Facing unemployment: The emotional effects, the business consequences

By way of handing off her classes to me, the community college instructor for whom I agreed to play substitute while she’s out of town came over to my house with a pile of lesson plans. Let’s call her La Maîtresse (the teacher), for her extraordinary enthusiasm and her creative approach to the often routine first-semester freshman composition course.

After a long conversation with her, I came away feeling a lot better about the pending loss of my own job. Like me, she also is a state employee: she works in a key agency downtown. Like me, she also is being canned after a long tenure—almost thirty years! And like me, she also was presented with a protracted “winding down” period. Don’t know how much advance notice they gave her (my staff and I had nine months), but her hours have been cut to 50 percent FTE and she soon will be working 0 percent FTE. She’s teaching for the same reason I am: to cobble together a survival income.

Centrally located state employees don’t think much of the Great Desert University’s leadership, of its employees’ financial and procedural competence, or of its president’s motivations. She is not the first to express a certain dubiousness about these issues.

Speaking with someone who’s an old-timer in one of the central nodes of a government agency is always revealing, and our conversation was no exception. For one thing, when I related the story of the identical misinformation La Maya and I got from HR officers on two different campuses about collecting accrued sick leave pay (RASL), she remarked that this sort of thing meant the higher-ups were instructing the CSRs to dispense misleading palaver. As you may recall, we were each led to believe, on separate occasions, that a layoff would mean we could not collect the important RASL benefit unless we retired before the university terminated our contracts. This, as it developed, was untrue.

An eligible state employee (one who has 500 or more hours of accrued vacation pay) has two weeks after termination—any termination, whether layoff, resignation, or even firing—to claim the RASL benefit. You do this by submitting a form stating that you’re “retiring,” even if the real reason for leaving state service is not voluntary retirement. Miss the deadline, and you forfeit the benefit: the money reverts to the state agency. La Maîtresse pointed out that where GDU is concerned, our money would go back to the university. This is not an inconsiderable figure: over $25,000 for La Maya; about $20,000 for me. Because the two-week window is rigid and allows no appeal, if you were misled long enough and convincingly enough, you could easily miss your chance to collect your back sick-leave pay. If enough terminated GDU employees believe they’re ineligible for RASL, the university retrieves quite a large sum from monies set aside to pay this benefit.

That’s a level of paranoia that rises even beyond mine, which orbits just above the stratosphere. But is it paranoia? One wonders: it comes from someone who is very much in the know.

She also said she finds less and less to do on her job, a source of great dissatisfaction. It’s reassuring to hear that someone else is having the same experience and reacting to it in a similar way. At this point my team and I have almost nothing to do. I hate this: it makes me feel lâche—like some kind of slacker. Ever since Her Deanship told our client editors, at the start of July, that our office would close in December, they’ve almost stopped sending us work. On the one hand, that’s just fine with me…I have an allergy to work, anyway. But on the other, I don’t like collecting a salary in exchange for precious little.

I dislike it so much that it’s a significant source of stress. In the tooth-grinding department, I rank it right up there with worry about how to get by without a salary.

It was reassuring to learn that I’m not the only one who a) is anxious to start something new; b) questions the goodwill of GDU’s upper management; c) isn’t doing much on the job. Apparently it’s normal for people who are being laid off to experience resentment, anger, loss of self-worth, outright fear, and finally loss of interest in the work.

Because of these predictable emotions, I would argue that keeping staff members through a long “winding-down” period is counterproductive for the institution. In my case, for example—and evidently in La Maîtresse’s case, too—the longer the parting has strung out, the more disconnected from my job I feel, and the more alienated from my soon-to-be-former employer. Three months ago, if GDU had closed my office and then, on the spot, offered a lower-paid but benefits-eligible job elsewhere in the bureaucracy or offered to farm our work to us on an outsource basis, I might have accepted. Now, I wouldn’t touch it. In fact, even though the university pays PhD’s significantly more for teaching adjunct courses than the community college district does, I’m no longer interested in picking up courses from any of the university’s four campuses. Despite the district’s lower pay, from my perspective the community college pasture looks a lot greener just now.

