Peter Collins on the job, delivering oxygen tanks
The month after the Lehman Brothers collapse in the fall of 2008, Peter Collins was downsized with a half dozen other people from at a Bloomfield commercial printer.
Collins, 51, who had spent his whole career as a printer and had been with Finlay Printing almost nine years, had been making $60,000 a year.
“Nobody was hiring anywhere. Of course the printing industry was cut in half, no way I could get back in the printing industry,” he said. At the end of last year, his former employer went out of business.
Collins spent 99 weeks collecting unemployment, and working odd jobs, cutting trees, plowing snow and the like.
In early 2010, about a month after his benefits expired, he found a job as an apprentice fire sprinkler inspector, for $12 an hour, less than half what he used to make.
“It was a miserable, miserable job. It was really dirty, dirty nasty water coming on you all the time,” Collins said. “I worked there for about a year — he laid me off because he had no work.”
Again, Collins was collecting unemployment.
Finally, in January 2012, he was steered into training through the unemployment office, and took a six-week course in math and problem solving designed to prepare people for jobs as linemen at the electric or natural gas utilities, or as cable or telephone installers. The strongest 13 students of the 20 people who took that class — including Collins — were then sent to Northeast Utilities for another eight weeks of training. After that, they did two weeks at a truck driving school, and got Class B commercial licenses.
At the time, NU’s director of training, Tom Burns, said in a press release: “Twenty-five percent of our physical workforce is eligible for retirement. We need workers to replace them and keep up with a growing demand for energy.”
That particular prediction didn’t turn out to be true. None of the 13 men were hired by NU or United Illuminating, and in early 2013, Burns was downsized himself.
One became an insulation installer. One checks if there are cables under the sidewalk or street before contractors dig there. One works for tree trimming giant Asplundh, and another for AT&T. One went to community college. Another went to manage a construction project.
And Collins landed a job at Nutmeg Respiratory, a company that delivers oxygen tanks to elderly patients at home and to Veterans Affairs facilities.
He’s making $16 an hour, or about 55 percent of what he used to earn as a printer. He’s also working every weekend for a friend’s construction company, doing home renovations, landscaping or deck work. The only day off he’s had was Mother’s Day.
Until November, he was living rent-free at a duplex he’s renovating in Manchester; now he’s paying $600 a month, and continues to work on it every evening.
“I work like 70 hours a week right now. It comes close to what I was making,” Collins said. In the years he was unemployed or underemployed, he ran up a lot of debt. He said he’s down to two bills, and in a month or two, he hopes to be debt-free and start saving for retirement.
Collins really had hoped to go to work for NU. “I was climbing the poles like a monkey,” he said.
But even though the two times he’s applied for the jobs posted there, he heard nothing back, he’s not at all unhappy with the time he invested in the training, sponsored by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.
The driving license, which led to the job he has, would have cost $4,000 out of pocket, he said.
“CBIA did a great job by giving me the chance,” he said. “I wouldn’t have this job. It’s a stepping stone for me. I like working at this job, I really do. I can actually go to a dentist again. I haven’t had benefits since 2008. I couldn’t afford it at all.”
He said during those years, he wouldn’t have gone to a doctor unless he’d impaled himself in an accident. Since his benefits began in January, after 120 days on the job, he has gone to the doctor twice and to the dentist.
“It’s so tough out there, in general right now, employment is just horrible,” Collins said. “I’m very happy I got a job.”