Saturday, December 27, 2008

The real-world experience of collecting unemployment

Because the state unemployment office has ordered me to attend a primer Tuesday on how to job hunt, I’ll have to cancel a business meeting that could’ve led to work. It took me two weeks to schedule the get-together.

The required tutorial is apparently intended to instill the fundamental practices for finding a job, like drafting a resume, coming to appointments when called, or keeping scheduled meetings. Apparently the government doesn't think we residents of an upscale New York suburb might've encountered those obligations on our own. Instead, it acts like we've just crawled out of a cave, with no sense of the employment process. Indeed, the summons and orientation seem to be crafted to give us a taste of this alien experience--a sort of dress rehearsal, where the government is playing would-be employer. With that in mind, I called the unemployment office to reschedule the “appointment,” which the officious letter stressed in boldface was mandatory, not optional. Just like real life.

I was informed, after waiting about 10 rings for the phone to be answered, that reschedulings were not handled over the phone. I’d either have to make the 20-minute drive to the office before the scheduled appointment time to be assigned a new mandatory appointment, or come in after my current assigned time. It wasn't clear because I had trouble following the person who answered. But I did catch a few suggestions that this was the sort of upper-hand I'd encounter in the real job market. And she kept stressing that the appointment was not optional.

“So I’m really not required to be here at the time assigned, is that what you’re saying?” I asked

“What I'm saying is, You can either come in before, or the next available day,” the woman said in the same voice you'd use on a 4-year-old.

“Well, I'm not sure I understand."

Then she'd repeat the chorus: “You’re required to come in at the assigned time. Or on your next available day.”

But at least she did work in some reprises of her other message, the same bold-faced directive that's stressed in seemingly every communication with the state office: It's directives were mandates, not options, and those edicts have to be met if I wanted to continue collecting unemployment. It amounts to $405 a week, or not enough to pay my mortgage.

What really bothers me is that the agency acts as if it’s giving me something, when in fact I’ve been paying into the unemployment fund for 34 years without ever requesting a dime before. Since I was making far more than $405 a week for most of that stretch, I think the total contribution probably adds up to a tidy sum. And my employers ponied up considerably more dough as an unspecified employee benefit.

And I never gave them any attitude the whole time I was paying. Too bad they didn’t assimilate that aspect of the real world.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The 12 Deadly Thoughts of the pink-slipped

It's very European to drink at lunch.

How bad could it be to watch five minutes of "Ellen"?

What would happen if I searched for 'rhinoceros" and "porn"?

Shaving is overrated.

Pants are really overrated.

I wonder if they're giving out hot dog samples at Costco again.

I wonder if the guy at the next bottle return machine once had an office, too.

I could shower, or I could watch "Ellen"... Maybe I'll make popcorn first.

It'd probably take 10 or 20 visits for the sampler lady to recognize me.

"Ellen" is so much better than "Dr. Phil."

Geez, I'm unemployed. What are all those other deadbeats doing home during the day?

If there's a limit to how many samples you can take, they ought to post it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

One benched person's PSA for politer budgeting

As a public service to those of you in the throes of budgeting for 2009, I’ve compiled this handy review of business-planning etiquette to assure the process stays civil. I owe a thank-you note to the Emily Post Golf Clap Association for its recommendation that I snip out Item 47, about holding open a high-floor window so your business manager can climb onto the ledge with less scuffing.

Here are the tips that should be read with bent pinky:

Laser pens should never be used as weapons. Besides, the beam is too weak to do any harm no matter how long you train it on that guy with suspenders from Accounting. Or at least so I’ve been told.

There is no such thing as Ninja PowerPoint, a take-off of the popular presentation model where karate chops can be given to anyone who includes an especially dumb slide.

Announcing an attack on another department head in no way lessens the offense. Ditto for pointing out that one phone call to a pork store in Jersey would help the offending department stay within its headcount.

Muffins are to be eaten, not wrapped up, taken home and frozen for leaner times ahead.

The “no cell phones” rule applies to all uses, including as projectiles. And there is no asterisk in the rules that exempts the head of Finance.

Do not ask the head of IT if there’s a Rosetta Stone program for whatever he’s speaking. Try to get that kid with the tattoos who wiped all the porn off your old laptop to explain it to you later.

Do not show up to the conference room with a blanket and slippers.

