update: we’re being re-hired for work that doesn’t exist

Remember the letter-writer whose employer — a theater — had laid everyone off but then re-hired them when they got a federal pandemic loan, and she was worried they’d just be laid off again when the loan ran out? (#4 at the link) Here’s the update.

You answered my question about this in 2020, and it was helpful.

I had the issue that my nonprofit theatre laid us all off, cancelled ALL programming, and then rehired us under the guise of “business as usual” when that literally could not happen because *pandemic life.* After we were laid off and rehired, they did in fact lay (some of) us off again. They laid us off in May, a month before the stipulations were met, so that they could give us a month’s severance for our permanent layoff. In the lay-off email, they also said people would be getting an additional two week severance for every 5 years they worked there. I was at 4.5 years, and I asked if they could round up my time for an additional two weeks. They did. I knew I had nothing to lose by asking for a little bit more, and not only did they give it to me, they rounded up for ANYONE that was within 6 months of being 5, 10 or whatever years at the company. (I think because EVERYONE probably asked for that.)

They did tell us that we were ineligible for unemployment because of the severance package, but that turned out to be not true. Some people lost out on their unemployment because of that misinformation.

There were some people in the comments who were concerned that I’d rather be on unemployment than work, and that simply isn’t true. First of all, it’s part of the benefits package, which is part of my compensation. Also, the place I worked at was incredibly hostile (and I do mean the legal definition of a hostile work environment, with an HR that made things WORSE!), and this was the best way to finally get out of that situation. And most importantly, I had been looking for work in an adjacent field. I had time to focus on getting my certification for my next career move, and thankfully the boost in unemployment allowed me to completely focus on that, rather than stressing myself out trying to work because people are only useful when they’re working. (Eyeroll to all those “productivity” trolls.) I am happy to say that within a week or two of the layoff I was offered and accepted a position that pays more than $15,000 more a year (which is more than 1/3 more than what I made), with a start date 6 weeks later. I had time to do a bucket-list road trip, see family, and all the appropriate quarantining in between.

I also wanted to add that this column has gotten me through some rough times by letting me know what is and isn’t acceptable, and how to best handle the worst moments so that I can focus on the long game: getting paid and getting out. I’ve landed several jobs thanks to the resume, cover letter, and interview techniques you talk about.

Thanks for all of this. I miss the podcast, but I appreciate you advocating for an appropriate work/life balance.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I’m happy things worked out! Always apply for unemployment even if you think you don’t qualify, but be honest on your application and follow instructions. The UI office will let you know if you’re not eligible. It’s terrible that some people missed out on collecting unemployment because their former employer told them they couldn’t.

    1. Anon Today*

      People can still file late, and they may even get those benefits! I work in UI, and we had a case not long ago where a claimant didn’t file until more than a YEAR after he became unemployed, and typically that’s a pretty easy decision to deny for timeliness. However, in the course of the investigation, it was found that the employer had instructed the claimant not to file, and because of that, the claimant was eligible for benefits and got a whole bunch of backdated weekly payments. This is VERY rare, but it DOES happen, so yes – it’s always worth it to file, even if it’s late, and especially in those circumstances. (disclaimer: there were other extenuating circumstances for the claimant as well, but my point is that it’s worth it to file – the worst that will happen is that UI will say No, but if you don’t file, they’re saying No already, so….can’t hurt!)

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        That’s good to know. And I bet the UI office doesn’t take kindly to employers lying to terminated employees about eligibility!

        1. old curmudgeon*

          That they do not. In my state, that is grounds for allowing benefits (chargeable to the employer’s account) that would otherwise have been denied.

      2. Kahunabob*

        Interesting. I’m not from the US and was wondering if UI benefits are paid from taxes, or billed by the UI office to the company that laid of the employee? Or is that only done as a fine, when a company lies about begin eligble?

        1. Let's Just Say*

          UI benefits are funded by a tax that employers pay per employee, called the payroll tax. All companies have to pay the payroll tax, regardless of whether they fire or lay off any employees, but there may be additional costs when a former employee claims UI benefits (not sure about that part.)

