Looming layoffs

So You’re Working From Home—Is Your Job Safe?

“We had a meeting on Friday and all of a sudden they’re like: ‘We’re going to have to lay people off.”

With the majority of the United States on lockdown, millions are working from home.

For many, work has come to mean taking client calls in your bedroom, juggling childcare and conference meetings, and talking to co-workers through a computer screen. Yet, as account manager Thomas Beilke recently learned, remote working doesn’t guarantee your job is safe as people now face the harrowing prospect of getting laid off through Zoom.

“We had a meeting on Friday where [layoffs weren’t] even mentioned and then all of a sudden they’re like: ‘We’re going to have to lay people off.’ A half-hour later, I had a one-on-one meeting with my manager and they told me, ‘Yeah, we terminated your position’ and that was it,” says Beilke, who previously worked for a software company in Dallas.

This new normal has not only shifted how we interact with each other but rocked our economy as well. More than 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March, meaning around 15 to 17 percent of the American workforce may be out of a job. Hospitality and restaurant industries are some of the hardest hit by the pandemic, but no job appears to be immune. Media—an already volatile industry—has been reeling since the crisis began as news organizations lay off staff en masse. And, with festivals canceled and venues shut, corporate and independent entertainment is suffering. President Trump insists the nation will be back to normal soon—a narrative that many experts say is unrealistic—but that’s likely to be a dystopian reality we previously couldn’t imagine.

Beilke speaks in between coughs as he describes his experience of losing his job. His paid time off wasn’t cashed out and he received a small severance package that might last him a month. He’s still got rent, utilities, and car payments to worry about and, on top of everything, he believes he’s suffering from the coronavirus.

“There wasn’t [sic] enough tests and I’m 35 and [the medical workers] said I am in relatively good health so I wouldn’t qualify for a test even though two separate doctors on the phone told me that I have an upper respiratory viral infection,” Beilke tells Supermaker.

When his job ended, his health insurance was slashed. Beilke can, however, continue his coverage through COBRA, but that means paying for it himself. While he did apply for unemployment, he understands there’s a backlog of claims so he’s not sure how long it will be until he receives benefits.

South of Beilke, in Austin, Dan Munro, was also laid off in a similar fashion, but he’s more optimistic about his job loss. “[With] the skillset I have I’m extremely fortunate that I can reasonably expect to get reemployed pretty quickly,” the former information security manager at Alegion says. Munro received a generous severance package and has extended benefits with his employer until the end of July.

While the experiences of millions of laid-off employees are unique, the federal unemployment benefits they are entitled to appear roughly the same.

Expanded Benefits

Amid record layoffs, President Donald Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides jobless workers with an extra $600 per week for four months. An RBC Capital Markets study found that the $2.2 trillion stimulus package could see up to 70 percent of those out of work due to the pandemic make more money than when they were employed. With the $600 weekly increase, some states’ benefits may expand up to $1,200 per week.

Another change in unemployment benefits allows for those previously unqualified—like gig workers, freelancers, and independent contractors—to access unemployment relief as well.

In addition to these benefits, workers may also be entitled to severance pay. However, severance isn’t mandatory and most companies don’t offer it. If a company does offer it, workers will typically receive one to two weeks of pay for every year at the company. Those who have been furloughed are not entitled severance pay as they are technically still on staff. Thankfully, there are resources available, such as microloan programs like this one helping laid off and furloughed journalists. If workers have an unused vacation or sick days, they may be able to obtain the cash equivalent of those days. For both severance and paid time off, though, retrieving benefits may delay one's ability to access unemployment.

Despite the expanded benefits, not all workers qualify for aid. Marla A. Linderman, an employment lawyer in Michigan, points out that individuals who were laid off or began taking leave before April 1 are not covered under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act. “Originally it seemed like it would protect more people, but the way the Department of Labor is interpreting it, that’s a bright lie of April 1,” Linderman says.

How Employers Can Help Their Staff

With unemployment agencies overwhelmed, experts urge workers to be patient and persistent when applying for aid. And to make the process more efficient, Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, recommends that employers go straight to the unemployment agencies to let them know they laid off staff.

“What takes a lot of time in processing unemployment claims is that whenever an employee claims a benefit the agency then has to check with the employer and hear back from the employer before they can approve the benefit,” Evermore says. “So if the employer just goes in proactively then it’s just easier for everyone.”

Many businesses are also setting up fundraisers for their staff to help cushion the blow of losing work. Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, a women-owned restaurant in New York, let their staff go so they could collect unemployment. Beyond that aid, the business set up a GoFundMe to support their workers, which reached its $20,000 fundraising goal. And, while the restaurant team struggles with being apart during this crisis, they are finding a silver lining in the unexpected time-off.

“There’s this sort of mixed nostalgia and also time for research and development,” says chef-owner Carla Perez-Gallardo, mentioning how employees are experimenting with new recipes in their homes. “I think most of them are trying to make the best out of a bad situation and we are doing our best to be available to support them.”

Ultimately, as many industries are shifting to adapt to the current moment, many employers are standing by their staff. And, despite massive layoffs and growing economic uncertainty, this pandemic is also demonstrating a deep sense of humanity and solidarity that most of the public pushed to the wayside back when it was business as usual.

Jessica Buxbaum is a freelance journalist currently based in Los Angeles with published work in The Independent, Prospect Magazine, and several other publications.

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