Producing Your Unemployment
How to hack the system in the wake of 2020 layoffs
First off, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a single white 31 year old female in NYC’s advertising industry. Even though I’ve worked my ass off for everything I have, I’m certainly still privileged by any definition. And like many others in my field in New York and across the country, I was recently let go from my job.
I consider myself well-educated and a producer in every part of my life, but unemployment isn’t something you generally plan for when you’ve had a full time job since college — add it to the list of things we wish school had prepared us for but didn’t (hello tax returns, 401ks, and health insurance). My guess is many like myself had no idea where to begin. And for those of you who are still thankfully employed in this hell we call 2020, savor it but prepare for what you’re in for if you’re suddenly struck by the current lay-off wave.
In addition to actual job hunting, there’s a slew of other things to do once you’re let go — while I’m not currently producing any ad campaigns, I’ve been “producing my unemployment” so to speak (not shocking for those who know me well). So for any New Yorkers, especially in creative/marketing fields, who’ve lost their job or fear the end is near, here’s a cheat sheet from my past month on how to deal with your newfound reality.
Stay optimistic but let’s be realistic about the current state of this industry — it ain’t good. Agencies are slashing costs left and right and we all know someone who’s lost a job this year. Here’s what you can do now to make things less painful down the road:
- Update your resume yesterday. You never know what could change overnight. Moving forward, plan to tweak it every 2 months to add any new relevant skills/projects so you’re always up to date and ready to share
- Regularly save any creative work you make to your personal files while you’re still employed so you have copies for your portfolio, website, etc.
Post Layoff (immediate)
You’re going to sit there for a few minutes, momentarily shellshocked that “this happened to me…?”. Yes, yes it did. Take a breath, let out a scream, do a shot or whatever you need to do. But as soon as you’re done:
Barring any NDAs / legal agreements, forward yourself any professional contacts, notes, research etc you may need for future reference as soon as you lose your job (many companies will turn off your email within the same day and you’ll lose access to things you need for your next role, like vendor contact info, draft emails of research you’ve done, etc.)
I’ve always taken advantage of these benefits (had money taken out of my pay each month for medical and commuter use). Fast forward to mid-covid and I had several hundred unused dollars stuck in both accounts. Find out asap when your FSA, HSA, and/or transit funds expire (they don’t always match up with your health insurance end date and often end much sooner, so you need to empty the accounts before you lose your money).
- Transit funds can be used for the subway/bus, Metro North, LIRR, Amtrak, and Via (stock up on fare cards, holiday trips home, etc — Amtrak is currently waiving all cancel and change fees, so just buy something to get the funds out…do I have 3 round trip tickets booked? maybe).
- If you take any medications, see if you can get extra scripts filled and use any remaining money for cold meds, allergy pills, first aid — anything at the drug store you need to replace in your medicine cabinet (I now own 3 months worth of Claritin and 60 assorted band-aids: 2020, come at me).
Confirm when your health benefits stop — if you’re married, look into getting on your spouse’s plan. If you currently plan to die alone like me and don’t have that option:
- Get all your annual physicals, flu shot, or any doctors appts you’ve been putting off scheduled prior to that date (ask me how many lab coats I’ve seen this month)
- If you have any reoccurring appts like physical therapy where you’ve already hit your deductible, go as often as you can before benefits run out and talk to them about at-home plans you can continue once you lose coverage
- If you don’t already have it, get a GoodRx card (yes, THOSE commercials) to get discounts on prescriptions. Especially if you opt to not immediately sign up for new health benefits, this can save you a ton when paying out of pocket (ex: my current meds with insurance are $25/month: without insurance they’d be $180 — with GoodRx they’re $47)
Post-Layoff (within the month)
You’ve had a little time to settle into your new reality — news flash, it still sucks. You’ve probably spent many nights scouring job boards till 3am and considered moving to a farm where you can “live off the land”. But now it’s time for part two of adulting:
New Health Insurance Coverage
At the moment given my personal health situation, I’m opting to hold off on registering for a new plan…we’re already living on the edge this year, right?. However, I’ve still done all the research (self portrait below) and know what plan I’ll be choosing eventually if I don’t find a full-time role soon.
