When Sarah Janosek drove to see her first patient in the early morning of Nov. 5, she knew her husband, a software engineer, could be one of the hundreds of Advanced Micro Devices employees laid off that day. "He called me at approximately 10 a.m. and told me they had not called him in yet," remembers Janosek, a 47-year-old hospice nurse and mother of three teenagers in Austin, Texas. "And then he called me 15 minutes later to say he was one of those chosen."
When she first heard the news, "there was a sinking in the pit of my stomach and tears," she says. "It was just devastating. It's completely outside your power, and now you're responsible for the entire family," says Janosek, who like many wives who work, brought in roughly one-third of the family's income but is now the principal breadwinner. "You worry about losing everything. It's just overwhelmingly scary and there are no resources for spouses." Janosek was able to increase her work hours, and her husband now has some contract work, which has helped but it hardly solves the problem. "I am still angry about it," she says.
So are many other women wives of the 4.2 million men who have been laid off since the recession began. In fact, according to recent data, it is likely that more than 2 million American women are married to someone who has been handed a pink slip during this recession. Compare that to the approximately 1.4 million women who have lost a job, and it appears that the majority of women may be experiencing our Great Recession's mass job losses not as a laid-off worker but as the spouse of one. And while a lot of attention has been paid to those who have lost their job some 75% of whom have been men the impact of these losses on spouses has been largely ignored.
Yet a husband's job loss is a family event that affects everyone especially spouses, according to Alan Pickman, a psychologist and outplacement specialist with Lee Hecht Harrison as well as the author of The Complete Guide to Outplacement Counseling. While both the husband and wife may struggle with new financial fears and feelings of anger and betrayal, "the spouse's response may be even more intense than it was for the individual male who lost his job," says Pickman. Most experts agree that may be because wives feel powerless both about the job loss as well as the family's future, since only the displaced husband can get himself a new job.
Wives who are currently working have a bit more control over their financial fate, but not much. While many wives may want to work more, that can be near impossible in a recession. And in fact, according to BLS data released last week, not only are married women now working fewer hours per week on average than before the recession began, but also married women's working hours are at their lowest point since 1964, the year these numbers started being tracked.
Of course, another way to make ends meet is to reduce spending. For Teri Austin, the mother of a newborn when her husband lost his advertising-agency job in February, that means eliminating the family's monthly mortgage payments by selling their Richmond, Va., home and moving into her parents' house near Los Angeles. To make matters worse, their Richmond house has lost so much value, the only option appears to be a short-sell to a bank or foreclosure.
For other families, the cuts are less drastic, but they serve as a daily reminder of the new financial stress families face after the pink slip arrives. Family vacations are put on hold, kids' summer camps and sports programs are eliminated, air-conditioning is used less, movies and even cable are cut or reduced, new clothes and haircuts are postponed and family dinners at restaurants are increasingly reserved for special occasions. To be sure, many of these cuts affect both the husband and wife, but women even those who work outside the home still take on more household responsibilities, including cooking, cleaning and taking care of children, whatever their ages. Which means that fewer family dinners out as well as fewer take-out orders and pizza deliveries plus more people around the house can mean even more work for the wife. "There are more dinners, more snacks, more dishes," says Jennifer Brinkman of Austin, Texas, who cut family spending on dinners out as well as summer programs for her two school-age daughters after her husband lost his job in June. "It's just hard," she says.