The lonely protester

Applause drowned out the boos when the president visited Wall Street Tuesday, but unemployed Janice Schiavo, 55, came to protest Bush's policies -- and look for work.

By Michelle Goldberg
Published July 10, 2002 11:07PM (EDT)

Janice Schiavo is standing on the corner of Broad and Wall Street, crying, while a few hundred feet away President Bush delivers a lecture on corporate responsibility. A 55-year-old woman wearing a gold-cross necklace, a denim jumper and American flag-patterned Converse sneakers, she came out into the thick Manhattan mid-morning heat Tuesday hoping the president would address the corporate malfeasance that she blames for leaving her unemployed, with only $2,000 between her and welfare.

"I want to hear what he has to say," she says. "He needs to be accountable. He needs to address the issue of unemployment."

Schiavo believes that she speaks for many of the small investors and Wall Street support workers left destitute by the market crash. For 20 years, Schiavo did back-office administrative work in the financial district, most recently at Wit SoundView Ventures. She believed in the system and kept her money in the market. When the market collapsed, it took not just her job, but most of what she had put away for the future as well. Now, she blames the recent barrage of corporate scandals for keeping her stock holdings depressed and the firms that might once have employed her from expanding.

There may be many Janice Schiavos out there, but only a few dozen people turned out to protest Bush's speech in downtown Manhattan. The crowd included a handful of well-scrubbed kids from NYPIRG and the Sierra Club, an old hippie or two, one young punk with a black bandanna (often worn by direct-action adherents, and used to protect them from teargas) strung hopefully around his neck. The paltry turnout, which some protesters attributed to the demonstration's last-minute planning, suggested that Democratic hopes for grass-roots rage at Bush's shady corporate history might be ill-founded. In fact, when the president's motorcade drove by, the clapping of traders and tourists drowned out the protesters' few plaintive boos.

Yet Schiavo insists many of her peers are furious, though they're uncomfortable chanting on street corners and don't want to look like troublemakers before prospective employers. She tells of a laid-off friend in her 60s who had to move in with her elderly mother, and a man forced into unwanted retirement at 62. "There are many people out there like me," she says. "My friends are upset, but they didn't want to come down here. They say, 'Janice, what are you, some kind of radical?'"

Statistics support Schiavo's claim that many share her employment troubles, though there's no reliable data about the toll the stock market collapse, and the corporate scandals that are worsening it, have taken on workers. Long-term unemployment, defined as unemployment lasting 27 weeks or more, almost doubled between June of 2001 and June of 2002. Today, 1 in 5 out-of-work Americans is counted among the long-term unemployed, meaning that a growing number of people who are out of work have been looking unsuccessfully for at least half a year. Meanwhile, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 55 million Americans are enrolled in 401k plans, so their retirement savings are likely declining with the market. And as Christine Owens, director of public policy at the AFL-CIO points out, workers who are over 50, as Schiavo is, have a much harder time finding new jobs.

Schiavo was laid off a year and a half ago. On Sept. 7, she had an interview with National Financial Services Corp. at the World Trade Center -- which, of course, didn't lead to a job. Failing to find anything else, she went to a headhunter, who told her she was too old to try to place, since she will probably only work for 15 more years. She went back to school to learn computer skills, but found that 55-year-old novices aren't in high demand. She went to her state senator and begged for help. Separated from her husband, she lives alone in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Both her parents are dead, and she can't rely on her 24-year-old daughter to support her. When her money is depleted, she says she'll have to apply for public assistance.

While her unemployment was dragging on, her savings were dwindling. She had much of her money invested in Lucent Technologies, which during the boom years peaked at $82.31 Tuesday it was down to $2 a share. As she talked, she glanced across the street to watch the Dow tracker on the Charles Schwab building, shaking her head as it fell. She still has $25,000 left in a 401k, but is afraid to cash it in, incur a 10 percent penalty, and then have nothing to live on when she's old. "I was saving this for my quote golden years," she says. "Now I'll be lucky if I'll have enough to buy a $15 Metrocard."

So she's trying to make her money last, living on 99-cent-a-pound rice and 49-cent-a-pound beans. And yes, she's aware of how maudlin this all sounds. Her hope is that her grim story will spur someone to write about her, and someone else to read about her, who'll recognize a hard worker who's down on her luck, and hire her. "Go ahead, exploit me!" she says. "Exploit me so I can get a job!"

After all, she was raised to believe that people who worked hard would be OK in the end. "I never thought in my lifetime that I would be where I am today," she says. "If you had told me that I would be out of work so long, I would have said you're crazy."

She blames America's corporate criminals for her plight -- and the president who's distancing himself from their misdeeds. "What's going on with Enron and WorldCom -- it affects the small people like you and me," she says. "A lousy 13 weeks extension on unemployment he gave us. Clinton would have done something. Bush is just saying, 'I'm giving you 13 weeks, that should appease you.' Someone has to do something." Then she starts to cry again.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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