Alan Fromm had a good life: a six-figure salary; a nice house in Plainview, Long Island; a kid in college, and another in high school; a wife who could afford to work only part-time. Then in January 2009, there was a company-wide phone call. Fromm's consulting firm needed to do some cost-cutting, and a sweep of people were soon laid-off.
Then in February, the same thing happened.
And then again in March, and April.
Finally, in June, Fromm was called into his manager's office.
"You never think it's going to happen to you. I thought my job was safe," Fromm explains. But 80 percent of the staff was ultimately let go. Fromm stomached the news pretty well, as he took his last commute back to Long Island. "I figured OK I was out of work. It wasn't the end of the world," he said. "I didn't think much of it. But surprise, I was out for 18, 19 months."
Fromm was among the many long-term unemployed Americans, who have been out of work for more than six months. In June they totaled 5.4 million, and made up 43 percent of all the unemployed. You don't hear a lot about them though, even if they live next door. People like Fromm usually hide their grief.
And Fromm, who turns 57 next week, was no stranger to struggle. His office was in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and as the Fire Safety Officer for his company, he raced past flaming debris, falling bodies, and severed limbs, to search through the nine floors of Building 5 for anyone left behind. When he was knocked unconscious for hours, finally pulled out from under the pulverized cement by paramedics, he tore off the oxygen mask and leapt out of the ambulance, because he said other people were in more need of care.
Despite all that, Fromm was an upbeat guy, the kind who wakes up a minute before his alarm every morning. And nothing before had ever brought him so close to the edge as his almost two years without work.
Fromm is one of several long-term unemployed Americans profiled in HBO's new documentary, "Hard Times: Lost on Long Island" by award-winning director Marc Levin, which airs Monday. They're not the usual recession victims you see in the news, the ones living out of their cars, and scraping by on food stamps. They own four-bedroom houses behind white picket fences. Their kids go to private school. But they also spent years lucklessly looking for work, burning through their savings, choking on the monthly bills, and even driving to their church's food bank in a nice car, and then lying to their kids about where they got their dinner.
And most of them are over age 50.
The first thing Fromm did after he was laid off was call up the gardener and tell him that he would have to mow his own lawn from now on. He also reduced the cable package, and sold one of their cars. "We lived a comfortable life," he said. "We didn't live high on the hog, but if we wanted to go out with our friends to a movie or dinner, we didn't have to think twice about it."
As the months rolled on, the Fromms had to strip down to the most basic necessities. They cooked a whole lot of pasta. "I never thought that would happen," he said, "having to decide whether to put gas in the car or buy cartridges for the printer, because my daughter had papers due for school."
You Just Don't Get Paid
Fromm would wake up early every morning, and turn on his computer. His daughter would go to school, his wife would go to work, and he'd flip on the TV for background noise. He'd check LinkedIn, and all the standard job-hunting sites, as well as specialist sites, which post more executive positions. Fromm cold-called so many companies, he thought he might try and give it a go as a telemarketer. "Finding a job is a full-time job," Fromm said. "You just don't get paid for it."
There were some great days: a perfect job posting, an interview that just clicked. But they were all followed by silence. "I always appreciated the value of working," Fromm said. "There's a stigma about being out of work. I felt it when I went to the supermarket in the middle of the day, like there's a big neon sign over my head saying 'unemployed.'"
He felt himself slipping into a depression. On one dark day, he says, "I did check my life insurance policy, to see how the family would be taken care of, if I was no longer here. I realize that's certainly not the solution."
A Little Kindness And A Little Luck
But Fromm still thinks he was relatively lucky. He had wonderful support. His local butcher gave the family some extra cuts of meat. His car mechanic waived the labor cost on big repairs. His friends would come over with a rented video and some bagels, instead of inviting them out. The local Jewish Community Center gave Fromm a free year-long membership, so he could keep playing racquetball a few times a week, which "kept my mind from turning to mush."
When he was feeling really depressed, Fromm would read a letter his daughter wrote him, consoling her father that sometimes bad things happen to good people. It kept him strong.
Because in reality, the odds were stacked against Fromm. After being out of work for a year, a person has a 1 in 10 chance of finding work each month, according to economists at the San Francisco Federal Reserve. If you lost your job in this country sometime in the past year, it took you an average of 40 weeks to find new work.
But at the end of 2010, Fromm saw a perfect job ad online. "I honestly wasn't going to answer the posting. It was a blind ad, and I normally don't answer blind ads. But if I held my resume up to the job description, it was the same document."
He got an interview in December, but the day before a mighty snow storm began heading New York ways. Fromm called up the company's human resources department. "I don't care how much snow there is," he told them. "If I have to walk, I will be there."
The company said not to bother; they were going to close for the day. But Fromm eventually got his interview, and in February 2011, he started his new job as director of training at Amneal Pharmaceuticals, teaching employees everything from FDA regulations on the manufacturing side to Microsoft Excel. He adores it, and is still working there today.
"I'll be working until I'm 142 at this rate," he says, given the state of the family's finances. "But there's nothing I'd rather be doing."
Fromm took a slight pay cut at his new job, but it's mostly evened out; he no longer has to pay for train tickets, since the new office is just a 17-minute drive from his home. The Fromms haven't returned to their old standard of living though. "You learn that it could all disappear tomorrow," he said. "We've made a lot of changes. That's the best thing to come out of this; we know we can't be spending money we don't have, like we have been in the past."
His two children, he notes, have also become very aware of fiscal responsibility.
Fromm was never angry about his situation. He didn't blame the president or congress or the banks, although he did get upset during the debate about whether or not to extend the maximum eligibility for jobless benefits. And he thinks the government should perhaps give a tax break to encourage companies to hire the long-term unemployed. And law-makers should also try to tackle age discrimination, which he believes is rife. Fromm even started dying his hair for job interviews, and hiding some of the experience on his resume.
It's hard to pinpoint or prove the bias, he says. You just know when you walk into an office full of 20-somethings, and see the look of surprise on your interviewer's face. "When the person interviewing you, when you were sitting on the other end interviewing them at one point, you're not getting the job."
But Fromm hopes politicians watch the HBO film, and see the human face of long-term unemployment. The movie has played a handful of festivals so far, and "no politicians have shown up to see this," he said, "and that's a sin."
He hopes his story gives other struggling Americans some comfort too. To know they aren't alone. The problem isn't personal, he believes, but a crisis on a national scale. When Fromm went to the movie premiere, his wife and daughter, who opted not to appear in the film, turned to him. "Is there anything that's going to embarrass us?" they asked.
"Absolutely not," he replied. "Nothing."
Fromm doesn't think his 19 months of unemployment is anything to be embarrassed about. And that's his advice for the jobless. "It's not anything that you did," he said. "And you've got to believe that. You've got to believe it's not your fault."
"You're out of work. It's part of life," he adds. "It happens to many of us, and a lot more than it used to."
The documentary "Hard Times: Lost On Long Island" will debut on HBO Monday, July 9 at 9 p.m.
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