Jumping off the salary ledge and other pay cut tales

August 8, 2011: 12:06 PM ET

Some took the leap by choice. Others, not so much. Four readers share how they had to endure a salary cut and where their road to recovery has taken them.

FORTUNE -- Over the past few years, American workers have become all too familiar with the prospect of not receiving a pay bump or receiving one that barely makes a dent in their finances. And while many U.S. employees should expect to receive a modest pay increase this coming year, according to a recent survey by consulting firm Mercer, some of these workers will be merely reclaiming ground that they have lost over the years. In our latest installment of our You Can't Fire Everyone series, four readers tell their pay cut stories. 

Wounded but still in the game

My story is not one of being fired as much as being forced into a lower salary and a completely new field. Lucky for me, I was forced into this cliff-diving career move before the meltdown in the fall of 2008. I was a skilled automotive technician who had been employed at most of the General Motors dealerships in my area at one time or another, and I enjoyed a very good wage at the time. That is, until I was deployed to Iraq in December 2003.

I was injured by a roadside bomb in the fall of 2004.

After three years of surgeries, rehabilitation, and a military separation in December 2007, I realized I was not ready for retirement and I enrolled in an undergraduate degree program at my local state university. I'm in my late forties and it wasn't easy, but I graduated last month with my degree and with some valuable experience from a student trainee position for disabled veterans in hand. I'm now working as a civilian Equal Employment Opportunity counselor for the Navy, which pays me half as much as I once earned.

I'll be starting a master's in public administration program this fall. With a little luck, some determination, and three more years of full-time work and full-time school, I will hopefully make it back to earning the income I once enjoyed 11 years ago, just in time to retire. At least that's the plan.

--Anthony E. Edwards, Crane, Ind.

Taking the leap by choice

I had a decent job as an industrial engineer for an Intel/Micron joint venture. I was paid well and the work environment was pretty good. I did have a few problems with how things were done, but what job doesn't have something?

A year ago, I started a side business, serving as an Internet service provider for my neighborhood. I spent the last year slowly learning and growing the business. A couple months ago, I expanded my operation to a much larger area. The response was dramatic.

I knew I was at a crossroads. I could not continue to keep my full-time job and run the side business. I had to choose.

One choice came with a steady paycheck and medical benefits. The other was less than half my current pay but with the potential for a lot of future upside, and much more flexibility. I chose the latter.

I quit my job and now I get to set my own schedule. True, we don't have the money we had before. But we're getting by just fine even though we certainly can't afford to just run out and buy new televisions and other toys.

But for me, the trade-off was absolutely worth it. I no longer have to report to a desk every morning at 8 a.m. I get to spend substantially more time with my wife and kids. And life is really great. And hopefully, if things continue as they are now, my customer base will only continue to grow and, eventually, I could be making more money than I was making before. I have my fingers crossed.

--George Parker, Lehi, Utah

A single mother's road to economic recovery

Flashback to 1989.  I had worked for over eight years in four different jobs as a computer programmer. I was not a college graduate. I left work on October 16 and gave birth to my son the next morning. I knew all along I was going to be a single parent and was prepared to take on the challenge.

Two weeks later, when I went into my office to get my vacation pay and sign up for my eight weeks of disability pay, I was told I did not have a job to return to after my maternity leave (To this day, I don't know why I lost my job).

On the first working day of 1990, I was in the unemployment line with my 10-week old son. I got 26 weeks of unemployment benefits and paid my health insurance costs through COBRA.

When I left that job, I was earning $32,000 a year. Luckily, I had about $15,000 in savings and no debt. I went on welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid after my unemployment benefits ran out.

In the fall of 1990, I enrolled in a training program to become an office assistant. In March 1991, I went to take the federal civil service test and get on "the list." I ended up taking a job in June 1991 as a clerk for the Department of Defense, earning a grand salary of around $13,500 a year. My take-home pay was $400 for two weeks of work.

Somehow, I paid the bills. I was able to stay on Medicaid for a year and got assistance with my childcare expenses.

After working for the Department of Defense for about eight months, I applied for a job as a budget assistant within my agency. I got the job and my salary gradually increased over the years. It took me eight years to get back to the salary I earned before I was laid off.

I have been with the government, in the same department for 20 years now and I'm making about $74,000 a year. I get down on my knees and thank God every day for the blessing of this job. It allowed me to send my son to college (he graduated from New York University in May and is employed full time). He knows my story and understands that I have not had it easy.

I bought my first house in January 2002. I have never been in debt despite making little money for many years. My son didn't have a new toy or new clothes until he was in grade school. I paid cash for my last used car. I clip coupons and shop sales.

--Susan Gibbons, Philadelphia, Pa.

For the love of La Crosse

Moving to a lower-paying job was a forced choice for me. My position as director of public information and communications at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse was eliminated by the chancellor, who happened to be a communications professional and wanted to assume many of my duties. The move caught me off guard, and it was clear that it would not be reversed.

I moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1991 to accept a job as an advertising copywriter and public relations director, and it has become my home. In light of my affinity for this area, deflated home values, many friendships, and a number of volunteer commitments, moving away from La Crosse was not an option.

In a community of 50,000 people, opportunities for public relations and advertising types are few, and it's no secret that these positions are among the first considered for elimination when the economy is tight. But I decided to proceed with my search for new employment with the confidence that I'd find something near La Crosse.

After three months of three dozen luncheons, twice as many phone calls, and a few hundred hours of surfing the Internet and using social media, I received a phone call from a friend and fellow Rotarian from Viterbo University who told me of an opening there -- director of grants.

Two interviews and a week later, I was offered the position. While the base pay is less than what I was earning at my old job, there were two things that prompted my decision to accept the position: The promise from the vice president for institutional advancement that "You will never work with a finer group of people," and the benefit of free tuition to employees.

The VP's promise has held true. This private college campus is a pleasant place to work and devoid of the politics, egos, and power plays that are often commensurate with public university systems. And I am enrolled in the college's MBA program with a target to receive my degree in December 2012, an opportunity I would not have otherwise pursued.

I've learned there is much more to job satisfaction -- or quality of life -- than money, though I hope to make up some ground after I receive my master's.

--Cary Heyer, La Crosse, Wis.

You Can't Fire Everyone: Stuck with passive aggressive staffers?
Have you been given the unenviable task of managing employees who just don't respond to your requests or are passive aggressive in other ways? How have you handled it? Tell us your stories. We'll highlight the most interesting and instructional ones. Email us at fired@fortune.com.

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