Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Settling in after you’ve been axed

Some of the first steps you need to take

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
I have been told there are some people who have greeted the news that that were being laid off with great joy. I was not one of them, although in time I would come to realize it is both a blessing and a curse.

My layoff came on a Thursday — I worked Tuesdays through Saturdays, so it was my “hump day,” meaning I was over the week’s hump and it was downhill from there. Of course, that was more profoundly true that week.

Without getting maudlin, that day just 23 days before Christmas 2010 was a roller coaster ride all of its own, starting with the walk to Human Resources, calling my wife afterward, packing my desk and then saying goodbye.

My first blog post — and one of my best-read — was about that day. One of my former colleagues would tell me later that he found reading it “creepy,” probably because he, like the others who remained, were so close to what had been happening to so many people. They were getting a firsthand retelling of what it was like from one of their own, which I imagine would be quite unsettling.

It’s not necessary for me to relive that day again as I write this — if you are interested, follow the link in the paragraph above to my first post. The important thing as far as this post is concerned is that my termination from Sun-Times Media left me in shock. To be honest, I was fairly paralyzed those first few days.

It wasn’t until Saturday that I took the first real step toward acknowledging that I’d been run over by a very large bus, and I suspect I waited that long because I simply did not want this to be. There was an air of finality this first step represented that I was not ready to face that Thursday evening, nor on Friday, which dawned after a fitful night of sleep interrupted by tears and nightmares.

But it’s a critical first step: filing for unemployment, and one you are advised to take quickly — as soon after you lose your job as is possible. It also is a step for which I would urge you to take some time.

If you have not filed for unemployment before with the Illinois Department of Employment Security, it’s fairly simple and painless and can be done online. If I remember correctly, they say the process takes only about 30 minutes in terms of filling out the form if you have all your documents with you.

I am not certain if the state still requires this, but when I filed in December 2010, the site advised you to use the Internet Explorer browser — no newer than version 8, I believe. No other browser — not Firefox, not Google Chrome, not Safari — would work well with the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s online unemployment filing page.

Of course, I did not see that.

So I proceeded to fill out the form in Firefox, and the process lasted something like three hours. The browser would freeze up for minutes at a time between each question. During one of those freezes, I would learn several weeks later, the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s site had unbirthed my daughters into oblivion — you get an additional benefit for each dependent child living at home. Oh, and before you go there, it might seem that an 18-year-old or 23-year-old living at home is dependent on you, but the state doesn’t recognize that any more than the boys do.

Of course, the state has never raised a family, nor has it ever tried to live on an unemployment check. Hell, the state of Illinois doesn’t know what it is to live within its own revenues. But that is another story entirely, and if you live in Illinois, you already know I’m understating the extent of the problem.

Several weeks later, however, the state was kind enough to rebirth my daughters without inconveniencing my wife or forcing us to relive the diapers stage, for which I am particularly grateful. That added to our weekly benefit, and every little bit helps.

So, filing the claim will give you a handle on how much you can expect from the state — and it will not be much, but it’s a start. Read carefully the part about how much you can earn while you are collecting unemployment. If you make too much, you get kicked off and have to refile.

By the way, after you complete this step, you will learn the day on which, every two weeks you must recertify with the Illinois Department of Employment Security. This means logging onto the site and filling out a questionnaire related to your earnings and other things related to your unemployment status. It’s quick and painless.

The next step is to start assessing — and that’s a lot to take in: your budget and how to manage on significantly less income. But there’s more, because now you are obligated to begin applying for jobs, and to do that, you need a resume, which will require you to do a self-assessment of you job skills and accomplishments.

Another of the requirements of the Illinois Department of Employment Security is that you keep a log of your job search activities. The form for doing this, which the agency expects you to use, is on its website. In essence, you are expected to fill out the date, the name and address of each employer you contact, who you contacted or, if contact was made via a job board, how you made that contact (, for example, or via email to the human resources department), the position you applied for and the result. To be honest, 90 percent of my logs show a result of “Pending,” because few will let you know your status. Frankly, many human resources departments are so overwhelmed with applicants, that unless they have automated response systems, you will not hear from them again.

Be sure that you need to fill out the forms and hold onto them for something like seven years — the Illinois Department of Employment Security can audit you down the road to ensure that you actually met the requirements while you were collecting unemployment. Perhaps, as some friends advised me at the time, it is highly unlikely given the unemployment rate. But why take a chance when the state can demand the money back if you failed to keep the records? Besides, I have found the Illinois Department of Employment Security form actually has helped me keep my job search activities organized — sometimes you will see similar job postings on a separate job board and not realize until you’ve sent off a cover letter and resume that, “Gee, I think I applied for that position two weeks ago.”

By the way, the Illinois Department of Employment Security job search log has five slots per week. When I first applied, there was nothing on website indicating whether the state had a minimum expectation in terms of the number of jobs you should apply for each week. I had to know this because I intended to apply for as many jobs as possible, but I wanted to make sure I applied enough. The idea of being audited down the road bothered me.

The guy I finally talked to in person at the Illinois Department of Employment Security in Elgin looked at me as if I was some kind of idiot. He pointed out there are five slots each week, make sure they are all filled out.

Well, OK then.

By the way, never, ever, ever, ever call the Illinois Department of Employment Security unless you enjoy phone hell for hours at a time. I have been told that the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s phone system has never worked except for those actually in the office who are making calls. That actually might make some sense, because every time I have been there, I see state employees using the phones but seldom notice whether they ring.

So if you call, you follow the automated phone answering system that ultimately leads you to a place where you wait and listen to elevator music, or maybe it’s pertinent announcements. Regardless, the mindless drone is intended to drive people insane. As someone who walked through that door long ago, I was immune.

To be honest, I have called through successfully. The first was to clear up an issue in which I’d inadvertently disqualified myself from further unemployment benefits. From what I have been told by others in my straits, that was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Perhaps they are right, because virtually any time since then, I have ended up being on hold for 45 minutes or longer.

The next item on your to-do list is your resume — either writing a new one or updating your existing one.

If you know what you are doing with Microsoft Word or a comparable application, such as Open Office, put your own resume together. But if you have never done so, or  it’s been awhile since you put together a resume, there are options. Google resume templates and you will find an array of options. Some are free forms you can download, others are services for which you pay. I’d avoid paying anything initially, in part because unless you have a substantial savings to fall back upon, you need to be cost-conscious, and there are some fantastic free services available locally.

Two months after I was laid off, a friend recommended I go to see Judy Burman. She is the adult program coordinator for Elgin Community College’s Workforce Transitions Program, which offers an array of free services geared toward helping unemployed adults get back into the workforce. Resume counseling, resume development and training in preparation for job interviews is only a portion of the program’s offerings. The program is housed in ECC’s new addition on Renner Drive.

The Kane County Department of Employment and Education, whose offices in Elgin are in the same location as the local Illinois Department of Employment Security offices, is another resource to tap into as soon as possible. This office offers an array of services as well, including access to a computer for job search activities.

Those are some first steps I hope will help you get started. There are others — registering and posting your resume to job sites, for example.

But take time to reduce the stress you are certain to feel in the wake of a layoff. You will be on an emotional roller coaster that for some goes quickly, for others may last awhile. That ride might include more denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance, although even after acceptance you can revisit the others. Knowing this was coming, after having read about it in high school, helped me to brace myself for and deal with each wave of emotion as it hit. It hits each person differently. I never got particularly angry, for example, although the “black dog” has harried me over the past year. One person I talked with told me she stayed in her pajamas and never left the house the first two weeks after she was let go.