  2. Hamish*

    I’m so glad it worked out well for you, OP.

    Theaters can be such awful work environments. My partner recently left his position at a nonprofit theater that I honestly consider to be a toxic cult. It hits every “cult” definition I’ve read. My partner was in for 13 years and progressed to the “inner circle”. He’s been doing a lot of emotional processing.

    So, good for you getting out of another toxic workplace in the theater world!

    1. beanie*

      I came here to see whether anyone else from theatre would comment. There were many things I loved about working for a regional non-profit musical theatre, but whoooo, it’s not an environment that adheres to workplace norms by any means.

    2. Lizzo*

      Based on conversations with my counterparts at nonprofit arts organizations, I’d +100 this. The arts in general attract some very interesting folks. I know of at least one person at a world-class arts organization who picked up and walked out one day because her supervisor was so verbally abusive, and she’d just had enough.

    3. Former Arts Marketer*

      I spent the first 7 years of my professional life at nonprofit performing arts orgs, and another year working with a vendor with that client base. I had no clue what workplace norms were for years because that was my life, and my background (theater degree). My heart hurts for so much that has been lost in that industry during this pandemic, but the optimistic part of me wonders if the break will allow some of that toxicity to be flushed out.

    4. Hedgehog O'Brien*

      I used to work for a theater as well and can 100% verify that toxic work environments are very common. I was there for five years and I can’t even get into everything that went on, but toxic personalities plus total disregard for workplace norms, plus total lack of business acumen/strategy at the highest levels made it impossible to stay long-term. I had more than one verbally abusive and/or emotionally manipulative boss and I felt like my strategic and business skills were not only not being used, but were actively not wanted (which is so ironic, because it’s one of the reasons I was hired). I still work at a nonprofit arts organization, but I think I honestly found the diamond in the rough. The culture is amazing, and our ED is strategic, thoughtful, and a great manager. I actually don’t think my previous org will bounce back from the pandemic, which is entirely because of decisions they’ve made, and maybe that’s for the best.

  3. Admin in Arkansas*

    In any other time in my life, I might have been one of those people who were annoyed that someone would rather receive unemployment than work (I know this doesn’t apply to the OP, but to those they were responding to). These are not normal times. I am very lucky and grateful to have remained gainfully employed (in special events, no less!) and not once did I admonish others for taking the unemployment + extra due to the pandemic. It did sting a little that some people were making more on unemployment than in their work, but if you think that is the employee’s fault you have a serious lack of information regarding employers and fair compensation.

    I miss the podcast too! Though, I guess I don’t need it – I hear Alison’s voice in my head when I read her responses, haha.

  4. Who moved my cheese?*

    Hello updated LW #4, I would like to invite anyone “concerned that [you’d] rather be on unemployment than work” to kick rocks. That’s weird, and rude, and belittling, and a really… let’s go with SILLY thing to say, as many other commenters pointed out on the original thread.

    1. Cat Tree*

      And it’s especially silly when the “work” is just showing up at a place and doing pointless busywork because very little real work is even available to do. I hate the attitude that people need to make a show of being busy to prove they’re worthy.

    2. TimeTravlR*

      Yes yes yes! I posted something similar. We should be supportive of each other, not making snarky comments about people we don’t even know!

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I just went back and looked at the comments on the original post and — while I admittedly only skimmed — it looks like only one person said that and was roundly shut down by everyone else. There was some general talk about the difficulties from a policy level, but I didn’t see people directing it toward the OP herself. (Again, though, maybe there’s something I missed.)

    4. Lizzo*

      I believe the appropriate counter to this silly “rather be on unemployment than working” argument is to point out how significantly undervalued–and therefore underfunded–the arts are, and how the salaries reflect this. If there’s a problem to be addressed here, that’s it.

      1. Hedgehog O'Brien*

        Yeah I agree. If you can make more on unemployment than you can working your butt off for a nonprofit organization, that’s a much bigger issue that needs to be addressed at a national level.

    5. I'm Down With OPP*

      Hey all, OP here.

