The Situation, Day 1

11 Mar 2013

Original Blogger tags: The Situation 2013

So, one week ago today, I sat down at my desk to start my work day and the phone rang. It was my boss to let me know that my employer was laying me off, after a bit over seven years, and that my last day would be last Friday. So today begins my first work week of unemployment.

I guess you’re usually not supposed to talk about this sort of thing. It’s embarrassing; it’s stigmatized. People don’t want unemployment cooties. Well, I need to talk about it.

First, I felt that the separation from my employer was on good terms, as these things go. I don’t really have any complaints about them at all. They have been having difficulty trying to maintain and grow as a business for a number of years. I had heard my co-workers “crying wolf” for so long that I basically had been tuning it out. Several other engineers left. My hope had been that I could stick out the current downturn in business until things turned around. That didn’t happen. I was one of three software engineers laid off last Monday. We were the less-senior engineers. The fact that they have engineers that have been there for much longer than seven years says good things about the company in general. I hope they can pull it together, or re-organize, get some good business going. I would work for them again in the future, assuming I was still available — and of course I hope I won’t be, because I need to find work soon.

In 2010, my family and I moved from Ann Arbor to Saginaw. We did this because we wanted to be closer to my mother-in-law, who was in declining health. She wanted to spend as much time with her grandchildren as possible. We made that happen. I’m proud of achieving that. It was the right thing to do.

There were other reasons. Our family was growing — we had four children, and were feeling extremely squeezed in a two-bedroom apartment. There weren’t really any bigger apartments to rent, in Ann Arbor, or houses to rent at prices we considered reasonable. The real estate market in Ann Arbor remained extremely inflated with respect to wages, so our chances of buying a house there were pretty much non-existent. To put it in perspective, the big old house we bought here would have cost at least five times more in Ann Arbor. So I got permission to telecommute, and we bought the big old house. Well, we bought a mortgage, at least. I set myself up with a dedicated phone line, a phone headset, high-speed internet, and bought and configured various computers I’d need to do my job. I brought up some hardware boards for occasional debugging on the target hardware, and I’ve been telecommuting for just under three years. I drove down to the offices in Ann Arbor or Lansing when needed, but most days I wrote code from home, connected to the office VPN, logged in to an IRC chat, communicating by e-mail, phone, and chat, and calling in for a weekly conference call.

My work days were not actually very much different than they were when I worked in the office in Ann Arbor, since that office was itself a satellite office. There are a couple of other satellite offices elsewhere in Michigan and a couple other single employees working from home like I was, so we were all accustomed to collaborating by phone, e-mail, Wiki, Mantis, Subversion, and IRC.

Living cheaply in a big old house and telecommuting sounds kind of idyllic. It is and it isn’t. The extra space has been a godsend. Having a whole separate suite of rooms to use as a home office is great. The “cheaply” part hasn’t really worked out that way. This house is poorly insulated. We knew that, but we thought we’d be able to put money into it gradually to improve the situation. Our winter monthly energy bills are upwards of $700. That’s with the thermostats set at 63 F. Everyone is very used to wearing wool socks and layers. I type with fingerless gloves on, during the coldest weeks. My father and stepmother have kindly sent us a whole bunch of great old felted wool blankets that they found at yard sales in California — blankets I don’t think you could buy these days for any price. They are a godsend on cold nights. I keep a low-wattage space heater under my desk, and we keep one in the bedroom. Those things still aren’t free to run, though. Living in the city of Saginaw proper, our water bill is bizarrely high — perhaps as much as ten times higher than it was in Ann Arbor. We pay city taxes. And, of course, there’s the inflating cost of gasoline — fortunately we don’t have to use much gasoline — and food. Saginaw is a troubled city.

