INVISIBLE IN NEW YORK: Older, Black and Eeking Out a Living

INVISIBLE IN NEW YORK: Older, Black and Eeking Out a Living

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Part 3. Read the “Invisible in New York Series” here.

NEW YORK--For 16 years after she graduated from Hunter College in New York with a major in political science and a minor in psychology, Michelle Johnson's advertising sales career at Newsday in Long Island was nothing less than promising and she came to consider it an art form.

"Account management in sales means that you're selling a product and in this case it was advertising," said Johnson, now in her 50s. "So, I was selling advertising space. I first started out

The Depression-Era Spirit: “Stop
Panicking and Think It Through"

After being laid off, almost losing her house in Brooklyn and caring for her ill mother, Michelle Johnson, finding little help from family or friends, got into her mom’s Depression-era spirit.

"Well, you know if you are a person of color, especially African American, one of our things is you don't air your own dirty linen. You handle your stuff. So I handled my stuff. Everyone was aware that I was laid off. Some didn't know how to help. Sometimes, I would get tickets in the mail to go to some party or some dance because they figured I need to get out--they didn't know that I could have used some cash."

Johnson and her mother lived off one food stamp stipend. "And I'm making it work then I heard of pantries in my areas. So every week I would pick up my can goods and nonperishable stuff so I would have a stockpile of food if anything got twisted," she said.

"My mother was raised through the Depression,” she observed. “And the thing was always work, always make it work. Even if you had no money, you'll figure out a way to make it work. Stop panicking, stop worrying. You can always think through a problem. And that's what I carried with me all the way. So when it came time to look outside of my own resources, of course, you go to social services and all that kind of stuff."

"You make a pot of beans with rice with some pork in it or you take some ground beef and you make meatloaf and hamburgers and make some meat sauce and you start buying whole chickens and cut them up for frying or baking. All of that stuff was for saving. I learned how to handle it," Johnson recalled.

"I use to have a very high electric bill and I learned about phantom energy, the charges for lines coming in to your apartment," she said. "I unplugged things I didn't need on a daily basis. I kept a landline because of my mother. So, if her cell goes down she has a way to contact me. My energy bill went down a good 30 percent, so that saved me a good deal of money.”

Johnson’s advice to others facing hard times: “You don't panic. You make it work. I'm not saying it's not hard. There were days I would cry my eyes out."

--Gregg Morris

 selling at retail and then I was promoted to major accounts like National Grid, MTA, accounts like that, and then I was promoted to national accounts, like Ford, Chrysler, Mercedes."

Job Success--Then Laid Off

Her annual salary ranged from $60,000 to $80,000 and in a good year," I could go up to about 120 grand," said Johnson.

"A true sales person has many, many skill sets, she added. “It's not just selling. It's listening, I mean really listening, proactive listening, It's convincing people to do something, but the art of the sale is convincing someone to do something and at the end of the day them believing fervently that they thought of it. That's the art of the sale. l think that sales is a beautiful thing if one follows the art."

In 2004, Newsday made headline news because it was one of several newspapers accused by federal authorities of falsifying circulation in violation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, federal legislation passed to protect shareholders and the general public from fraudulent accounting.

Like many newspapers, Newsday was experiencing problems because of the Internet. "They looked up and their market was shrinking and that meant that advertising dollars was shrinking and that meant circulation was shrinking," said Johnson. "And if circulation is shrinking, you have nothing to sell to the advertiser."

After the 2008 Market Crash

In October, after the nightmarish 2008 stock market crash in September, she was laid off before her 51st birthday. And the layoff was unpleasant to say the least.

"They gave me two years [severance pay] for every year I had been there. The standard had been two-and-one-half years," she said. She took it in stride but her mother, in her mid 70s, fell seriously ill around the same time.

"Since I was out of work anyway, I chose to stay home and take care of her for about two years, said Johnson, who lives with her mom in Brooklyn. Her mom has spinal stenosis meaning "arthritis has taken over every inch of her spine," Johnson said. "So, she cannot sit, stand or walk any longer than like 15 or 20 minutes. The pain is chronic and the pain is severe. And the score of doctors that she had at the time had no idea how to fix this than to pump her with medication."

