GETTING BY TOGETHER


Editor's note: This is the third in an occasional series that will profile people and places affected by home foreclosures and a faltering economy.

When Bill Runyon and Cashious O'Brien got married in early July, the two men shed tears of joy. At least in California, their devotion to each other was legally recognized.

Four months later, however, when Runyon lost full-time work at MGM Grand's Studio Cafe on the Strip, they were on a downer so intense that O'Brien worried about his partner's equilibrium.

"He was just bawling," O'Brien said. "He was shaking so hard. That's when I realized how much this was hurting him."

In July, their future seemed so promising to them. Runyon made good money as a food server; and O'Brien, recuperating from knee surgery, received workers' compensation as he studied for a career in information technology.

As they stood outside the San Bernardino, Calif., courthouse where they exchanged their wedding vows, the pair believed it wouldn't be long before their dream of owning their own small home in Las Vegas would be realized.

They saw themselves adopting children down the line.

"Everything just seemed like it was coming together in our lives," the 33-year-old Runyon said Tuesday.

Guests at the couple's reception at the Tuscany Suites & Casino were struck by "how happy they were, how positive they were about their future together," Runyon's mother, Lorna Jenkins, recalled recently.

That their marriage wasn't recognized in Nevada didn't keep either Runyon or O'Brien, 34, from being upbeat.

But a phone call did.

"It was the day before Thanksgiving and the general manager of the restaurant called to tell me I'd be on call, that I wouldn't be working full time any more," Runyon said. "Oh, my God, it was devastating. Just like that I went from thinking about a vacation and buying a house to wondering if we could pay our bills."

Runyon had become one of thousands of casino workers to be laid off or have hours cut since the economy took a nose dive. Runyon now awaits calls from his employer, who will call him in if another server calls in sick.

"It's a difficult situation," he said. "It's hard to take another part-time job, because if they call and I don't take the shift, I'll end up losing my job and insurance benefits. You can only miss or refuse the call so many times."

At first he was getting called in two or three days a week, but that has tapered off to next to nothing.

Geoconda Arguello-Kline, president of Culinary union Local 226, estimates 10 percent of the union's 60,000 members have been affected by the worst job cuts since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an action that stopped tourism dead in its tracks for months.

"They've been coming in waves," Arguello-Kline said of job cuts that continue to come even as the MGM Mirage CityCenter prepares to begin the hiring process of 12,000 employees for the $9.2 billion complex that is scheduled to open in late 2009 and early 2010 on the Strip.

About half of CityCenter's employees will transfer from other MGM Mirage properties, with internal candidates getting a three-month head start over applicants from the general public, according to MGM Mirage officials.

"Believe me, it's no sure thing that you'll be hired," said Runyon, who made about $50,000 in wages and tips last year and is now receiving around $400 a month in unemployment benefits. "There have been some resorts open recently, and thousands are applying for each server position."

What has reduced the financial stress within the Runyon-O'Brien household has been the decision of Runyon's mother, a certified nursing assistant, to move into their two-bedroom apartment near the Boulevard Mall on a permanent basis. She had been staying with them temporarily after her husband died of a heart attack in August.

"Now I see why people did this in the Great Depression," Lorna Jenkins said as she sat around the kitchen table with the couple. "You're in a stronger position when family stays together. I know they want to be independent. So do I. I was just about ready to move out, but now is not the time."

O'Brien and Runyon take in just about enough money from workers' compensation and unemployment insurance to cover rent and a car payment.

But they still have to cover about $1,000 a month in bills for car insurance, utilities, gasoline, food and medical costs.

Jenkins, who works 50 hours a week at two caregiver jobs for about $12.50 an hour, picks up the slack.

"It's not easy right now, but it's something I want to do," she said. "I don't know if it's because I'm depressed over my husband's death or what, but I seem more tired right now."

Just before her son's job was cut back, Jenkins' car broke down and she bought a new Kia compact.

The dealership had to fold her old loan into the new one, she said, and "now I'm paying more than $400 a month for a car."

Runyon doesn't like seeing his 60-year-old mother having to work so much.

"I realize we're luckier than most that we have my mother here, but it worries me," Runyon said. "I just can't get out of my mind that I can't pay my own bills. I can't stop thinking about it."

O'Brien, a former supervisor at a Target store, receives $1,000 a month in workers' compensation. He is also receiving schooling to retrain him for technical work. A fall on the job and subsequent knee surgery has made it impossible for him to do heavy lifting.

"I'm sure we'll get through this because we love each other, but sometimes Bill does get irritable," O'Brien said. "Once I get a new job in about a year, we'll be in good shape."

The trio has divided up the chores, with O'Brien cooking, Runyon keeping the house and bathroom clean, and his mother doing the dishes.

Going out for good times is no longer an option, Runyon said.

"We had to give up movies and going out to eat. But at least we've got video games. It's a lot better than nothing. We've gotten pretty competitive."

Though Jenkins is sure her son will "pull out of it because he's so young," she does admit to worrying about him.

Runyon said he realizes his depression is making him withdraw from people. He hasn't wanted others to know about his situation.

"I've got to snap out of it," Runyon said.

A big part of his life was his work, he said, perhaps too much so.

"I used to get a sense of satisfaction from my work. I'd get my tips and I'd know I was doing a good job. I can talk about just about anything, and I think my customers appreciated that. Now I'm sleeping too much and snapping at people."

Las Vegas psychologist David Gosse said people in Runyon's situation should be reaching out, not withdrawing.

"When people start to get isolated, they could go into a deep dark hole, and that's dangerous," Gosse said, adding that some start drinking or doing drugs, making a bad situation worse.

"The sad thing is that we're going through this," Gosse said about the tough economic times. "But a positive is that we're all going through this together. So many people want to help. They understand. There are support groups in the community and church."

Exercise should also be stepped up, Gosse said.

The better you feel physically, the better you feel emotionally, he said. "And you have to do some planning, shake some trees. You may not be able to change the economy, but you can work with your own situation."

A supportive family is extremely important, Gosse said. "People have to make an extra special effort at a time like this to help each other."

Runyon is convinced he has the best possible family situation. His mother's love shows every day in her willingness to help.

And O'Brien cheers him up by talking "about the good old days," including remembering how they met six years ago.

"He came into a room and it was love at first sight," Runyon said. "We stayed up all night talking, and we've been talking ever since. It's a wonderful love story that I never get tired of hearing."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

 

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