Gregg Morris wrote this series for the Amsterdam News supported by New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America with sponsorship from the Silver Century Foundation.
For 16 years after she graduated from Hunter College with a major in political science and a minor in psychology, Michelle Johnson’s 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,” says Johnson, 52. “So, I was selling advertising space. I first started out 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.”
Her annual salary ranged from $60,000 to $80,000 and in a good year,” I could go up to about 120 grand,” says Johnson. “A true sales person has many, many skill sets. 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,” says Johnson, who worked in the Queens bureau of Newsday. “And if circulation is shrinking, you have nothing to sell to the advertiser.”
In October, after the nightmarish 2008 stock market crash in September, “There was no real editorial content for the Queens edition,” and she was laid off in October before her 51st birthday. And the layoff was unpleasant to say the least.
“They gave me two years for every year I had been there. The standard had been 2 and one-half years,” she says. 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, says Johnson, 51, who lives with her mom near Foster Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Her mom has spinal stenosis “and what that means is that arthritis has taken over every inch of her spine,” Michelle Johnson says. “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 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 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 pass 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. 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.”
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.”
She and her mother almost lost their house that they 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.” CAMBA is a non-profit agency with a multi-purpose mission that has several programs, including housing, and legal services. It’s stated mission is to help the low and moderate income, including the homeless, at risk of becoming homelessness or transitioning out of homelessness.
“CAMBA helped me to keep my house,” she said. Not only that but CAMBA helped her earn a substantial reduction in her monthly mortgage.
How much help did she get from her family? Friends? “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.”
She 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 and my grandparents were in their 20s and 30s during the depression and the thing was always work, always make it work. Even if you had no money, you’ll make it working, 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. ”
“I use to have a very high electric bill and I learned about phantom energy, the charges for line 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. 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.”
Asked if she met people in similar circumstances, she 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.”
She was interviewed for this article not only because of her willingness to share her personal experiences but also because of her internship visits that can take her to South Brooklyn, though she also visits other areas of the city. “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.”
“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 and 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 the elderly 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.”