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You've been laid off; here's what to do next

By Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / November 16, 2008
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So, you just lost your job. Now what?

Matthew Christopher, 32, of Marion, said he was stunned when he was laid off last month from his job as a project manager at a construction company - even though the industry has been hit hard by the credit crunch and worsening recession.

"I was totally taken by surprise," said Christopher, who is collecting unemployment compensation and serving in the National Guard. "Everything was going great."

Christopher said he's talked to headhunters, asked friends about possible jobs, blasted out resumes, and considered changing careers or working for a construction company in Iraq, where he served as an Army captain.

And so far, he's staying positive. "Even though one door is shut, there are many other possibilities," he said.

If you are laid off, it's understandable you might feel angry, frustrated, and confused. But there are practical things you can do to land back on your feet. Here are seven places to start:

1) Ask about severance benefits. Find out if you can get extra money, outplacement assistance, or other benefits from your old employer. Maybe you can keep your laptop; it doesn't hurt to ask. And be sure you're reimbursed for outstanding vacation days and expenses, or other money you are owed. Above all, don't burn any bridges. Your former colleagues may help you find your next job.

2) Apply for unemployment assistance. Sign up right away to avoid losing any benefits. Currently, you can receive a maximum of $628 per week, for up to 39 weeks.

You can apply over the phone at 877-626-6800 (if calling from area codes 351, 413, 508, 774, or 978) or 617-626-6800 (from elsewhere in Massachusetts).

Or apply in person at 37 career centers around the state. The centers, listed at www.mass.gov/careercenters, also offer career counseling and job search assistance.

3) Look into health insurance. With certain exceptions, you have the right under federal law to keep your health insurance when you leave a job - but it can be expensive. You have 60 days to decide - and you can sign up retroactively - so check out other options. If you have a spouse with health insurance, it may be easiest to join that plan. Other plans are at www.mahealthconnector.org. You may also qualify for the Medical Security Program (800-908-8801).

4) Scrutinize your finances. Review your bills. Consider cutting discretionary expenses, such as cable TV services, or dining out. Try earning extra income by taking a temporary job or doing contract work. For other government benefits, go to www.mass.gov and click on the green button marked "Need Help."

5) Tally your debt. Make sure you can pay all your bills. If you have a student loan, you can usually defer payments while you're unemployed; ask your lender. But if you are drowning in other debt, you may want to ask a credit counseling firm to help negotiate a payment plan. You might start with the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (www.aiccca.org or 866-703-8787) or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org or 800-388-2227). If you're deep in debt, you may need a bankruptcy attorney. The Massachusetts Bar Association can make referrals at 866-627-7577.

6) Don't touch your retirement funds. Avoid tapping into your 401(k) account if you can. Otherwise you'll get hit with income taxes and, in most cases, a 10 percent tax penalty. Plus, you'll need that money in retirement. Instead, see if you can keep your old 401(k) account or do a "direct rollover" into an IRA account.

7) Network. Ask everyone you know about possible job opportunities. Contact companies you're interested in working for. Tap into college alumni networks. Consider using social networking websites like LinkedIn or Facebook. In a tight economy, blindly sending out resumes may not be enough.

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.

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