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Commentary: I'm laid off - so now what? Dealing with unemployment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2009 - I took a bullet in the hand while working on a story for the Suburban Journals, but this did not stop me from falling victim to the economy and being laid-off.

I am the lone surviving victim of the Kirkwood City Council shootings on Feb. 7, 2008. I was a reporter covering what I thought was an ordinary city council meeting. That changed when Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton killed five people that night. Mayor Mike Swoboda, who was also injured, would later die.

In mid-April of this year, I had an early morming meeting with my manager. I thought I might be receiving some sort of recognition since the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had just that week received a national award for its coverage of the Kirkwood shooting.

When I walked in, I saw my boss and the human resources director -- and knew immediately I was on my way out. I was told I was laid-off for budgetary reasons, not job performance.

I remember, that while my hand was bleeding, I called that same boss and let her know that another reporter had to cover the shooting because I had been shot. Later I contributed special pieces on my experiences.

Now, in April, I received a packet of career services information and was told to file for unemployment.

Walking out with the packet in hand, a hand with a plastic joint put in after a second surgery, I cleared my desk and left.

Not alone out there

I was now without a job and among millions of Americans searching for work.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is at 8.9 percent, and since the recession began in December 2007, more than 5 million jobs have been lost.

The numbers locally tell a similar story. "Prior to September 2008, we were seeing 4,500 to 5,000 customers a month, and now we are seeing over 9,000. The March count was at 9,481 people," said Donny Carroll, manager of the state-run Missouri Career Center on Delmar.

Sadly, I did not have to go far to gain comfort from others in the same boat.

My friend Greg Lyon, 37, also shared the same sudden jolt of losing a job. Lyon worked as an information technology team leader when he was laid off on Feb. 26.

"At first there was a good deal of shock and surprise," Lyon said. "Our team had so much work at the end of the fall that we were turning down projects."

Lyon said this was the first time he had been without a job since graduating from college in 1993. Now he's found little more than a tough job market.

"I have found positions out there, but also a lot of people applying for jobs," Lyon said. "Also, fairly common is that a job position could be put on hold or canceled."

He said what he thought would help him land that next job is working with a recruiter to have access to the "75 percent or more job vacancies" that aren't posted "on the internet or in the classified section of a newspaper." The recruiter looks at open positions and contacts the client if the position looks like a good fit.

Lyon has posted his resume on job search sites, such as Careerbuilder.com and Dice.com, a job board for information technology professionals.

Keeping a positive attitude is also part of the process of finding a job, said Robyn Berkley, an assistant professor in the department of management and marketing at Southern Illinois University. "You need to feel good about yourself to land that next job," she said.

Managing the household budget -- and job search

Following Lyon's lead, I am networking and looking for opportunities. I also took Carroll's advice and filed right away for unemployment benefits.

That's the very first thing he said that people should do when they lose their job. (Carroll also said to file regardless of how you're fired, even if it's for performance reasons.) "Let the filing process determine whether or not you are eligible for unemployment," he said.

Like many others, I'm looking for ways to stretch my unemployment benefits. Instead of going out to dinner, my partner and I stay home and cook. We think twice before shopping, and any major purchases will have to wait until I find a new job.

Although it's not easy, we are adults and managing. Others have to face their children with the cold reality of losing employment.

Alicia Merchant, 33, worked as a project manager and was laid-off between Christmas and New Year's Day last year. Merchant is a single mother of two boys, ages 8 and 11.

She did not share with her boys at first what happened to her. "I did not tell my kids for the first two months, my older son is a worrier," Merchant said.

She said she told her kids when she took them out for ice cream one day. She told them not to worry, that she would find something and they would all be OK. "They took it really well and were very encouraging and telling me it would be OK," she said.

Merchant received support from those closest to her. Her ex-husband, for example, helped with the boys' medical insurance.

The family cut out non-essentials, got rid of their home phone and went to basic internet service. "I even started shopping at Aldi," she said.

Merchant, who worked with recruiting companies to get her resume out there, proves that even in this economy persistence can still pay off.

She started her new job this past week, and "so far the new job is going great," Merchant said.

Todd Smith is a freelance writer in St. Louis.