      Thanks for the support! I want to clarify that when I originally read the responses back when my original letter was answered, I was in quite an emotional state. I was getting that “productivity” rhetoric from folks at the job and other areas of the media at the time. I didn’t re-read any of it before writing my update, but that point stuck with me because I was hearing it from all over the place.

      So, my apologies for making it sound like the commenters here were snarky, when in reality they are not. This community is great and the people are generally kind and thoughtful.

  5. Alice*

    As someone who worked in theater for years, I’m so happy to read this outcome. And huge congrats to the OP on the new job! Theater can be such a tough career– on the outside it seems like a passion job, but often it’s rife with sexual harassment, racism and weird power dynamics. Huge kudos to you for prioritizing your physical, mental and financial health.

  6. TimeTravlR*

    This community is normally pretty supportive so I am saddened to see that some commenters thought OP would rather be on unemployment than work. We don’t know each other’s lives enough to make those kind of comments.

    1. TimeTravlR*

      And but that, I mean those comments to the first post (OP referred to it in this update).
      Also this is a great update!

  7. Cassidy*

    “I had been looking for work in an adjacent field. I had time to focus on getting my certification for my next career move, and thankfully the boost in unemployment allowed me to completely focus on that, rather than stressing myself out trying to work because people are only useful when they’re working. (Eyeroll to all those “productivity” trolls.)”

    Hard agree. I’d rather contribute more in taxes or whatever to UI so that a person can find *suitable* work. It makes no sense for a anyone to be working whichever job is available just to stay off the taxpayer dime. We lose good people and their expertise by relegating them like that.

    Good for you, OP!!

  8. Sam Foster*

    ALWAYS verify what your employer tells you with your state government regarding unemployment. Malicious, ignorant or misguided, no employer will be able to tell you the full story of how your state manages unemployment.

  9. Kivrin*

    I work in the nonprofit sector and I’m glad to see this LW qualified for unemployment. I worked for a nonprofit several years ago and was denied unemployment after a layoff for budget reasons because the organization does not pay into unemployment. I don’t understand how it’s legal but I’ve heard from many colleagues that because nonprofits here do not have to pay into, employees can’t get unemployment. This is in Texas.

  10. Jasperred*

    I got a huge severance from a former employer but in a lump sum. So I still got unemployment albeit not for very long as I got another job after a month. I don’t feel bad. I’ve been working since I was 16, sometimes two jobs. I’ve paid into it. Those are my benefits. I felt guilty and awful at the time though and every second I wasn’t looking for a job I felt like a bad person and would get panicky. Honestly anyone who parrots stuff like that tends to be a jerk with no empathy or compassion in general so don’t listen to them. There is nothing wrong with taking time to find the right job. I spent 3 weeks running from job interview to job interview, how was I supposed to do that if I’d gotten a random job somewhere to not offend the taxpayers who were still employed?

    Good on you OP.

  11. Mavis*

    (The following is based on my experience and anecdotes from friends in the US. Not an expert, just someone with strong opinions. Feel free to correct any mistakes.)

    A friendly reminder that UI is not really taxpayer funded – it’s paid in by employers (via a tax, yes, but they’re usually given credits that offset most of the cost to them) and employees. Since it’s a government agency, some indirect tax dollars may be at work but it’s not welfare – not that there’s anything wrong with welfare, don’t get me started – and the people who think that applying for UI benefits means swallowing your pride are ridiculously off base. It’s insurance and it exists for a good reason. Like all insurance, hope you won’t need it and be glad you have it if you do.

    Also, no one is getting rich off unemployment benefits. It’s a temporary amount that is a portion of your paycheck and barely/rarely covers expenses, especially if you’re paying COBRA premiums to hold onto your health care. And you do pay income taxes on UI benefits so you’re not a complete freeloader!

    Also, some people *are* working while collecting benefits – you can usually make up to a certain amount each week and receive a reduced benefit – the total being more than UI alone. It can be a good way to keep working while still having time to meaningfully job search. Added bonus is that you can stretch your UI benefits longer this way since you basically get a total amount of $X to draw from and the less you take each week, the longer it lasts.

    TL;DR: Go forth and apply for benefits without shame. Normalize UI benefits!!!

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