Nhan, adding that if she can’t find a job, she would start working on her graduate degree and go back to substitute teaching. “Things will eventually work themselves out, but I’d hate to waste a year sitting around waiting for it to happen. So I might just start working on things that I had initially planned to hold off on.”
But despite the massive layoffs, Nhan said she is still optimistic she will be able to find work — thanks in large part to encouragement from her mentoring teacher at Dr. Joyanne D. Miller Elementary School in Egg Harbor Township — a district that plans to lay off 70 district workers.
Staff writer Diane D’Amico contributed to this report.
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