The summer’s record heat here in Portland, Oregon has now given way to cooler and damper days, articulated by foliage in splendid fall hues of yellows, golds, and crimson red. I find this time of year refreshing and feel like I’m catching my breath for the first time in the past five months.
Not known by many, but in the late spring of this year, my nonprofit job was eliminated, catapulting me into the saturated and tedious world with the COVID unemployed. I had a feeling what was coming when the interim executive director (ED) scheduled an impromptu meeting. She said that it was for a “strategic planning” update. Since there was a staffing hemorrhage occurring within the organization, I didn’t think this was out of step. That was until I logged into the virtual meeting and saw the ED with a board member present, then I knew what was about to happen.
I took the news in stride and felt lucky that I was given a morsel of severance to cushion my landing once the shock wore off. I was no longer leashed to this “zombie cat”, the nickname given by one of my former colleagues for an organization that seemed to be clinging to life due to dropping membership, decrease in donations, and other funding resources; a problem that loomed on the horizon like the hovering albatross above a doomed ship or a Star Trek crew member in a red shirt (my Sci-fi friends will get this).
I was a great staff member and contributor to my organization based on responses from external stakeholders. I had to ask myself if my departure was just a question of bad timing due an ambiguous organization (re) branding, a mission disconnect, or other organizational dysfunction that existed? I was irritated and rationalizing the “reason(s)” was a natural part of my acceptance process. This wasn’t the first time that I was laid off from a job. During the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, I was working for the local port authority offices. With the majority of flights into the city and shipping at the ports coming to a virtual stand still, I was part of a wave of staff that were “released”. Now here I am again, navigating the murky waters of the unemployment quagmire.
This isn’t an unfamiliar story for lots of folks during these present times, but this was now my personal reality. My unemployment wasn’t a direct result from the pandemic, it just happened to coincide with the post-pandemic aftermath. I want to say one thing, (imagine all caps), working in a nonprofit is hard work! I applaud my friends who are able to continue to fight a good fight and can remain passionate about their work in a time of global instability!
So the big question for me now was what’s next? The Oregon Employment Department (OED) was frequently in the local news during the past 18 months for delayed unemployment claims processing, hour plus wait times to speak with a representative, and misdelivered checks. A friend of mine even received several checks addressed to his residence for someone else. Needless to say, my confidence in this system designed to provide temporary financial assistance, was pretty low. After registering via the online portal to receive unemployment benefits, I was required to apply for jobs and have several job-related interactions (networking, resume work, career coaching, etc). That was fine, but as week one rolled into week two, and I hadn’t yet received my first check. Instead, I received a form letter from the OED notifying me that I wasn’t eligible for unemployment. I re-read the letter, consuming every line on the page thinking I may have initially misread something. I abruptly stopped, and let several explicatives loose in frustration. Sorry Ma, the innocence of your little boy quickly fades when the adult is unjustly deprived!
The next day after forty-five minutes of working through several automated prompts and ear-piercing hold music, I was able to speak with an OED specialist to get my situation resolved. Apparently some information was omitted on the backend which prompted the system to send a rejection notice. I was guaranteed that I would be receiving my benefits within 5 days and they were right!
Finding jobs to apply for was a bit of a mixed bag and I didn’t want just any job, I wanted more. I wanted to be part of an organization committed to diversity and equity, I wanted a position that provided financial stability, and professional development opportunities. I had my work cut out for me and worked with a career coach, Michelle Neal of Consulting with Integrity, to help nudge me in the right direction. After an assessment of my resume, we went to work. It had been a few years since I really looked at my resume. There were jobs listed from over 10 years ago; extra information taking up space. I also gained new skills, including a certificate through Cornell University’s online program in Diversity & Inclusion that I needed to add.
I plotted my course and dove head first into my quest and scheduled virtual coffee meetings with community members and work professionals I admired to gain a sense of what they knew. During the “before times” we could gather care-free at the various galas, luncheons, and other in-person events, such as the Partners in Diversity “Say Hey“ quarterly mixer to connect with more diverse community leaders here in the Portland metro and Southwest Washington area. Say Hey offers great networking opportunities for other professionals of color (Honorees) who recently (within the last 18 months) relocated to the area. The goal is to let these new residents know that they are not alone. I always enjoyed attending Say Hey and would volunteer as a Buddy to make introductions of the new Honoree.
I edited, updated, and reformatted my work credentials and did it again. When I was finished, it was like viewing a polished manuscript. I felt satisfied and now it was time to apply for jobs. I found several positions on my own and was sent job listings from a small core of support angels (thanks KC & SSW) who I asked to help. Something that was harder to do because of my pride and even feeling embarrassed about my situation. All of this was in my head, and I had to overcome them. What didn’t help was when I applied for positions I knew I could do, landing an interview and being ghosted (not even an email) even after being told they would personally follow up (@TriMet, you should know better!). I’m not bitter about this, I only want organizations to be aware of the psychological impacts of their actions or lack thereof when interviewing candidates. When I have participated in previous interview panels, we made a point to respond to all candidates at the end of the hiring process to close the loop. Candidates deserve to know their fate, rather than being kept in unemployment purgatory.
With the number of rejection notices and non-responses I was getting, I began to question and even doubt my self-worth. Thoughts filled my head about whether my abilities and contributions were sufficient enough to be hired. Does a job define who we are based on the work, or is it the other way around? There were plenty of positions out there, however I just wanted the “one”. I was fortunate to have a supportive spouse and an attention-demanding cat to distract me from diving head first into the pity pool. Luckily, Eric’s job was secure and we had a financial cushion to ease the tensions to pay our bills. My independence made it uncomfortable to be the recipient of spousal support. I’m one of “those people” who when ill, are very self-sufficient and dread the hovering by our loved ones. However, if I really needed something, I would reluctantly let the in-home nurse / doctor-in residence know.
Some witty person came up with the term “fun-employment”; a term implying a more recreational approach to being unemployed. I really didn’t find much fun during the duration of my work quest. This was more a time of catching up on post-pandemic chores and regular meal preparation. I’ll admit, it wasn’t all drudgery. I did manage to amuse myself by binge-watching shows as I searched for my next professional adventure. Job-hunting is stressful and creates unnecessary emotional highs and lows that can make a person feel nauseous in anticipation of what could be. One minute you’re given the impression you’re about to be hired, and the next, you’re being treated like a bad act on the Gong Show (If you’re old enough you’ll understand.).
I guess the point to all of this is despite the barriers and obstacles that are intentionally and unintentionally put in front of us (pandemic, racial bias, ageism, etc.), we can use the opportunity to reinvent and challenge ourselves. Remember to utilize your networks to learn from those community members and professionals you most admire. Fear not the virtual classrooms. They are great spaces to learn a new skill or enhance an old one at your convenience. Life is about learning. Lastly, looking for work can be a wild ride, metaphorically speaking, so be kind to yourself.
As for employers and human resource professionals, technology has provided some benefit to eliminating candidates but also it has removed compassion, empathy, and common sense. It only takes a couple of keystrokes to set up an automated message wishing job candidates luck in their future search. So to quote a well-known footwear brand, “Just Do It”! You have the ability to truly make someone’s dreams come true and put an end to unemployment uncertainty.
Luckily, I’ve now landed where I feel valued for my reputation and community contributions with an amazing group of diverse colleagues!