"Being off was fabulous because it gave me an opportunity to delve into her medical and wade through all of the BS they put you through and she's on Medicare and HMO and it's really Aetna [health insurance] calling the shots," she said. "They are administering her Medicare. So, if you need anything done, it's a freaking nightmare. For example, she's been using a walker and a manual wheel chair for five years. It took me five years to get her a motorized scooter. How silly is that. She can't walk. That's the kind of things that were going on. And I have to admit that I experienced burn out."

“My Retirement is Gone”

"My resources began to dwindle. Everything I had worked for to set up for my retirement is gone. And I knew that they would be if I wasn't working past one year. Little that I knew that it would last as long as it did. So, four or five years later, I was without any resources at all."

"All I new at the time was sales. They (potential employers at the time) are not looking for someone beyond a certain age and they equate that with energy level and drive and desire to succeed,” Johnson said.

She emphasized, “Seniors today are not the seniors that we have known. We are more educated, we are quicker and sharper of wit and can still move and still do things. It's so stupid, but it is what it is. So, it was very difficult finding a job within my field and getting paid what I was worth."

"When you work for a newspaper, you're on call all the time. The pressures got to me. I had a mini-meltdown. The layoff, although tough, was probably the best thing I ever did. It gave me an opportunity to slow down, to fix this thing with my mother and to realize my worth and to make a decision as to what I really wanted to do. And I realize for the first time in a very long time that money wasn't really it."

Almost Lost Their House

When Johnson couldn't find a decent job, she sought help from social services and learned of an internship in the Easter Seals Senior Community Services Employment Program. "Easter Seals has been training me in job development and I get a small stipend, hence a paid intern."

"I am much more interested in workforce development and case management. Honestly, that's what I wanted to do when I was leaving college, but there was no money in it and I had a house and a car and there were things I had to save up for and do and went into sales because that was the fastest and most lucrative way that I could earn money. Unfortunately, it backfired over so many years and I should have quit earlier. But the money was good."

Johnson and her mother almost lost the house they had purchased together when she was still at Hunter. Her mom and her stepfather had separated. She and her mom were the first in their family to own a house. "And she did it so that I would have something. She lived upstairs, I lived downstairs. It was a perfect arrangement. When she became ill and couldn't navigate, we switched apartments," she said.

"What saved me was the fact that I was with Easter Seals and I was getting some kind of money and I had to cash in my pension way before time so I'm only getting a third of what I should have been getting. But that plus the pension and my mother's income, her retirement income is not much but all together it gave me enough substance to be accepted for a program to save your house."

A local nonprofit agency called CAMBA "helped me to keep my house," she said. Not only that but CAMBA helped her earn a substantial reduction in her monthly mortgage.

Others “Far Worse Off”

Despite her own struggles, Johnson said, "I have met people who are far worse off." Her Easter Seals internship involves field monitoring. I go to the agencies that host an intern and interview a director of the program or a supervisor. And then I interview the intern from Easter Seals. And that's when I found out more stuff than I care to know."

On one visit to South Brooklyn, she remembered, "There was a man, 73 years old, very, very tall, very, very lanky. You can tell he was a healthy, tall, lanky young man in his day; now he's a tall lanky frail old man," she said.

"He's paying $500 a month rent in a basement apartment that's drafty, has intermittent heat, has rodents and insects and he only eats one meal a day because that's all he can afford. It's stuff like that that drives me crazy. Drives me to shame."

"There's another situation where I met someone who had been in social services all of her career and she tried to get back in to the field. No one would let her back in," Johnson said. "She lives on and off with her daughter so she never knows where she's going to sleep one night to the next and she's only 62 years old. There are a lot of stories like that. A lot."

Too Little for Older Vets, Workers

She went on, "I ran into a vet on one of my interviews. He was 63 years old and had a bad leg, and that happened while he was in the service. This man was still trying to get treatment after 10 years and he's not getting all of his sedatives so Easter Seals is assisting him in getting treatments and the rest of his benefits. How can this country let you be a vet and not take care of the basic things? “

Further, she said, “Because he's older and he's been through what he's been through, he doesn't have the patience and has lost the strength in one's self to be able to go through and navigate this process."

Employment discrimination against elders is ferocious. "You'd be surprised at what's happening. We're all between 55, and I'd say even 85 years old," she estimated about seniors who want to work. "A lot of mature workers, all of us, are trying to get back into the workforce and many are paralyzed with fear so they're stuck where they are.”

Gregg Morris wrote this series for the Amsterdam News supported by a journalism fellowship from New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America with sponsorship from the Silver Century Foundation.