by Regan McMahon
Friends of mine who had left the newspaper in previous buyouts had warned me: Dealing with the unemployment bureaucracy can be a real hassle. My company even offered a meeting with unemployment benefits specialists to explain how to navigate the system. I took some notes, but smugly thought to myself, “How tough can it be? You fill out a form and money comes to you each week. What’s the big deal?
I was a babe in the woods on the whole unemployment thing. I hadn’t looked for a job since 1983, and I hadn’t filed for unemployment benefits since two jobs before that. The last time I filed, you had to appear at the unemployment office every two weeks for an interview with a counselor and give names and addresses of the places you’d applied for work. Now it’s more streamlined, but I still had a lot to learn.
I walked away from the meeting with two main points: 1) File as soon as you leave the company, because there’s a one-week waiting period after they get your application before the payments start; and 2) apply by phone with a live person rather than online. I promptly forgot the first piece of advice, and the second turned out to be a quaint remnant of life before the economic downturn.
After carelessly letting a week go by, I finally phoned and got a recorded message, saying due to the unprecedented volume of calls, filing could be done only online or in person, “Goodbye.” Hung up on by the unemployment robot! Things were not off to a good start.
I filled out the long online application and the mandatory resume/profile so the state unemployment agency could alert me when jobs that suited my skills became available. So far the only emails I’ve gotten are more akin to a late-night TV ad: “Enjoy a new career in Web design! Make money at home!” Nothing for a writer/editor/book critic.
When I finally got my first envelope from Unemployment — four weeks after I’d left — it contained a notice telling me I’d incorrectly filled out part of the form and would need to re-submit it. I did, and finally, five weeks after I’d left, I saw the first actual check addressed to me. Well, almost. They had spelled my name wrong. That took another couple of weeks to correct.
When I wasn’t doing the unemployment tango, I was dealing with deciding on my health care coverage via COBRA, investigating whether to carry over my long-term disability insurance and life insurance, and consulting with my union rep at the Newspaper Guild over a snag in my separation papers, which I had not yet signed.
The normal procedure for buyout takers was to sign papers and get your final paycheck and lump sum “incentive” the last day of your last week before walking out the door. But my last week at the paper was anything but normal.
On Monday, the HR lady gave me my separation papers. When I noticed the snag and asked my union rep about it, she said we needed to go back to HR. But on Wednesday, the entire HR department was fired! You never know where downsizing will strike next. I didn’t get my lump sum until many phone calls, meetings and weeks later. No wonder I was having trouble feeling closure!
And I still had to decide what to do with my 401K. I’d have to roll it over into an IRA or something, just as the stock market was tanking. I set up a meeting with a young consultant at T. Rowe Price, and glancing at my account, I realized I hadn’t exactly noticed that I’d lost thousands of dollars since last year. “What do you mean my 401K is invested 80 percent in the stock market? Whose idea was that?”
“Well you did really well in the ’90s,” said the young man, as if that would make me feel better.
“But I lost $300 just since I called for an appointment two days ago,” I noted.
Once I got the paperwork squared away on the buyout lump sum, unemployment, health care and my 401K, I could concentrate on job hunting and freelancing. Then I learned I couldn’t do too much freelance work or it would threaten my unemployment benefits. At my old job, I freelanced on top of my day job, just like now, I’d freelance on top of my job search. Or so I reasoned with the person I finally reached at Unemployment, who remained unmoved. “Four hours per week max,” she said.
But writing is the only thing that keeps me sane, I thought. The only thing keeps me from feeling … unemployed.
To be continued ...
Read Part One 
Read Part Two 
Read Part Three 
Read Part Four 
Regan McMahon is the author of Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy over Youth Sports .