Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Get in THAT Line!

October 1, 2009: warm, bright and sunny.

Me: unemployed—forecast uncertain.

My mother, who is so annoyingly optimistic I sometimes want to smack her, insisted on a fun-filled "celebration day" to commemorate my "escape" (her word) from my hectic career. We'd inaugurate my new (hopefully temporary) lifestyle with lunch (her treat) and thrift-store shopping, ending with my sign-up for "life on the dole" (the delightful British term for unemployment benefits).

My inner HR professional confidently assessed my situation as career insight. After all, how many times had I fired workers, condemning them to life on the dole? Here was my first-hand chance to study life on the wrong side of the desk. I'd glean tons of insight from the experience. Having a sociology degree, I viewed the whole thing as a personal field experiment—an inside look at unemployment in America.

Then, there was the personal-growth potential. (Am I am starting to sound like my mother?) I could reinvent myself and my career. Anything I disliked in my prior job was—POOF!—gone—everything a blank slate, a rare opportunity to redesign myself and my career mid-life.

Thus, unemployment was not a "problem". It was an opportunity. (That DNA! Sometimes, my own optimism makes me want to slap myself, too.)

I got it that the downside was money—or the lack thereof. But, with savings plus a final paycheck and vacation time still to be paid, I wouldn't starve this week or this month or—God forbid—this year.

Overall, I felt pretty good about the whole thing.

But wait.

Phone: ringing; Mom: car accident

Four hours, three police officers, two wrecked cars and one orthopedist later, I confidently strode into the unemployment office.

Despite the day's calamities, I still had to apply on October 1. Benefits begin with filing, not job loss. Timeliness counts.

Accordingly, I had no choice but to dump my mother at the orthopedist's office and race to the nearest unemployment office. Unfortunately, that office was the one in a less-than-desirable county just east of the educated and refined community I call home.

My county is the one with low crime and unemployment and the state's highest per capita income. The place I had to go to sign up was the county with the higher unemployment rate, and the one making the nightly news for drug deals and homicides. No problem. I'd make it work.

As I hurried in, expecting to take care of business quickly and scoot back to retrieve my mother, it hit me: I'd fallen through an extra dimension into a parallel universe.

The building was packed—maybe 150 supplicants, some slumped in sleep (or, had they died waiting?). A line stagnated at "Information". I joined that line overseen by a professionally dressed, middle-aged woman. Her face and body radiated aggravation/aggression.

Me: "Where do I go. . ."

"Information" Officer (wearily): "Over there." (Hand gestures broadly to . . . the waiting area? Another line? Some empty rooms? Or, for all I know, the planet Jupiter?).

Me: ". . . to file for unemployment?"

"Information" Officer (more wearily): "Over there." (Again, hand gestures.)

Me (puzzled): "Where?"

"Information" Officer (forcefully): "Get in that line." (No helpful hand motions this time.)

Chastened, I picked a line. Hours passed.

I had time to understand these people did not care that yesterday I was a decently-paid, upper-management executive. They did not care that for years I hired the hard-core unemployed—possibly ones like those napping in the waiting area.

They did not care that I used to represent my employer at unemployment hearings to decide who would or would not get those precious unemployment benefits.

They did not even care that I'd had a large, plush office, a swanky title and a job with authority and responsibility—one where, when I asked questions, multiple people scurried to find answers.

And, they really, really, really did not care that in my last week at work, I earned more than any one of them would earn in the next three months.

To show their affection, they christened me "Number 132". Charming, but a tad difficult to monogram.

My mother, languishing in the doctor's office, may have been the only other human who cared that the digital sign remained stuck on "Now Serving: Number 23".

The air stagnated with the not caring.

I took a deep breath and tried to summon my earlier optimism. Maybe if I came to this place every week I'd get demoralized, too, but today I would not let "them" get to me. In my career, I'd handled workplace homicides, government inspections, difficult people and multi-million dollar budgets. It would take more than apathy to undo this tough cookie.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Welcome to My Life on the Dole

October 1, 2009: the day I got downsized.