Surprisingly little research has been done on this subject. The 1994 report linked above was inconclusive, and it conflicted with at least one other contemporary study. Here’s a more recent study that’s pretty interesting, if you can get past being characterized as a “victim.” We’re not victims, any more than a fish is a victim of air because it absorbs oxygen through its gills. We’re unemployed workers who, for one reason or another, are not ready to quit working. The same site published a more lightweight report on the long-term negative effects to employers when lay-offs are used to address short-term challenges. The very issues we’re seeing in my case and La Maîtresse’s—plummeting morale, distrust of the employer, and alienation from the job—are mentioned here among factors that undermine the institution over a very long term.

In our talk, it became clear that both of us are more interested in moving forward with new projects and building a new life than we are in dragging out the last few weeks and months in a job that’s a losing proposition. When I’m at the office, I have to force myself to sit still in front of the keyboard: I simply no longer care about doing any work for that outfit. Yes, I’m grateful for the extra months of pay…but the point I’m making here is that expecting disaffected employees to hang around after you’ve caused their lives to implode is as counterproductive for the institution as it is harmful to the workers.

It will be a long time before GDU recovers from the investment losses it sustained in the collapse of the Bush economy and from the often malicious funding cuts inflicted by a hostile, retrograde, and desperate legislature. But it will be even longer before the university recovers from its leadership’s own ill-advised administrative strategies.

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frugalscholar September 10, 2009 at 10:26 am

Much food for thought here. I’m hoping I never have to fact this myself. But I have experienced permanent damage (psychological) from the terrible job market I faced more than 20 years ago.

I think the real problem now may be for people who are falling right out of the middle class. We have so little by way of safety nets in this country.

leah September 10, 2009 at 10:42 am

Maybe doing some ‘falling’ is good for us. We’re a country of spoiled rotten children upset that there really is no Santa Claus. We look the other way when faced with fact that we have taken far more than we have given in this world. Blame it on the Bush economy or maybe it’s just time to pay the piper.

I just hope it’s time for the Universe to start leveling the field for everyone on the planet.

Stop the whining!

funny September 10, 2009 at 5:49 pm

@ Leah: I don’t understand. We’re “spoiled” and “rotten” because we’re upset over losing our livelihoods? How so? And how exactly are we supposed to react to losing our jobs, our health insurance, and possibly even our homes? Are we supposed to be happy? Equaniminous? Devil-may-care? Could you clarify that idea, please?

Roomfarm September 11, 2009 at 7:53 am

Hey funny! Warning: Don’t feed the trolls. Or take the bait.

Well-said post, I’m with you. If my employer wants to lay me off, just do it, 2 weeks notice. Oftentimes the slow wind down is meant to be nice, and my advice to delusional employers who think that is being “nice”, it isn’t.

if you want to be nice, roll that 6 months of salary, the salary you would have paid me to hang about, into a nice severance package, an extra check that is really big. Then tell me to get my stuff, give me a firm handshake and wish me good luck. Sitting on the couch the next day, I will feel a lot better with my 30,000 dollar check and six months off.

Kaye October 27, 2009 at 11:34 pm

Hi Funny,

Having been unemployed for over a year now, I am feeling pretty desperate. The unemployment rate in my area is around 13% and I have had interviews but no offer yet. If something doesn’t happen soon, I will be forced to move in with my SDXH (semi-demi-ex-husband) in a roommate situation. As it is, I will have to start over from scratch, financially speaking. Not so easy when you’re middle-aged.

Thanks for the very funny blogs. They lift my spirits!

funny October 28, 2009 at 5:12 am

@ Kaye: Gosh, I’m sorry to hear about such a long spate of hard times! Hope you have some better luck soon.

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