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What to Do When You've Been Laid Off

You’ve heard the talk around the office for some time that management was considering layoffs to reduce expenses. Rumors of who would be laid off and when they would be told have dominated work conversations and kitchen-table discussions.

So how should you handle what happens on Friday afternoon when you and your coworkers are called into a conference room?

Will this scenario happen to you? Through August of 2008, 605,000 people have lost their jobs according to recent figures from the Labor Department. As recent research has indicated, layoffs disproportionately impact workers between the ages of 50 and 60.

Bottom line: If you’re 50 or older, there is a very good possibility you could be the subject of a layoff.

So, fast forward back to that Friday afternoon meeting. After 10, 20, 30, and even 40 years of service, your employment is terminated through no fault of your own. Try as you might to prepare for this moment, you have a knot in your stomach and an overall sense of anxiety. You feel fear, apprehension, uncertainty, even anger. It will be difficult, but you must clear your mind and keep a record of everything being said.

What Happens in the Meeting

Examine the Severance Deal – A large employer will likely provide a good deal of written information about the terms of your layoff, including recall and rehire rights, timing, severance pay, health benefit coverage (including COBRA health-benefit extension rights), payment of accrued vacation, and other accrued cash-value payments. A small employer, your offer will have little in writing. In that case, insist that the details be provided immediately, in writing, before you leave.

Carefully Consider the Release of Liability – You will also be asked to review and sign a release of liability. This is a widely accepted practice in which you agree to waive your rights to file a suit seeking financial settlement in return for “items of value,” such as severance pay and benefit continuation. You will be given several days to accept and sign this release of liability, and you will have a short period of time to rescind your acceptance even after you’ve signed it.

Get All the Information –Don’t feel pressured to sign anything at the initial layoff noticemeeting if it entails a liability release or agreement to any terms. It will probably be difficult enough just to absorb what is happening. Don’t leave the meeting until you understand the process and details. Don’t leave without the name, title, postal address, phone number, e-mail and fax number of an assigned contact you can reach for further explanation and clarification.

Stay in Control – Keep your emotions under control and don’t say or do anything you’ll regret. If there is any flexibility in the terms of your layoff and settlement, you are more likely  to benefit by being professional and courteous.

Decisions Once You’ve Left the Office

Accept the Terms or Seek Legal Recourse? – Your first decision is whether or not to accept the severance package. Seek competent legal advice if necessary. If you believe you have been the subject of a wrongful termination or discrimination, including age bias, you still have the option of rejecting the layoff package and pursuing complaints and legal action. Seek the advice of your state or federal Equal Employment Opportunity Office. This is a difficult decision requiring the commitment of time, money, and emotional energy, and it comes at no small risk.

Try Negotiating – If you plan on accepting the layoff package, you can try to negotiate a better settlement. Perhaps you can trade off severance pay for extended health benefits. Contact your employer’s representative and ask for a face-to-face meeting and present your case. It doesn’t hurt to ask. Get any changes in writing. Larger companies may not be as flexible, since they will be striving for consistency and uniformity.

The Release – Consider having an employment lawyer review your liability release if you are not familiar with legal concepts and language. If you choose to sign and then have second thoughts, you are almost certain to have several days to withdraw your acceptance. Then you’re back to deciding whether to take legal action. Each case has to be decided on the specifics. The cards are not stacked in favor of the worker in most cases. Only you can decide to fight or accept it and move on. Try to make a reasoned judgment with professional help’ Your emotions can get you into a battle you can’t afford.

Starting Your Job Search

Hopefully, you will have done some job search planning work in advance as suggested in our previous installment, Part 1 of this two-part series. You’ll be glad you did, because you are likely to find it difficult to plan and think clearly in the days after being laid off. Here’s how to get started:

Understand Your Financial Situation – Look at your expenses, other income (if any), and savings. Make the necessary changes to control expenses. How long can you afford to be out of work?

Establish a Routine – Don’t even think about taking a few weeks off to decompress or embarking on that long-delayed vacation. Your natural tendency will be to want some relief and rest after the stress of losing your job. Don’t fall into this trap. It can lead to greater anxiety and even depression. Get up at your regular time and plan structured days.

Register for Unemployment – Register for unemployment compensation immediately regardless of the terms of your severance, if you received any. The unemployment office officials will determine when you are eligible and what your payment will be. What will they expect in return? They want to know you are searching for a new job. In most states, they require you to confirm by phone or online that you been actively seeking work.

Set Your Occupational Objective – What kind of job do you want?  Do you want to simply resume your previous career or would you like to change occupations?

Identify Target Employers – Research the employers in your area and select about 15 to 20 on which you will focus your energy. Consider the employers who have declared their interest in hiring older job-seekers, such as the AARP National Employer Team firms and RetirementJobs.com’s “Age Friendly Certified Employers.” You can find jobs available with these employers and with others in your area on AARP.org or via RetirementJobs.com.

Execute Your Job Search – Check out the job-search resources at AARP.org's Work channel and RetirementJobs.com. Get assistance from your state employment office, often called a “Career One-Stop.”

Stay Safe, Fit and Healthy – This will be a trying time. Don’t neglect your health and well being. Make your health and state of mind your priorities. And finally, ask for help when you need it.

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