By Nina McCollum
I lost my job on a sunny July day in 2017. I was 48, a single mom, and loaded with medical debt. Days before, a tumultuous breakup had left a crater in my life. That one-two punch plunged me into terror and poverty. Though I had a modest savings account, I feared it wouldn’t last.
My story is not unusual. Increasingly, people over the age of 45 are ejected from their jobs mid-career, and they find it shockingly difficult to return to the full-time working world. Folks who spent a lifetime creating value for stakeholders suddenly find themselves in the parking lot, carrying their service awards and belongings home in a box.
Why This Happens
Older workers can cost companies more money. Their wealth of experience commands higher pay. If they access health benefits more than younger employees, it can contribute to rising costs of insuring employees. Caregiving for children and/or parents can make work schedules tricky. Employers create excuses to cut older workers because they think it helps the bottom line. They may redistribute workload, or hire younger, “entry level” help at a much lower cost to fill the void, even if junior workers lack skills and experience. In the short term, the company appears to save money. The loss of institutional knowledge, investment in the employee and department productivity is gone, and can actually be a huge cost that employers don’t properly consider. The bitterness that comes from having to pick up the slack after someone leaves causes many other workers to jump ship.
You think it won’t happen to you? Think you have job security, years of institutional knowledge, a fantastic skill set and a winning personality? I’m here to tell you that you’d better have a backup plan. An emergency plan that you can implement IMMEDIATELY.
Now, if you work in a hot industry where demand outpaces supply, for example, web developers and coders, you may not languish in the land of the unemployed for long. But I’ve talked to people in every walk of life, with advanced degrees and impressive bodies of work, all across the country, who haven’t been able to find work once they lost their job. You need to be ready.
I Lost My Job! Now What?
If you lose your job—DON’T PANIC. Panic is unproductive and won’t help. Get organized, be determined, implement your plan – or develop one on the fly.
I knew what to do from early life experience. After crying and boxing up my stuff, I went home and got busy with the work of being poor. I had been making my plan for a long time. That day, I implemented it.
You will spend a lot of time waiting. On the phone. In lines. More time than you ever thought possible. It takes, on average, three hours to start and finish a visit to a food pantry. Sometimes you wait outdoors in crushingly hot temps, sometimes in rain or snow. Keep a small camp chair in your trunk, and a book. If you can, buy a portable battery backup for your phone so you can read and respond to potential work-related emails while you wait. You will learn patience like you’ve never had before.
I applied for unemployment immediately, and for public assistance—SNAP/EBT (aka food stamps) and TANF (aka welfare), and a financial assistance program with a local hospital. Months (yes, months) later I learned that because I was receiving unemployment, I didn’t qualify for welfare, but I did get food stamps. Many people don’t qualify for either. I call this “the gap.” You “make too much” to qualify for much-needed aid, but it isn’t enough to make ends meet. Note: you can still visit most food pantries in the gap. Most don’t require proof of income (or lack thereof).
I cancelled everything that wasn’t necessary—cable, Netflix, etc. I called utilities and my landlord and told them I had lost my job. I asked for every break or payment plan that I could. I sent the minimum to all my credit cards. I couldn’t make the minimum for one card, so after talking with the issuer, we agreed to close it and put it into a repayment plan. This lowered my interest considerably and made the minimum payment more reasonable, and froze the APR. There is a ding on your credit score when you do this, but it’s not as bad as missed or late payments, which remain for up to years.
I called the county about food pantries. My county’s list included places, days, and type of pantry, like “client’s choice” where you “shop” with a cart, except the “store” is in a dilapidated building where brown water drips from the ceiling into buckets. At produce pantries, many offerings were rotted, but not all. You take what they give you, say thanks, and sort it out at home. Some pantries in churches required everyone to pray together first, listen to a sermon, or sing a hymn before you could get the food. I was chastised once for not being more cheerful at one of these pantries. I didn’t go back.
I developed a detailed pantry schedule, just like my old office calendar of weekly meetings. Most pantries admit clients only once monthly. If you rotate around and visit different ones, you can hit a different pantry each week and supply a small household, but understand: you’ll be waiting in line for up to 12 hours a month. Since most pantries don’t offer things like meat or eggs, I supplemented my free food with food I charged on a credit card. I know everyone tells you not to use your credit cards, but without the ones I was able to keep open, I would have been screwed.
Discover Your Sources
Start at your local public library. Libraries offer assistance that fully employed people don’t know about, including computer access, free classes, job search assistance, and tax prep advice. Many online courses are free. Coursera, for example, has a financial aid program. I took classes on Coursera and Hubspot, and studied Spanish via Duolingo and then Rosetta Stone, free with my library’s Lynda app.
With initiative, you’ll make a few bucks with side hustles. If you are able-bodied, retail outlets and restaurants are always hiring. If you need your car (and your insurance), you may want to try ride sharing or delivery jobs—even inquiring about insurance to be a delivery driver can get you dropped by your auto insurance company.
Explore other side hustle apps like TaskRabbit, Gigwalk and Easy Shift. I tried secret shopping, movie theater and retail experience auditing, and more. If you’re in good health, investigate donating blood plasma for money. Frequent donors can make more than $200 a month, though it can be physically exhausting.
Put aside shame about accepting help. Take what’s on offer. It’s there for YOU. Accept help from friends; accept that it’s ok to lean on public assistance for now. Don’t let pride get in the way of eating or having clothes. That’s why these programs exist—to help people out who are going through a rough time.
My story is still being written. I developed a respected freelance writing practice, though the pay isn’t steady. I’m interviewing for full-time jobs. My new partner and I moved in together, which has helped relieve some of the financial pressure.
Know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. You are not broken, and all is not lost. You are smart, you have resources, and there is help available. You just have to find it, and find the strength to accept it.
Nina McCollum is a writer living in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has been in outlets including Huffington Post, AARP’s The Ethel, Good Housekeeping, USA Today and Scary Mommy.