Holding a clock and making the hands turn fast is not an acceptable way to let a presenter know you resent the amount of time he’s taking out of your life. Ditto for holding up a calendar and ripping off the pages one by one.

Laughing when the CEO gives your department its target figure for 2009 is not recommended. Also try to refrain from responses that begin, “Beam me up Scotty…”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Vermin on the sinking ship

There are few things more dastardly than playing on a job hunter’s elevated hopes. Yet twice I’ve responded to ads for enticing positions (“Pays enough to make Bill Gates your bitch!” “Co. cafeteria run by Thomas Keller!” “Oral sex is pt. of the deal!!!”) that matched my background, only to discover they were bait-and-switch cons. The company was an exalted temp agency trying to lure applicants so it could pimp them out for a chunk of their wages.

It’s the type of thing that would make Dickens wind his muffler a little tighter.

The moral: If it sounds too good, it probably is.

And I was really looking forward to the Keller Jello Surprise.

Hmm. Where have I heard this before?

From the NY Times blog Paper Cuts:

Bail Out the Writers?

An article in The New Republic argues that the Obama administration should help laid-off old media types (hey, don’t look at me) by launching a new-style Federal Writers Project, modeled on the New Deal-era program that put the likes of John Cheever, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston to work on oral histories, sociological studies and legendary guides to the 50 states.

Writing in next Sunday’s Book Review (sneak preview here!), Paul Greenberg has another idea. Forget the W.P.A., think A.A.A. — the Agricultural Adjustment Act. We have too many writers. Time to pay some of them to shut up!

Isn't that what I said last week?

At least a movement is building.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Beep for the Freep

This is an unabashed shout-out to the Detroit Free Press. Today the paper, not exactly flush with cash itself, printed a special edition and sent a copy to every member of Congress. The hallmark was a page-one editorial titled, "Invest in America," which implored Congressmen and Senators to prevent 3 million people from being put of work through the failure of the auto industry. It didn't dare to contend that its hometown economic engine had done a good job, or had to be sustained because the business is as American as apple pie. No flags were waved,no base appeals were made to the Rush Limbaugh jingoistic set. The plea came on behalf of downtown Detroit, not Grosse Pointe--the rank-and-file wage earners, not Rick Wagoner and his jet mates.

"The losses from an auto industry failure are about more than dry statistics," the editorial declared. "Every job associated with the industry is a family, a home, a college education, a cancer treatment or a secure retirement."

At a time when journalism is on the ropes, the paper demonstrated why we need vibrant hometown newspapers to pursue the lofty mission of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

"We have chronicled the U.S. auto industry since its birth," editor Paul Anger explained in a page-one sidebar to the editorial. "We know this industry better than anyone.

"We also know that while a newspaper needs to inform, there are times when a newspaper needs to speak up for what's right."

The detour into what purists slag as advocacy journalism will no doubt draw fire to the paper. But I for one am proud to see a defender of the common good courageously fulfill its duty.

Pulling a Clousseau

My first professional outing since getting pink-slipped was a decidedly mixed affair. I brought back the story, a report on a clever group promotion for New York City restaurants (you can see the coverage on my other blog, Restaurant Reality Check). But I pulled a gaffe that would’ve made Larry David wince.

The event I covered was the official announcement of the new promotion, the Vintage Dinner Series. It was hosted by the Zagat organization, and featured the big-name chefs and restaurateurs who are participating in the nostalgic series of banquets (each of the 16 restaurants is scheduling a dinner that resurrects the dishes, drinks and service flourishes that would’ve been found at a 19th century American banquet). One restaurateur whom I didn’t know came up and introduced herself. Her surname immediately identified her as part of the family that runs one of New York’s true dining landmarks.

“Ah,” I said to her, “I’ve had many a fine meal in your establishment. And one of my prized possessions is a letter that your father wrote to me about a column I’d done.” The young woman thanked me and beamed.

Fast-forward a few moments to my discovery that the letter-writer himself was in attendance. We made small talk until he announced, “Well, I’ve got to go find my wife.”

I watched in horror as he threaded his way through the crowd—right to the woman I’d addressed as his daughter.

Maybe I was still shaking off cobwebs from my forced hiatus. Or perhaps I was just daunted by covering an event in the new guise of freelancer. But I had confused the woman with another member of a famous Gotham restaurant family, a gaffe facilitated by her seemingly tender age.

