Be ready for the worst: What to do when laid off

AP News
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Posted: Nov 12, 2009 5:08 PM

The shock of being laid off barely had time to set in before Jim Wessel began looking for another job.

Released as purchasing director for a resort one Friday this fall, Wessel started phoning business contacts from his car on the way home. He tweaked his resume over the weekend, signed up for job-related Web sites and reconnected with old friends who happened to be recruiters.

The loss of a job can leave you disoriented, wondering what to do first. With unemployment topping 10 percent last month and more than 15 million other Americans looking for work, it's essential to quickly address not only job options but other money-related issues.

"The important thing is to get yourself organized," says Deborah Russell, director of work force issues for AARP.

Though Wessel, of Belle Vernon, Pa., took immediate action, having a plan hasn't paid off in another job yet. But the 31-year-old has a few promising leads and knows it was important to move fast.

"If I can acquire a job with only being unemployed for three months in this market, I'll consider it a success," he says.

Here are important things to do if you get a pink slip:

1. TAP YOUR (EX-) EMPLOYER FOR ASSISTANCE.

Getting laid off can be so stunning that the tendency is to walk away and say you'll figure things out on your own. But many companies offer help beyond the basic severance package, such as access to legal counsel or clients and outplacement resources.

Human resources departments sometimes even will negotiate the terms, such as payouts for vacation time, or work with you on legitimate ways to extend your benefits, according to Heather Hammitt of the Illinois State Council of the Society of Human Resource Management.

For example, if you're dismissed toward the end of the month, you might be allowed to stay on the payroll until the beginning of the next one so you're covered under the group insurance plan for another month.

"Most organizations know that downsizing isn't the greatest public relations move," says Hammitt, who also is head of human resources at a bank in Ottawa, Ill. "So they know that if they help their (laid-off) employees, word will get out in the community."

2. REGISTER FOR UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS.

Even if you don't expect to be out of work for long, file for unemployment insurance benefits promptly. The sooner you do so, the sooner you'll have that extra check to slow the drain on your savings.

To find your local unemployment insurance agency, call the U.S. Labor Department at (877) US2-JOBS or visit the following link: http://www.servicelocator.org/OWSLinks.asp.

In order to qualify, you must have been laid off, not fired, and have worked for a stipulated minimum amount of time _ typically a year and a half. Once you've registered, you must show you're looking for work in order to receive your weekly benefit.

3. SECURE YOUR HEALTH INSURANCE.

Don't scrimp by forgoing health insurance. The biggest error made by laid-off workers is giving up the coverage known as COBRA, according to Jim Pogue, senior vice president of group benefits for Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America.

"Saving by not paying for your COBRA or keeping health care for your family," Pogue says, "can ultimately lead you into financial ruin."

The federal law COBRA _ the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act _ allows most people to stay on their former employer's health plan should this be 'employers' health plans'? for 18 months after they are let go. You will pay more for insurance than you did when you worked, since the company covered most of the premium, but you're likely to pay less than you would for insurance you buy on your own.

More information on COBRA coverage is available at a U.S. Department of Labor link: http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/faqs/faq(underscore)consumer(underscore)cobra.html.

Compare COBRA costs with those of getting coverage through your spouse's plan, if that is available.

Also decide whether to maintain dental, life and disability insurance or go without until you find another job; ask your ex-employer about those benefits.

4. GET CAREER OPTIONS IN ORDER.

Revise your resume, make a list of people you want to contact for job advice and do homework on your labor market. Go to your local employment agency, and also find a career center that can tell you about training and job opportunities nearby. Seek out a career counselor at your community college or elsewhere to help organize your next steps.

Useful Web sites with job information and advice include CareerBuilder.com, Monster.com and the Labor Department's job opportunities page at http://www.dol.gov/dol/jobs.htm. AARP also discusses job tips and openings for people age 50 and over on its Web site at http://www.aarp.org as well as offering a help guide for any laid-off worker.

Stay active in your field. Keep going to professional society conferences, take advantage of seminars and conferences, offer to do pro bono work for local civic groups. Besides providing networking opportunities, it helps avoid gaps in your resume.

5. REVIEW HOUSEHOLD EXPENSES.

Take a close look at all your bills and optional expenses, analyze where you spend your money and come up with a plan to spend less.

Consider cutting any expensive or unnecessary costs such as gym memberships, movies-by-mail, extra phone services like call waiting, maybe even your landline.

6. SEEK UNEMPLOYMENT DISCOUNTS.

Many companies offer discounts to those who have been laid off. Do some research and take advantage of those offers.

If you don't know, don't be afraid to ask a store or business: "I've just been laid off. Are you offering any recession specials?"

Your landlord, student loan provider and bank or credit card agency might also give you a temporary break on your payment schedule.

There was a time when saying you were laid off or unemployed raised a red flag with not only prospective employers but the community at large. With unemployment at 10 percent, however, "that stigma doesn't exist any more," Hammitt notes.