I awoke with no place to go, and no one—except my parents and my cats (who only wanted to be fed)—caring what I did all day.

Blank calendar. Silent phone.

On the to-do list: breakfast. Getting out of my PJs: entirely optional.

Worst of all, a scary thought sprang to life and whizzed frantically through my brain. The one thought I'd worked so hard to push out of my mind during the nine-month transition that led to the inevitable downsize:

I have no job. No income. No prospects.

Am I'm going to live in a refrigerator box?

Under a bridge?

Or—dare I think it—with my parents?

Would my cats starve? Would they be forced to eat supermarket cat food?

Ummm. . .would I?

Deep breath. Think calmly.

More deep breaths: In. Out. In. Out. Ommmmmmmm.

Calming down, my mind quickly reviewed my career.

I've had a paycheck of one kind or another since age 15.

Before that, I ironed Dad's shirts for .25 cents each and recycled aluminum cans. At 15, I tutored for $10 per week--the most money I'd ever made. In high school, I toiled as a sales clerk, an administrative assistant and a legal assistant. College summers and holidays brought even more riveting assignments: stuffing envelopes; entering payroll data; and organizing electrical and plumbing textbooks in the college library.

College graduation coincided with the worst job market since the 1980s. No jobs for silly new graduates who thought sociology would be a "really fun major". And, yes, that's exactly what I told my annoyed parents when they suggested business or accounting.

With no job prospects, I backtracked to my old drugstore cashier job. As I rang up Rolaids and maxi pads, former classmates passing through my line commented, "But, I thought you were going to college." After a beet-red blush, I mumbled "Yeah, I did."

To make ends meet—car payment and car insurance—I began substitute teaching and temping for four agencies. I managed to work somewhere most days although I had no idea where I'd be working when I awoke each morning.

I landed my first "real" job that spring as an administrative assistant in a hotel I called "Motel Hell". Six months later, I got downsized at 4 PM--ironically on Halloween. Since I really hated that job, that day was my happiest one since I got hired. For once, I did not cry all the way home.

By 7 PM, I had a job offer and went straight from Motel Hell to my new job without even a day off in between. I had a small but decent salary. Finally, I was a real grown-up with a job I enjoyed.

Six years later with my newly minted master's degree, I landed a position as a healthcare HR executive. Two promotions later, I had ascended the career ladder to Chief Human Resources Officer. Then my position—and I—became "redundant" when another company took over.

Financially, I was doing well. I've always been the kind of person who believed it was important to not just live within my means, but well below my means. The most important things my salary bought me were a debt-free lifestyle and the ability to donate to my church and other nonprofit organizations with missions in which I believe.

But, the material things weren't so bad either. My comfortable salary also meant: business attire and briefcases; professional hair cuts at a hip salon; daily restaurant lunches; European vacations; Alaskan cruises; a maid; a gardener; gym membership; shopping whenever; prime-time movies with concession stand snacks; and several pampered kitties who eat organic food pricier than that fed to most children.

Still, my salary came at a price: life was a rush of activity with 10-12 hour work days. Friends and family complained they rarely saw me. Something always needed to doing. I loved my job, so I didn't mind the frantic pace.

Loved. As in past tense. Over. Finished.

Returning to the present , I took a deep breath and thought: Wait. I can do this. No debts. A recently refinanced mortgage with a reduced payment. A sizeable final paycheck arriving soon.

I had networking ideas. Haven't people always told me I know everybody? I do!

Deep breath. Positive thoughts.

Unemployment is not a catastrophe, I told myself. It's only a temporary problem to be solved through creative thinking and relentless networking. This is doable.

Then I reminded myself of what my friend always said to her children: "You get what you get, so don't pitch a fit."

I fed the cats, poured myself what was left of the high-fiber, all natural, healthy cereal, noting that this pricey stuff would not be in my grocery cart for a while, and embraced my new life—pajamas, fuzzy slippers, silent phone and all.