It was a tribute to her sense of hospitality that she didn’t respond to my error with gritted teeth and a sotto voce, “Putz.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A taste of the old life

I'm heading into the city today--that'd be the city, as in New York--for the first time since the axe fell two weeks ago. I wonder if it's changed.

This'll also be my first press function for this go-round as a freelancer. It's certainly different to cover events as blog entries and first-person reports rather than conventional stories.

Oh, well. Better see what it'll be like to wear shoes (vs. sneakers) again.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Check me for weapons

I think I'm starting to crack. When I heard about Plaxico Burress, my first thought was, "Ah, the Giants have an opening. Maybe I should drop them a resume..." And that's after applying for Hillary Clinton's old job.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A bail-out for ink-stained wretches

The government is injecting several trillion dollars into the mortgage, insurance and investment industries, and will likely pony up an addition $25 billion to keep the automobile business afloat. Couldn’t it scrounge up a measly billion or two to prevent the media from completely flat-lining?

Granted, the communications business doesn’t comprise as many jobs as the GM/Ford/Chrysler black hole, but it’s as important to the economies of New York and other places as the car business is to Detroit. It’s also of singular importance to a democracy, as the Founding Fathers acknowledged by citing the press in the Constitution.

This wouldn’t have to be a giveaway. Rather, the money could be used to help media complete the agonizing transformation from paper to digital, from Gutenberg to Gates? Having been on the forefront of that changeover, I know how difficult it is to come up with a new business model that makes sense. Government support would buy the trade some time to figure it out.

I’m hoping that, at the very least, Barack Obama’s obvious appreciation for F.D.R.’s job-creation methods might lead him to one of the New Deal’s most intriguing programs, the Federal Writers’ Project. In forming that wrinkle to the Works Projects Administration, the federal government kept writers from starving, using them for what amounted to busy work until the economy could revive. Among the soon-to-be-luminaries who took part were talents like John Steinbeck, Conrad Aiken and Richard Wright. They drafted travel guides that are still used by those of us who value the telling as much as the content of sightseeing directories.

The feds should consider a program where it’d subsidize the salaries journalists and thereby help newspapers and magazines make the transition to a digital era where advertising is an anachronism. How many of us, for instance, have been trained to conceptualize and execute webinars, meetings, conferences or any other direct interaction with an audience? And yet, until recently, that was the major area of growth for many print media.

The same holds true for new vistas of journalism, like message groups, moderated chats and blogging to a specific audience. Those are the future for our business. And a few dollars from the government might help to usher it in.

So, where do I sign?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving? Bah, humbug.

I keep waiting for the perky announcers narrating the Thanksgiving Day Parade to face the camera and solemnly announce, "And now, here with an opposing view of Thanksgiving, we bring you an unemployed person."

Yeah, I know: There's still a lot to be thankful for. I'm not eying my dogs' vittles quite yet. And I have had an encouraging first week of pursuing leads and networking. But it's still tough. So I'm reconciling myself with the jokes and off-beat observations that I might've otherwise missed in my tryptophan stupor.

David Letterman joked on his show last night that Sarah Palin might disrupt the parade by impulsively shooting the Bullwinkle balloon.

I also enjoyed one blogger/tweeter's post about rallying the clowns for a Thanksgiving parade float. Send in the clowns, indeed.

Okay, back to watching Matt and Al provide cutting insight into the various floats. Oh, my, gotta go--the Rockettes are next!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Getting through the first weekend

Weekends are either the best or worst stretch of the week for the newly unemployed. Sympathizers of the great Foghorn Leghorn view Saturdays and Sundays as a guiltless opportunity to kick back and relish the downtime for a change. After all, those are the only days you’re in sync with the rest of the world, and you can’t really job hunt even if you were so disposed. Why not take in the football games?

Those of us who take our inspiration from Leghorn’s chronic irritant, the ever-striving Chicken Hawk, have trouble suspending the quest. In case you’ve forgotten your Warner Bros. characters, he was the quixotic little bird who’d plot incessantly to bag Foghorn, a Shaquille O’Neal of the chicken world. His efforts were hopeless, yet he kept trying and trying, usually getting no farther than a secure grip on the rooster’s toe.

