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Down with the ship?

There's a great Bill Cosby stand-up sketch about Noah building the ark. When I was a kid we listened to the bit on road trips, over and over, until we all could recite it. There's a line that stands out in my mind -- maybe it's even the last line of the sketch? -- that Cosby delivers right around the time that Noah loses his cool and tells God to take a hike, that he's not building the ark anymore. God says, "Noah. How long can you tread water?" For some reason that line is repeating in my head over and over today. But it's not as funny.

I have worked at the same nonprofit organization for over 10 years now. Those of you who are good at math will realize that means that I've been at the same place for all but 1.5 years of my professional life. One of the first things that struck me about IRA was that so many people had worked there for 20+ years; in fact, the first week I was there, they threw a retirement party for a man who had worked in the mailroom for 35 years. So I have been working there in this happy little bubble, thinking not only is the organization inherently secure because of its nonprofit status, but my job is completely secure -- even with the crash of economics as we know it, everyone needs books about how to teach reading, right?

Wrong. On all counts. There are no guarantees. And the happy bubble has burst.

Today we received an e-mail informing us of a number of drastic, organization-wide cost cutting measures, effective immediately. The first part of the list was rather innocuous -- no more free coffee, no more cable TV, no more travel or discretionary spending, no more new hires, consolidating staff from two other satellite buildings into one building -- but the bottom portion of the list nearly knocked me off my chair: Voluntary reduction in salary expenditures to cut the salary budget by as much as 10%.

Hmm...what does this mean, you ask? We have four options from which to choose by February 12: (1) a buy-out equal to about three months' salary in my case, (2) 20% reduction in hours and pay until July 1, 2010; (3) unpaid 10-week leave, or (4) stay as is, ride it out, hope for the best.

Now, obviously for those of us with children and mortgages and sick husbands and ridiculous amounts of debt, the only viable option, really, is #4. Especially in an economy in which jobs are few and far between. I mean, a couple years ago I might have taken that first option with full optimism that I would find a new job within a couple of months. Not right now. Not when Wharton grads are hoping for part-time data entry jobs and the biggest companies in the world are cutting jobs and freezing new hires. This is not the time to roll the dice with a buy-out.

Here's the real excitement in this plan: If the 10% reduction in salary budget is not met with this first voluntary action, we will may all have to take a hit with either involuntary salary cuts, and then layoffs. It just keeps getting awesomer!

I'm trying to remain calm. I mean, yes, I currently have a job. There's that to be thankful for. And sure, things could turn around world-wide and by next year and all will be well. On the dark side of my brain, I know that if my job were to disappear in the next few months, we wouldn't be able to pay our mortgage after about three months. But whatever. There's more important things in the world than, say, a home in which to raise one's family (she says as she gulps down a second glass of wine). So we'll just have to seriously evaluate how we're spending now, try to rein it in to save as much as possible, develop a Plan B. I am a woman of action, so I know that by the end of the week I will have figured out what to do next. (I may lose some sleep, but I will have a plan.)

However, the real bitch of this scenario hit me late in the day today: One of the reasons I have stayed working at IRA as long as I have is because I feel that in some small way I am contributing to the greater good. That is, I believe in the mission of IRA, to improve literacy around the world. I like to think that in my tenure, perhaps a few kids have learned to read because their teachers have read books that I've edited or marketed. That's huge. As I sat in our staff meeting today trying to process all the different options being discussed, it hit me. The whole operation could go under. The situation is dire. We're not talking cutting out paper products and saving on postage costs and all is hunky-dory; we're talking millions of dollars in the hole, with budget and revenue forecasts in the red for who-knows-how-long. So beyond the "what about me" question, I feel anxious tonight because of the larger picture. These last few months I've been feeling such apprehension about corporate America collapsing, I never really stopped to think of us little guys. I somehow felt above the fray. Not any more. It's happening to all of us. And it really friggin' sucks.

As our director stated today "We've hit an iceberg and we're taking on water fast. They're evacuating the boiler room, moving everyone up onto the deck. But the aft-end of the ship hasn't yet gone vertical." So I suppose I'll just grab a life ring, hang on tight, and hope that I'm one of the lucky few who is pulled from the wreckage. How long can you tread water?


  1. Tori, I'm sick with disbelief at how bad things have gotten for IRA. I'm hoping enough of the newbies there will just take the severance and move on so those of you with such a deep investment in IRA can stay on until the world rights itself again. I, too, have always felt that the work done there was for the greater good and should be untouchable by these economic shenanigans.

    I believe in you and your ability to come up with Plan B. If you need to scream and rant before, during, or after the planning, though, you know where to find me.


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