I’m baffled as to how to answer the question I get most often, “How long have you been unemployed?” My answer: define unemployed. It might be when my temp contract ended (Sept. 20, 2011). Or the last time I had a full-time salary with benefits (Nov. 2008). Or maybe the last time I had a full-time salaried position without benefits (Jan. 2011)? Or depending on how you look at it, I’ve never really stopped working–I manage to bring in income every month–somehow.
You might say my unemployment started December 8, 2006, right before the holidays, when I was laid off from my position as managing editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. My wonderful boss came into my wonderful office of this dream job that I had only had eight months to enjoy, and said I would have to go. Advertisers had pulled out in great big chunks from the magazine due to the poor economy and because of the transition to everything being free and lovely on the web. He didn’t have to say print magazines were suffering. Everyone in publishing knew that. With many other wonderful colleagues losing their jobs that day and over the next year (including that boss), this is the layoff marked most indelibly in my mind as my biggest career heartache to date. Usually work sucks and a job is a job, but my family and close friends know my short time at Sky&Tel was admittedly the last time I was thrilled about my job. It’s like a lover that you don’t have time to tire of. It dumped me much too soon and I still pine for it.
To get by while I looked for another job, and to minimize the appearance of down time on my resume, I started freelancing as Stellar Editorial Services. I set up shop at home, built a little website to promote myself, and started networking. Before long, Sky&Tel contacted me to finish some book editing work on a freelance basis, and I began to think, “Maybe I could really do this full-time, not just as a stop-gap.”
But freelance work was (still is) hard to find and the pay was dodgy. I started substitute teaching at my son’s school for $65/day–an income so low, the high-school kids were making more at their after-school jobs. It barely reduced the amount of my unemployment check.
The Sky&Tel layoff was my not first time being unemployed, but looking back, that’s when I feel like I lost my upwards trajectory–like so many of us. Nonetheless, within six months I had another full-time salaried position as senior editor at Laser Focus World magazine (my second time around at LFW). It was solid income, although not the peak of my career or responsibilities. I had been an editor in chief before. But getting paid fairly (there was a nice bonus that year) and being able to go home most nights at a reasonable hour was a fantastic thing, even if the company did start to pile on the work. “We can’t complain,” said a colleague. “At least we have a job!” Times were tough, we knew…and about to get tougher. After only year and a half, I was laid off of that staff position. It was November 2008. It’s been four years since I lost my health benefits, 401K, and paid vacation days.
After that layoff [Note: it was also my second time being laid off from Laser Focus World–the first was in 2003], I was even more panicked because jobs were even harder to find. So I filed a claim for unemployment in New Hampshire, where Laser Focus World was located. The unemployment benefit rate in NH is nearly half of what it is in Massachusetts, where I live, partly due to a lower cost of living in NH. I might have moved to NH if I didn’t have a shared custody arrangement in Mass. Instead of collecting between $600-800/week in benefits, I was able to collect only $427/week, which included a $25 child allowance and a $25 federal supplement.
Within a month, Laser Focus World hired me to write one freelance article per month for a fraction of the pay I had been getting. Score! But it wasn’t enough. So I started subbing again–always an act of desperation. I was very worried about losing my car. I was worried I would not being able to pay the mortgage on my 2-BR condo. This is when people started asking me, “How do you DO it? How are you keeping the car and your home? What are you LIVING on?”
I could claim it was the obvious: I never missed a week of filing for unemployment. It’s not a big secret: file early and file often! From the week after you lose your job, until you have solid work, keep filing that claim. You don’t know how long you’ll be unemployed. I know people who felt guilty or embarrassed to collect while they were waiting tables. What many people don’t realize that in many states, you can earn up to 30% of your unemployment income before it reduces your benefits. If you earn more than that, it reduces your benefits dollar for dollar until you are earning 130% of your benefits. This enables you to s-t-r-e-t-c-h your benefits over time while you look for a job. Some weeks I made enough money from a freelance project and didn’t need to collect. But even if you only qualify for $50/week–file!
When the benefits run out, that’s when life gets a lot more complicated. That’s where ingenuity, extreme frugality, and the “I WILL NOT LOSE EVERYTHING” mindset must continue on its own, without unemployment compensation. That’s when we join the uncounted millions of underemployed.