- Your first instinct will be to sign up for COBRA to continue your existing employer’s plan (except now you’ll be paying for it and the sticker shock may be scarier than losing your job). Explore all your options before automatically doing this — currently in New York, if you’re single and making less than $55k/year, you should qualify for government assistance which can make several other plans cheaper than COBRA
- Review the NY State Health Plans (monthly costs, annual deductibles, and which providers your current doctors take). You can also consider changing doctors to fit the cheapest plan — compare everything and figure out the best option for when you DO want to enroll so you’re ready to go
- The deadline for special enrollment through NY State (if you’ve had a life change event i.e. were laid off) has been extended through December 31, 2020. Plus, you usually have 60 days to enroll in COBRA post-layoff if you choose that, so no rush in deciding). Just know that generally you need to enroll by the 15th of the month prior to be covered for the following month
- PSA: I’m taking a risk by not enrolling immediately / there are possible tax implications down the road if you go too long without health insurance. Look into these and weigh the various options before making your decision.
No brainer, apply for it. I know people who lost their jobs and figured they’d find something within a month / didn’t bother with this. If you can get free money, take the damn money.
- You generally can’t apply until after any severance ends (you must have not worked that week or if you did, made less than $504), but you can fill out the full application in advance and save it so you’re ready once you’re eligible (once you are able to submit, do so based on the first letter of your last name: A-F file on Monday / G-N file on Tuesday / O-Z file on Wednesday)
- Once you’re approved, you’re not done (of course not): you must go in each week and “claim” your benefits based on how many days you worked or how much money you made.
- Even if you end up picking up short freelance gigs while job hunting, at least you’ll be in the system and can adjust your weekly claims from there.
Believe me, I never imagined I would be researching this, but put your pride aside, folks. SNAP offers assistance on groceries and the funds come on a debit card / are accepted by most grocery stores in New York including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Food Emporium, and Fairway
Even if you have a lot of savings, it doesn’t mean you won’t qualify, so give it a shot. You can upload all the necessary documents through their easy mobile app (I did everything in an hour and was called for my “qualification interview” the next morning…easiest interview I’ve had all month, 10/10 nailed it.)
Budgeting and Finances
My initial goal was to, at minimum, keep my net worth across all accounts equal to what it was when I lost my job. Liquid savings would go down but if I could keep my total spending under what I gain through state benefits and the stock market, this would be doable:
- Review any investments you have and calculate the average you make in the market each month (take into account our current bumpy climate); take that, plus estimated weekly unemployment, SNAP benefits, etc to calculate how much total you’ll be “bringing in” while unemployed — this is the max you can spend
- Deduct all costs you likely can’t change (rent, utilities, etc). Note: it’s worth seeing if your landlord will lower your rent or if you can threaten to cancel your cable contract and get them to lower your monthly bill. Never hurts to ask / challenge customer service reps.
- Now list all the other things you spend money on each month and see what has to be lowered to fit within that max (mine were mainly removing shopping and reducing food/booze costs…lookout 2021, diet starts now)
- If you have any memberships (fitness, beauty, subscriptions) see if they can temporarily pause your account; most are being super flexible due to covid and you can halt automatic charges for a few months until you’re hopefully employed again
Yes, as a single girl in your 30s your first actions after a lay off will likely be gorging on Ben and Jerry’s, calling your mother, and unrealistically worrying about becoming homeless . But the more on top of all this you are, the quicker you can get the ugly stuff out of the way so you can focus on the real goal: your next career move.
This list is by no means all-encompassing and is specific to my situation, but it’s everything I wish I’d known a month ago and could save you some dread if you fall victim to this economy. Ideally none of you will need to use this but hey, I’m a producer: hope for the best and plan for the worst.
PS — hire me and I’ll produce your real projects even better than I’ve hacked the unemployment system.
**everything above is based on being a New York City resident as of Sept 2020 and doesn’t account for any covid related stimulus packages.