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Let's Talk About Unemployment

Let’s talk about unemployment.

People usually have strong feelings about the topic of unemployment. It’s something most workers want to avoid. Conversely, there are people (maybe the same people hoping to avoid unemployment) who think that it’s a handout, or that the people getting unemployment “should just get a job.” Unemployment can be a trigger for very strong opinions and discussions both in support of and in frustration with the system. You can have the luxury of having a strong opinion, but your opinion could quickly change if you find yourself unemployed and needing assistance.

Last year (2020) unemployment rose to the highest rates since the Great Depression due to the global pandemic. Suddenly more people seemed to understand the necessity of unemployment and maybe even feel that it was necessary to bridge the gap when jobs were lost through no fault of the workers who were let go. There seemed to be an understanding that anyone could lose their job in this economy and it wasn’t their fault.

That’s the thing about unemployment. In my opinion, it seems like people look at it like the worker who was let go from a job, or the person who can’t find a job but has bills to pay did something wrong. As if they are the bad guy, so to speak. As if they’d choose to be on unemployment rather than find a job.

The system, set up to help people through hard times, may also make the person applying feel badly about themselves. Some people, of course, will take advantage of the system, but most people aren’t good at asking for help, let alone take what is perceived as a handout.

I was laid off twice very early in my career. The first time a larger company bought the small company where I worked and let everyone go. We got a small severance and insurance coverage for a month. They also provided job search assistance. It was a situation that we didn’t see coming and that we, as workers, couldn’t prevent. It was scary and shocking. I personally felt let down by the system. How was it okay that they negotiated the takeover without letting anyone know?! That was when I realized that everyone is replaceable. I filed for unemployment, and received a few payments before I found a job. The payments were a small amount, but they helped me to pay my rent at the time and gave me time to find a job.

The second time was part of a bankruptcy restructuring. Layoffs at the company had been happening almost every month for a while, eventually, it was my time. Again, I was given a nice severance and health care coverage throughout the entire severance. This time it hurt because I really loved my job and the company, but I understood it wasn’t my fault and I appreciated the severance and job search assistance.Because I received a severance I didn’t apply to unemployment. It was also the year I was planning my wedding, so I have to admit, I enjoyed time off to plan and spend time with friends.

Neither time I was laid off was my fault, or could even be perceived as my fault. While I felt upset, I didn’t deal with any feelings of embarrassment, or failure.

Maybe people don’t “blame” others when they’re laid off. Maybe they aren’t seen as doing anything wrong. Maybe that’s just my own story that I’ve created in my head. But it seems to me there are a lot of misconceptions about unemployment in general. I had been thinking about that for a while, especially last year as the number of unemployed workers rose to high numbers. It was no longer the entry level workers being let go, people in all tiers of business from entry level to the C-suite were being let go.

In February I was laid off. It was unexpected to say the least. In my opinion, I wasn’t given a good reason. My work had always been exemplary. I always did much more than was expected of me. They used the reasoning that “I’d be much happier if we parted ways.” Needless to say, I didn’t handle that well.

I felt betrayed. I felt lied to. I felt disrespected. More than that....I felt terrified. We’re still in a global pandemic and there are very few jobs. The job sites I visited that first day told stories of people being out of work for a year or more!

Even more than that I worried how will I be able to pay for health insurance while I have no income?! We can’t go without health insurance with a deadly virus still plaguing the world.

The panic I felt was (is) real. For the first time, I didn’t feel confident that I could find work. I didn’t feel confident that I wouldn’t end up as one of the homeless people I see on every street corner. When you don’t see a layoff coming, you don’t know to prepare. You don’t know that you need to build up your savings and pay off credit cards. I was one of the lucky ones that didn’t lose my job in 2020, so I had grown comfortable that I’d have a salary. The company hadn’t lost business during the pandemic. There was no reason that I could foresee that I’d be let go, or that the company would fail.

Once the shock and anger wore off, I updated my resume. I updated my LinkedIn profile. I began the process of networking. That first week, everyone was supportive. Friends posted on social media asking if anyone knew of jobs for their friend. I received dozens of texts from friends with links to potential job posts. I felt supported. Over time, however, people move on. They have their own issues to worry about.

By the second week in February, when the job search was going slower than anticipated, I finally decided that I’d need to apply for unemployment. I knew we’d need financial assistance. I hated to have to rely on unemployment, but I knew I had no other choice.

I’m pretty tech-savvy, but I have to say it wasn’t easy to navigate the unemployment site. I thought to myself, here I am in a position of privilege with high-speed internet, a laptop and knowledge of how to navigate websites, and I’m struggling, what does the person without these things? How do they navigate this system? My guilt and shame intensified with those thoughts.

I hear (and read) a lot of comments about people “gaming” the unemployment system. I honestly don’t know how that’s even possible. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but how they do it is beyond me. There are so many hoops to jump through to even get considered before being audited, approved and receiving payments.

I have been steadily applying to jobs and networking. The unemployment site has a job search feature, which you’re required to use to show you’re applying. The system isn’t easy to use. Worse than the slowness of the system, is that you can’t really narrow down your search to find jobs in your field of expertise. I apply every week to a few jobs from the site to meet the requirements, but spend most of my time applying to jobs on LinkedIn because the algorithm pulls jobs that match my skillset and it’s a good site to network.

