A First Person Nonprofit story:
Nearly two months ago, I joined the ranks of laid-off Americans. It almost makes me feel Patriotic, somehow Special, to be counted among the group considered most newsworthy, 24/7. The news is filled with stories about us: How will these laid-off folks manage? How will they afford health coverage? More important to the economy, How Will They Go Shopping?
It’s not as if my own layoff came out of left field: for months, like other nonprofits, our health services organization had been suffering from declining donations. Hints of coming changes were everywhere: a sudden rush of closed door meetings at unexpected times, hush-hush conversations in the hallways, cancellation of the holiday party. When orders for 2009 calendars were cut out of the budget as an extravagance, only an ostrich could have seen this as a benign event.
If you sell cars for a living, and people aren’t buying your cars any more, then it comes as little surprise when your manager gives you a pink slip. No demand for product, no job, end of story. In nonprofits, the need for services (product) continues, in many cases it expands in bad economic times, yet workers are just as vulnerable to layoff as the car salesperson. "I know I’m needed, but they can’t afford me?" It feels unfair to the people we serve, not just to me, somehow.
Notice to me that my job (information and referral for people with a particular disease) was being eliminated immediately was handled in a businesslike, straightforward way. The need for budget cuts was explained to me. A black and white, cut and dried matter.
The first weeks after layoff
The first few weeks after being cut loose from my job can only be characterized as a mad scramble completing tasks on a To Do list from hell: among them, maxing out benefits still on the books through the end of the year: new glasses? Yes, I do need new glasses. Mammogram? Yes, please, I’ll take one. Infected tooth? Get it fixed. Prescriptions running out? Fill them ASAP. All this blur of activity happening alongside renewing one’s bittersweet acquaintance with Craigslist jobs, filing for Unemployment benefits, wondering how the hell the vaunted COBRA health insurance plan can be afforded, starting January 1. (For my retired partner and I, the cost will be $1450 per month — my unemployment benefit comes to $1470 per month — you do the math.)
Entering the world of the Nouveau Poor, clever cost-cutting measures come into play: cancel newspaper subscription, switch to pay-as-you-go cell phone plan, don’t use the heater unless it’s below 50 degrees, switch Kitty’s food from her favorite Friskies to some mystery low-cost brand aptly named Priority — (she hasn’t noticed, yet). What used to be a pretty quick in-and-out at Safeway now becomes a lengthy process comparing prices to the penny. Right now, this cost-cutting is almost something of an interesting, challenging game: ooh, we saved 4 dollars on toilet paper! Way to go, Karen! As the weeks progress, and our savings cushion deflates, I’m sure this game will lose its shiny allure and become just another uncomfortable challenge we face.
One of the biggest challenges of all: with layoff, we’ve gotten iced out of our work "family." What we forget as nonprofiteers is that although we may consider ourselves teammates — members of a family — working together to fulfill the worthy mission of the organization, once staff cutbacks are made, your layoff status removes you in one fell swoop from membership in that family. You’re orphaned now, and your only hope is to find a new family, this time hopefully a secure, well-to-do family.
Karen Aitchison has labored 25 years in the vineyards of the California nonprofit sector and looks forward to finding a new position working with seniors, with whom she’s found she has a special affinity.