Tuesday, August 14, 2012

He kneels in garden beds. He trims branches and lays mulch. Once upon a time, five months ago, he had an important position as a security official for Fidelity Bank, a place he’d worked for 38 years. He wore a suit and tie to work.

Today, he wears shorts and a tank top and prunes hedges or clears flowerbeds for neighbors or older folks. It is, to date, the only work he can find.

“I have to make ends meet,” he says.

His name is Rick Vallee, he is 59 years old, and he is one of so many Americans who thought life was going to be different. He thought by this age, he’d be winding down, looking forward to retirement.

Instead, he is unemployed, he cannot afford health insurance, and he can barely cover his bills, supporting a wife and family, including a disabled son. The bank he worked for was purchased by another. The new bank used him for transition, then told him he was done. He handed his key to a woman he barely knew and walked out the door of his once-familiar working life into a new corner of America, a vast and depressing landscape known as “What Now?”

As a devoted Christian, Rick says, “This is where the rubber meets the road. But just because I’m a believer doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns.”

Rick’s story will sound sadly familiar. He started as a bank teller in 1974 and worked his way up through the company. Branch management. Security officer. Eventually he was named a vice president charged with enforcing the Bank Secrecy Act, a government initiative aimed at identifying security concerns such as identity theft and terrorism funding.

At its peak, he says, Fidelity had a portfolio of more than a billion dollars. Rick handled security for all 15 branches.

Then the economic downturn happened. Things began to darken. The bank was failing. There were rumors of a sale. Rick hoped the buyer would be a growing company, which might have use for his expertise.

Instead, Fidelity was purchased by a much larger firm. Rick came home and told his wife, “This is it.” He sensed he would not be needed in a place that already had so many people.

He was right.

He endured the painful, antiseptic end, a Friday afternoon visit by government officials and new ownership, who waited until 5 o’clock, then began dismantling his office, taking his computer, stripping the Fidelity name, losing all shreds of the old regime.

A few months later, they lost him, too. After 38 years. No severance. No pension. No company. Just an offer of COBRA insurance, which can be laughingly unaffordable once you’re fired.

I know Rick. It was my idea to write about him, not his. He is not a complainer. Quite the opposite. He is humble, soft-spoken, embarrassed to even mention that he continues his weekly charity work with a local food pantry. He lives modestly, in a small ranch house in Shelby Township. He has never adopted a “Why should I care anymore?” approach.

He tried all his banking contacts. There were simply no jobs. He looked at his prospects, looked at his bills and picked up some landscaping tools, hoping to earn a few dollars. He was not ashamed to do physical labor, despite all the work suits in his closet.

“There are some times out there when I can’t believe it,” he admits. “But I know God has a plan for me. I just wonder what it is.”

You don’t know anymore in this country. That white-haired guy in Starbucks might have been a district manager somewhere last year. That woman taking your order at Denny’s might have been an executive assistant. And that man cutting your hedge might have once made sure your money was safe.

Rick still prays a company could use his skills. He remains upbeat, and there is something inspiring in that, people who take the bitter yet hope for the sweet. But it is no longer a great distance from the office to the flowerbed, and while the promise of this country always will glow, we are all learning this: You cannot count on the strength of your workplace, only your own.