I’ve been spending 8 hours a day for a month researching companies, networking, applying, interviewing and tweaking my resume and LinkedIn profile. I even took a free online course to help improve my LinkedIn presence. It had been so long since I searched for a job, and these days you need the proper key words to pass the automated algorithms that sort through resumes.

Even with all of my activity, I continue to get texts from the unemployment office stating that I need to apply more and I need to actively search more and if I don’t meet the requirements I won’t get paid. I realize I’m sensitive right now, but the texts are very accusatory. As if I’m getting reprimanded. It makes me feel more guilty about even having to apply to unemployment in the first place. It makes me feel angry that I was let go from a job where my performance was never in question.

I should point out that it’s been a month and so far my unemployment claim has not been reviewed. I’ve emailed twice and gotten no response. I’ve texted several times and gotten no response. I sent a message to the department through social media. When you call the number for assistance you get a busy signal. I spent 3 days in a row waiting over 7 hours on a live chat to check the status only to have the chat close before I got to chat with anyone. Finally on the fourth day, after a 6 hour wait, I got to an agent on live chat. I was told that my case has not been reviewed and it could be another 3-4 weeks before it gets reviewed. Then it’s sent to an auditor to determine if I’m approved and that will take 3-4 weeks. IF I’m approved then it will be 4 weeks until I get paid. Which means that the first payment (IF I’m approved) won’t be until late May or early June!

I often see comments on LinkedIn that there are “plenty of jobs” but people aren’t willing to work because they’re getting paid “piles of money” from unemployment. I was shocked at how insensitive the comments were. This wasn’t Facebook where you expect comments like that. This was a professional site and the comments were being made by executives, leaders in industry. Here I was with an exceptional resume, trying every day to find a job and trying for over a month to get unemployment and batting zero on both counts. I felt judged. I felt blamed. I felt less-than. I understand maybe that’s just my story. But I decided to share my experience because I imagine that others must feel the same way.

I understand that I have it better than most people searching desperately for a job and waiting for unemployment to keep from losing their home, or to feed their families. I have a little bit of savings. That’s why I waited to apply for unemployment. Because of that, I was feeling deeply ashamed for applying to unemployment to help me until I find a job. I wonder how many other people try to go it alone before applying for unemployment, not realizing the system is overloaded and it could take months to receive any money.

More than feeling overwhelmed and scared and embarrassed, I feel alone. Friends are concerned, but aren’t living the situation themselves, so they can’t really understand. I joined a few job search groups on social media. The advice is helpful and I’ve gotten good feedback on my resume and I’ve been able to network. But those groups can also be disheartening, as you read about people being unemployed for a year or longer. When you read about how interviews go nowhere, about how companies reach out and then ghost potential employees. (I’ve experienced this myself. Interviews go really well and they’re going to send the information on the next step, or the potential job offer and you never hear from them again).

When you realize that your skillset isn’t exactly what the market is looking for these days. When you find that real people don’t review resumes any longer and while you know you could master any new skill, you don’t get the chance to tell anyone because an algorithm tosses out your resume before any company can actually review it. When you realize the supply of workers is far greater than the demand for jobs, resulting in salaries lower than the last time you looked for a job. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

At first I felt angry that I was let go. But I realized that wasn’t helping me. I was getting more and more depressed. I changed my thinking to understand maybe it was a blessing. The universe clearing the way for something better, something more aligned with my values and goals.

Maybe I should focus on re-launching and growing my coaching business. I’m a career coach, I should be able to use my skillset and advice to find the perfect job....right?

In this economy and job market, finding a job is proving harder than expected. “Just get a job at Target, or Amazon” people tell me (as if I hadn’t already applied for part-time work to bring in some money while I search). There are currently so many people out of work that all types of jobs are hard to find.

Some companies may never hire back the staff that was downsized. Some companies may have realized that the rate of production didn’t drop when people were let go and the people still employed could do twice the amount of work for no additional pay.

The job market is changing. The type of job search you do needs to change too.

This could be the perfect time to explore something new. Maybe instead of applying for the same types of jobs I’ve done in the past, I can explore a something new. Pivot completely and change careers.

So....while I wait for the unemployment checks (provided I’m even approved), I will explore my passions. What do I like to do? What am I good at doing? What am I doing when I feel the most joy? What does my perfect work day look like? What type of job would align with my values and my goals?

Job searching is more than just “finding a job, any job.” It should be about finding the right job, so that you don’t have to rely on unemployment for long and hopefully never again. I experience this new circumstance, I want to say to all of you struggling with unemployment, I see you. I value you. I believe in you. This is a temporary situation. Shrug off the comments about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “you’re taking advantage of the system” and whatever else you read or hear. Know that you are worth helping. I know the whole system is hard: hard to navigate, hard to get approved, hard to wait as the bills pile up. I know the job search is hard. But I also know that we’ll find a way to work. Keep going. Keep pushing. And when you feel tired, or ashamed or overwhelmed....take a break. (I took a couple days off this week and walked away from my computer. I spent time out in the sunshine. No was a much needed break!)

We can get through this time. We’ll look back and realize the lessons we learned. Reach out to me if your struggling. We can navigate the path together.

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