Telecommuting is what made this whole venture possible. We are here now. I am not aware of much of my kind of work in the area, although I will be looking. I am willing to commute. When I lived in Ann Arbor, if I found myself between jobs, which happened a couple of times, I was occasionally able to find work with a technical temp firm. I would wind up commuting to Dearborn, about 30 miles one way, to work as a test engineer for Visteon, or write documentation for Delphi, or some similar project.

That commute was not fun, but it was doable, and that work kept us afloat while I looked for permanent work. But now Dearborn is 105 miles away, not 30. I don’t think I can make that work. That would be over three hours of driving a day, and a huge, huge chunk of my paycheck would be needed to cover gas. Can we even sell this house if we need to? It could be very difficult to do so. And if we moved, where would we move to? So, my first choice would be to telecommute again, at least primarily.

We will be eligible for food assistance. My wife and I have been feeding our family — now a family of seven — pretty much from scratch with basic ingredients for a number of years now, so we are very familiar with lentils and beans and rice, roasting whole chickens, saving the schmaltz, and stewing the carcass and bones in a slow cooker with our onion peels and vegetable ends to make broth, which becomes soup. We buy the four-pound cans of tuna and bulk packs and produce by the case. I don’t think trying to live on food assistance will be a big problem; we should be able to eat pretty much like we always do, although we won’t be able to get pies once a week from our local diner, or go out to eat at all. That’s been only an occasional treat — pizza a couple times a month, or my wife and I would go out for a date and get a meal. That’s over for now. I can live with that.

To qualify for food assistance, we need to only have one car. So we’ve got to get rid of our second car. It isn’t much of a car — a 20-year-old station wagon. We don’t take it on the freeway because it has a tendency to break down. The thing is, in a typical day we don’t actually use both cars, but if I am actually commuting to Lansing, I feel better knowing that she can get a kid to urgent care or buy groceries. It is something we can technically live without, though, so it will go.

This morning I got on Michigan’s online system and filed for unemployment compensation. The coverage maxes out at $362 a week. The last time I used the system was 2005, and the coveraged maxed out at $362 a week then, too. So it appears the numbers have not been adjusted for inflation or cost of living increases in any way.The paperwork says I can claim this benefit for a maximum of 14 weeks. That will be enough per month to pay just a little bit more than our mortgage, insurance, and one monthly debt payment that comes out of the same account, so I set it up to go directly to that account.

It will not cover any other things that are non-optional. That list of “any other things” includes, in order of dollar amount: heat and electricity; medical co-pays; our life insurance; our car insurance; a couple of small debts; and a storage unit down in Ann Arbor that still holds some of our furniture and personal effects. There are some others. I have to figure all that out this week. Everything else has to go.

We are eligible for COBRA — extending our health insurance, which ended last Friday. The payment would be over $1,500 a month. I can’t swing that. Even the co-pays can really add up for a family of seven. I am very fortunate in that I don’t really have any medical issues. My weight is pretty good, I don’t take any pills regularly other than vitamins. But the stress of a situation like this is certainly not going to help. It’s easy to get caught up in self-recriminations and what should-have-been. Yes, we should have a lot more in savings. We don’t. I should have been trying to nail down another job well before now. I didn’t. We’d be better off if this had happened in the summer, when our energy bills are low, rather than coming after several months of huge energy bills. Fortunately we will be able to turn the heat off entirely in a few days since the risk of freezing pipes will be over.

There are a few things I can probably sell relatively quickly to raise a little cash. I’ll do that, but I don’t want to get distracted into spending days of effort that should be spent on the job search. Used guitars and music gear don’t go for nearly what one might initially think it should, unless you were fortunate and had a piece that is now considered collectible or is extremely high-quality; most of my stuff isn’t.

Selling my computer equipment would be eating my seed corn. I use it to earn money. And I don’t think anyone wants to pay me much for a cassette deck or a twenty-year-old 20” tube TV. Mostly, I just need a job. A good job. I’m trying to stay focused on positive solutions rather than just worrying about just how badly things could go for us, and how quickly — although we have to start considering those options, too.

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