Amy Burton of Lake Wylie and Paul and Susan Hackney of Tega Cay have never met. However, Burton, who is married and a mother of two, and the Hackney couple, who also have two children, are all living the same night nightmare -- they're unemployed, laid off because of the weakening economy. In the Hackney family's case, unemployment is multiplied by two: both lost their jobs in construction. For months, they've been job hunting with no success. Whether it's a friend or neighbor, it's a story told over and over again. The Lake Wylie Pilot will introduce you to these local residents and their families, beginning this week with Amy, followed by the Hackney family next week. Each week thereafter, the Pilot will update readers on these families' journey through unemployment -- highlighting progress and struggles until they find employment.
LAKE WYLIE -- If there's one thing John and Amy Burton are used to after 21 years of marriage, it's financial interruptions.
John has been through the ups and downs of the construction industry -- losing his job five times. The Lake Wylie family has weathered medical setbacks and bills from elbow surgery, knee surgery, even a hip replacement.
Being self employed for many years, Amy dealt with the financial insecurity of owning of a home-based custom window covering business.
Then there was the morning of Nov. 7, 2008 -- the day Amy lost her job in the research and development department at the Rowley Co., a Gastonia-based wholesaler and distributor of home decorating supplies.
"It's always difficult hearing someone doesn't want your services. It's not a major crisis for us like it would be for other people because we've been through this in the past," said Amy, who has two sons -- 13-year-old Jake and 18-year-old Johnny. "My husband and I are survivors.
"Through surgeries and layoffs, we've come to trust God. We believe the most important thing in life is relationships over money and material things. People first," she said.
One hour after losing her Rowley Co. job, 45-year-old Amy was on the phone networking with friends and colleagues.
More than 100 days have since passed and Amy wonders what life will be like once her unemployment checks stop coming in a few months.
For now, the Burtons say, John's job in construction and thrifty spending habits are getting bills paid on time, including their mortgage.
With roughly one in 10 people out of work in the area, Amy knows it's an uphill battle, especially being a job-seeker without a college degree. Her calls and e-mails to potential employers go unreturned.
"If the economy wasn't the way it is, I know I would have a job," said Amy, who has an extensive background in the drapery industry as a designer, a professional instructor and as a nationally-recognized spokeswoman within the industry.
Despite only one job interview, Amy says positive people and faith boost her optimism, even when thinking of worst-case scenarios.
"If we have to sell everything and move into a dinky apartment, we have each other," Amy says.
John jokingly says he sometimes forgets his wife is unemployed.
"If she didn't tell me she was unemployed, I wouldn't know the difference. Her attitude hasn't changed," says John, project superintendent for Ecclesia Construction Co. "She was amazingly strong after the initial shock.
"She wakes up with a smile. She still gets up early. We spend time together every morning," he said.
Finances: A family affair
Since Amy's job loss, the Burton's are proud of their financial discipline. They watch "every penny" and have not accumulated additional debt. The family openly discusses money matters and budgeting -- real-life lessons they hope will prepare Johnny and Jake for adult life.On a recent Saturday night, dinner at the Burton household consisted of homemade pizzas, which Amy proudly makes for about $2 apiece. Gone are the dinners out."We buy everything in bulk," Amy says. "We buy pizza sauce by the case. We buy dough by the case. We do not buy convenience foods like microwave dinners. No prepackaged salads."We cook everything from scratch," she says.A hair stylist for 16 years prior to her drapery career, Amy cuts her family's hair to save money --even her own hair.Errands are grouped together to save on gas. Instead of going to the movies, the family subscribes to Netflix.Johnny, a senior at Clover High School, works at a local restaurant and has offered to take a second job if necessary. He wants to go to York Technical College next year in the hopes of becoming a SWAT officer.John, meantime, has become a cautious spender. He consults with his wife before making any big purchases and he's cut back on his weekly allowance -- from $60 to $20 -- for lunches and snacks."The key is budgeting and tracking every penny. If you live below your means, you will always be able to save and have the resources should something happen," Amy says.
While most would prefer sending hate mail over a thank-you letter to an employer who let them go, Amy chose the latter. A few days after being let go, Amy wrote a note to her boss with the subject line "thank you."
"As sad as it was to say goodbye to the people who have meant so much to me these past four years, I knew it was the beginning of something great," Amy wrote in an e-mail provided to the Pilot. "For the first time in many years, I feel absolutely fantastic. Full of energy, such inner peace and true joy.
"I have no idea how I'm going to pay the bills, but God knows. Whether I'm slinging burgers, bagging groceries or working in the industry, I know whatever it is, God wants me there and he will provide. I'm excited about what the future holds for me and my family."
Early last year, Amy says she had an inkling her employment with Rowley and the drapery industry she had become so passionate about could end. The first sign came when the company was purchased by investors in 2007, she says. Rowley is why the family relocated to Lake Wylie from Raleigh in 2004.
"I knew trouble was brewing in the workplace," Amy recalls after seeing her co-workers' hours being cut. "I had an unsettling feeling that something was coming down the pipeline. I prepared my heart," she said.
"Everyone is expendable," she added. "Nothing lasts forever."
A few weeks before she was let go, Johnny told his mom it was time to move on.
"Johnny pulled me aside and said, 'Mom, please quit your job. You need to be doing something else. Something that makes you happy and that makes a difference,'" Amy said.
The job search
Amy says she now spends a good chunk of her day surfing the Web for jobs, making calls and networking.
Amy says her choices are limited, especially in an interior decorating industry "that's a luxury" when people are cutting back on spending.
With each passing week, Amy is expanding her employment search to include clerical and administrative jobs. She loves to write and prides herself on good qualities she hopes to use in a future workplace, including "being good with people, being compassionate and good at listening to people."
"The closer we get to my unemployment benefits expiring, the more the reality sets in that I may have to take whatever job I can get," Amy says. "In this economy, I don't have expectations of making what I made before."
As long as Amy can match her unemployment check, the Burton's are confident they can keep their home.
"If I have to take two jobs making minimum wage, so be it," Amy says.
If an income interruption wasn't enough, the Burton's had another challenge after Christmas.
While the family was driving home from visiting relatives in Anderson, the engine in their minivan malfunctioned causing the vehicle to lose power and crash into a ditch. The van was totaled and a big expenditure was looming.
A fellow church member from New River Community Church in Lake Wylie answered their prayers just in time. A family was about to donate their 1996 Nissan Maxima to charity and instead gave it to the Burton's.
"It was a gift from God. We were this close to buying something else," Amy says. "We have never gone hungry or paid our bills late."
The Burton's like to talk about miracles and their faith.
John tells a story about a church member giving him an envelope with money when he was previously unemployed.
Then there was the surprise delivery. Just as the Burton's freezer was almost empty, a frozen food company showed up and filled it up after hearing about the family's situation.
For the Burton's, there's one expenditure that won't be cut during Amy's unemployment -- church tithing. Even two days after Amy lost her job, they honored their commitment to contribute to New River's building fund.
"We never cut back on our giving. We give more now," says Amy, who spends about eight hours a week participating in church activities. "We totally believe that God is always in control and we have to trust him.
"God works tiny miracles every day," she said. "Even in the darkest days, something good comes out of it."