True to that example, many of us aren’t uncomfortable with idling on Saturday and Sunday when there’ll be no trudge back to work on Monday morning. Indeed, it’s a time of unbearable frustration. You can’t make calls, your e-mails will be put into a holding pattern until Monday, and the classified sections aren’t the game farms they were in the bygone days of job hunting. All you can do is while away the time, maybe by watching some football, or perhaps just checking to see if anyone has responded to those e-mails…

Then again, maybe the situation is changing. I was surprised to field two queries on Saturday from contacts made via Twitter. And some of the folks I’d approached during the week seemed to be just getting to the messages that had piled up for them. Actual interaction will have to wait until Monday, but at least the initial contact’s been made.

Besides, the first five days of unemployment haven’t been fruitless. I had one job interview, made appointments for two others, lined up a project, put in one proposal and started work on another, and fielded a few overtures about other short-term gigs. And I got to watch the Jets trounce the Titans.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Easing the blow

Because of my predilection for eating, it's hard to spot any upside to a disruption in paychecks. But there have been a few moments of unbelievable sweetness triggered by the layoff.

Both happened on the Day of the Deed. One of our first calls was to the friend who'd booked Jan. 1 vacation arrangements for us, her and her husband, and another couple. How could we take a 9-day trip when I'd be out of work? We explained to our friend that we'd have to cancel and see how much money we could recover. Minutes afterward, her husband called to let us know that they'd lend us the money until whenever we were back on our feet again. And we weren't talking about fifty bucks here. Unbelievable.

Later that day, when we figured we should make ourselves eat dinner, we called to have a pie delivered from our usual pizzeria. The fellow who took the call, who's been taking our orders for 10 years now, proudly told us that he was heading back to Sri Lanka in three days for the birth of his first child. "What's new with you guys?" he asked. My wife told him.

When the delivery man arrived about 20 minutes later, he was balancing the pie on one hand while holding a coffee cup in the other. "It's a glass of wine from Ishmael," the guy who'd taken our order, the delivery man explained. "He thought you might need it."

Why 'Pink-slipped'?

Some people climb mountains, others strive to out-flambe Emeril, still others try to bed as many people as they can. My quest? To make this the shortest-lived blog that ever was. What else is left? I've already been pushed off a summit, singed and screwed.

On Tuesday, I was drafted into what has to be the demographic classification with a bullet, though that's probably a poor choice of words. The day started out as any other. By lunchtime, for the first time in my 51 years, I'd been pink-slipped, an unwilling recruit for the growing army of the jobless. Technically it was a lay-off, a tag that does indeed afford some comfort, since it wasn't performance-related. But my parents, those children of the Great Depression, would have never made such a distinction. You're either working or you're not. And I'm not.

All the motivational speakers I've endured over the years would be quick to add smiley-face qualifiers like, "temporarily," "until the economy picks up," or "in the traditional sense, but pay comes in many forms." It's easy for them to be so positive. They've found a way to turn unemployment into a paying career.

Now it's my turn either to do the same or find real work again. But have you looked at the news lately? More than 50,000 new recruits are joining the army of the unemployed from Citigroup alone. Depending on what estimate you see for the U.S. automotive industry, the carnage could extend anywhere from about 250,000 people upwards to 3 million. My profession, journalism, may be faring even worse on a percentage basis. One wag has set up a website, NewspaperDeathWatch, to tabulate the cutbacks in that sector of the business. Even the bounciest motivational speaker would sound a bit Steven Wright-ish after considering the situation.

Actually, I'm not as bitter as this might make me sound. And my barbs are meant as black humor, not as any real signs of resentment toward my former employer. Indeed, it handled the situation in an extremely humane fashion, and I'd go back there in a heartbeat. My anger is reserved for the White House and the other guardians of the economy. They're the ones who sidelined millions of responsible, eager-to-work people who did nothing wrong but work in a job that looked glaring on a budget sheet.

But that anger won't get me anywhere. Hence this blog. I'm hoping it'll be a medium for airing my frustrations. Ideally it'll also serve as a touchstone for others who've been thrown into this new uber-category of the newly laid off. Indeed, I hope others will post their experiences, feedback and advice, not for me, but for anyone who's been victimized by the economy.

It'll also scratch my jones to write for an audience until I find a regular communications gig. At that point, I'll pull the plug and move on. But in the meantime, I hope you'll enjoy these bar stool ramblings as you unwind from your own job hunting or survival strategizing. Just remember, it's BYOB.