Unemployment Ripples Felt Locally

Leonie Graham looking at photosRuth Spencer Leonie Graham looks through her collection of photos of the Goldmeier family. Mrs. Graham has been out of work since July when she was let go as the family’s housekeeper.

It is an unusual tradition at the Goldmeier household: during celebrations of the Jewish New Year during Rosh Hashanah the family serves jerk chicken.

“We’ve all grown to love Caribbean food, because of Leonie,” says Debbie Goldmeier, referring to Leonie Graham, a Lower East Side resident who worked as the Goldmeier family’s live-in nanny for 15 years.

In July, Mrs. Goldmeier sat Mrs. Graham down at the kitchen table and delivered some tough news – the Goldmeiers would no longer be keeping her. Mrs. Graham would need to find another job.

“I was sad, you know, but I understood,” Mrs. Graham recalled in a recent interview. “I miss them so much.”

As the nation suffers through its worst economic recession in decades, an increasing number of New Yorkers are finding themselves unemployed. Last week, the Labor Department reported that the national unemployment rate increased to 9.8 percent. New York state’s unemployment rate is 8.3 percent. Experts note that these trends hardly occur in a vacuum. Unemployment reverberates through populations like falling dominos. One layoff leads to another, with negative impacts felt by individuals and families of various economic levels – like Mrs. Graham and the Goldmeiers.

For years, Steven Goldmeier worked around the clock as a vice president of a bicycle and exercise equipment company, often leaving his family for long business trips overseas. His wife Debbie, a teacher by trade, stayed home and took care of their three kids, Jason, Julie and Alex. But it wasn’t enough. “I needed a partner,” Mrs. Goldmeier says.

In 1996, the Goldmeiers started looking for help. When they met Mrs. Graham through a neighbor’s connection, they knew she’d be a good fit. “She was so gentle,” Mrs. Goldmeier remembers. “I didn’t need someone to educate my kids. I needed someone to be kind and compassionate.” That year, Mrs. Graham moved into the Goldmeier house in Plainview on Long Island. “I became absolutely dependent on her,” says Mrs. Goldmeier.

Through the many years working inside the Goldmeier home Mrs. Graham went from changing diapers and warming bottles to helping the Goldmeier children pack for college. “The truth is I haven’t needed a housekeeper for a long time,” Mrs. Goldmeier says. “But I couldn’t bear not having her here.”

As much as she appreciated Mrs. Graham, Mrs. Goldmeier says that having a housekeeper often felt like a betrayal of her modest roots growing up outside Newark. “I didn’t grow up priveleged,” Mrs. Goldmeier says. “If you asked me then if I would have had a housekeeper when I was married I would tell you, you were crazy.”

When the Goldmeier children began leaving home, the family’s needs changed. “The saver in me felt that I could maintain my home with her coming to clean once every couple of weeks and my kids could take up some of the slack – have responsibility like I did when I was home,” Mrs. Goldmeier says. “I love her, I miss her yet I love knowing where things are because I put them away. I will always see her, but my days of needing someone daily are past.”

Leonie Graham's pictures of the Goldmeier familyRuth Spencer Two of Leonie Graham’s favorite photos of the Goldmeier family, featuring Julie Goldmeier (top) and Alex Goldmeier.

Saving became more important after Mr. Goldmeier was laid off in October 2009; as a result, the family lost more than three-quarters of its income. The Goldmeiers cut back on shopping and spring vacations, and a once indispensable part of their family suddenly became dispensable. Experts say less skilled workers, like nannies, tend to lose their jobs more frequently during a recession.

“If the family’s economic situation changes, a domestic worker is often the first expense to get cut,” says Jocelyn Gill-Campbell, the coordinating officer at Domestic Workers United, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Manhattan. Ms. Gill-Campbell says this leaves domestic workers especially vulnerable. “Any day they can be told they’re not needed and that’s that. They have no protection. There is no two-weeks notice. They just go home.”

When Mrs. Graham was told she was not longer needed in early July, she returned to her apartment in the Masaryk Towers on the Lower East Side – a far cry from the quiet suburban home of the Goldmeiers in Plainview. The Towers are a 21-story brick complex on Columbia Street near the Williamsburg Bridge, notorious for a murder-suicide in 2005 that left three people dead.

Mrs. Graham’s husband, Keith, is a 64-year-old chef at a Brooklyn nursing home. He works part-time but the family still struggles to make ends meet. “We’re all right, though,” Mrs. Graham says, adding that her 34-year-old son helps out. Three of Mrs. Graham’s five children work for One-Source, a corporate janitorial cleaning company. Mrs. Graham is hopeful that she may be able to find work there as well, though she’d prefer to get work as a nanny. The prospects, so far, haven’t looked good.

Experts say there are training programs set up to get professionals like Steven Goldmeier back into the working world, but not for Mrs. Graham; both Mr. Goldmeier and Mrs. Graham remain out of work. “We used to have a desk set up for house workers,” says Barbara Ulrich, the manager of the One-Stop Career Center of Lower Manhattan. “It’s just not viable anymore”. Instead, Ms. Ulrich says that many former housekeepers find work in the hotel industry.

The horror stories of her friends have made Mrs. Graham wary of finding another housekeeping job, but she desperately wants to work. “I call agencies and I look in the paper. No one calls me back,” she says. “Anything I get, I will take.”

Mrs. Graham struggles to stay busy these days. She passes the time cooking the same meals she used to make for the Goldmeiers: plantain soup, jerk chicken, red snapper and jambalaya. She also spends a lot of time thinking about them. On her mantle, sit three framed portraits of the Goldmeier family. In Long Island, the Goldmeiers feel the void, too. “We try to make her stuff – like rice and beans,” Mrs. Goldmeier says. “But it just doesn’t taste right without her here.”