Your tech job just laid you off. Now what?

Your tech job just laid you off. Now what?
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Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, 967 startups have let 151,630 employees go, according to Layoffs.fyi. If you’re among those, my sincere condolences. This guide should help you avoid some common pitfalls and help you get back on your feet as quickly as possible.

If you’re still employed, now is a good time to get a game-plan together for what to do if you get laid off. One reason to do it now is that it’s hard to make good decisions under stress. Research shows that losing a job is one of the top-five most stressful life events, on par with losing a loved one through death or divorce, major illness or injury, and moving. When you are laid off, you’re suddenly faced with an onslaught of high-stakes choices just when your ability to make good decisions is at a nadir. It happened to me twice in 2019-2020, and I definitely made a few mistakes along the way.

Here’s some advice from people who’ve been there on how to leave with grace, how to get your next gig as quickly as possible, and how to survive and thrive in the meantime.

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Make a graceful exit

We generally aren’t our best selves when we’re stressed. The first step is to get a handle on your emotions. 

“Don’t blame yourself,” Systems Engineer Timothy told me. “Take a deep breath. Your feelings are valid. I remember the last time I was laid off. It was a roller coaster of feelings for the first few days.”

While it might be tempting to push down or try to ignore negative feelings, this is likely to prolong your suffering. Instead, approach your feelings with curiosity and non-judgement. Notice what’s happening in your body. Allow for whatever is there. I’ve found meditation extremely helpful.

Even if you saw the layoff coming (which is often the case with impending mergers), that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

The next step is to take action. That doesn’t necessarily mean start filling out job applications right away. Software Developer and blogger Dan Moore has some amazing advice in, “How to go through a layoff.” Dan recommends bidding your former colleagues farewell and telling them how much you enjoyed working with them via email or LinkedIn. If you’re not already connected, now is a good time to make that happen. 

“Get those LinkedIn endorsements,” Product Manager Andrew Sullivan said. “They help a lot. And, order cocktails to-go from somewhere nice.”

If you’re offered a severance package or asked to sign any kind of agreement, Dan recommends running it by an employment lawyer first. “They’ve seen these kinds of contracts before and are legally obligated to do right by you — unlike the company’s lawyers who wrote up the agreements, who are obligated to look out for the company,” Dan writes. Also before signing anything, make sure you ask your boss or human resources department these seven questions to raise immediately after you’re laid off

Tell everyone you need a job

No matter how much or how little your layoff reflects on you or your work, it’s still hard to talk publicly about needing a job. But, it’s absolutely essential that you release any shame and let your network know you’re looking. If you don’t already have a robust professional network, check out Dan Moore’s “Tips for Building Your Work Network” and our article, “How to recession-proof your software engineering career.”

“Tell people you're looking for a job as soon as possible,” Scientific Engineering Associate Liat Zavodivker said.

“Resumé and contacts first,” Senior DevOps Keith Rockhold said. “Number-one thing, before the crying, the drinking, whatever you need to get yourself right mentally. Update the resume, send it out to your close contacts, and update your LinkedIn. Then, do what you need.”

Operations Manager James Higginbottom notes that many positions are filled without ever ending up with a recruiter or on a career website. “Make sure people you've worked with who can vouch for you know that you're looking for work,” James said.

Post that you’re looking on social media as well. Just be sure that you don’t say anything that could be embarrassing or unflattering to your former employer. Not only do you want their recommendation going forward, but you may end up working for the same company or the same people in the future.

When I was laid off from one of my startups, I posted on social media that they’d run out of money. While this was true, I heard through the grapevine that my former CEO thought the post made negotiations more difficult for him. It’s not a bad idea to run whatever you’re thinking about posting by your former employer first, and while you’re at it, you might as well ask them for help finding a new gig.

To sum it up, leverage your connections to put you in touch with potential employers (or at the very least, provide you with a glowing letter of recommendation). Even with a big network, it can take some time to get the word out and for the opportunities to come in. In the meantime, here are some other moves to consider.

Get money in the door (and learn something new)

As you continue your job search, think about ways you could refine your skills or even pick up new ones. You never know, you might feel inspired to make a career change either within or outside of the tech industry.

Software Engineer James Mishra recommends job seekers set themselves apart from the “stampeding herd” of tech workers who are and will be looking for work. 

“Laid-off tech workers need to differentiate themselves from the herd,” James said. “If I were laid off right now, I'd probably dive into contributing to open source projects and making free books and online courses about computer security and application performance. And when the economic dust settles, hopefully, that body of work would be a differentiator.”

Now is a good time to learn new in-demand skills. In a recent survey, 89% of IT managers said they had trouble finding enough machine learning, artificial intelligence, and blockchain talent.

Demand for talent is increasing fastest in the areas of AR/VR, gaming, machine learning, and NLP. For more on what’s hot, check out In-Demand Skills to Get a Remote Developer Job.

“In software, security and performance are hard to ignore,” James said. “Expertise is lucrative because slow equals expensive and nobody wants to be hacked.”

To help you learn these new skills, check out these two resources: 42 Projects to Practice Programming Skills and 80+ resources for learning to code online.

“I think candidates should assume that many new openings are for solving specific problems (e.g. specialists) as opposed to being cross-functional,” James said. “Generalists need to advertise how they can handle specialist problems.”

Once you’re proficient enough, freelancing/contracting is a great way to learn new in-demand skills while getting money in the door. According to Upwork, freelancing has a nearly $1 trillion direct impact on the economy and makes up nearly 5% of US GDP, comparable to the size of the entire information sector. Freelancing widens your network and offers you the chance to get more positive recommendations. Plus, many freelance gigs turn into full-time roles.

Widen your job search

While job hunting, Timothy used his old email contacts to search for open positions. If you’ve been corresponding with people in your field who work at other companies, searching your email can remind you of the names of those companies. Then, you can go to their websites to see whether they’re hiring. If they are, you already have a connection there. You can also email those contacts to ask whether they are thinking about hiring.

Timothy also suggests searching for the kind of company you want to work for on Google Maps in your nearest tech corridor and checking the company websites for open roles. “Also bring up the local paper’s ‘best places to work’ and start there,” Timothy said. “At least you have a better chance of being treated well where you land.”

It’s also a good time to prep for your interviews. In case of crossing paths with someone interesting, give your LinkedIn profile a face-lift and get your elevator pitch ready.

Speaking of widening your net, consider attending networking events. To find an event, your existing circle is a great place to start asking for recommendations. Another option is checking out websites like Eventbrite and Meetup. Even Facebook groups can spark a new connection.

What to do about health insurance when you’re laid off

In the aftermath of a layoff, it’s easy to divert all of your energy into finding a new job, which is understandable. Just don’t let health insurance fall to the wayside as you’re getting your next job interview lined up. 

“After a layoff, how long you are covered under your employer-sponsored plan hinges on how far in advance your premiums are paid. Typically, employers pay a single month in advance, which is welcome news for those laid off early in the month, not so much for those laid off near the end,” shares Tom Jackson in this InCharge article.

Once your employer-sponsored plan ends, you can get health insurance in a couple ways. Your first option is COBRA. COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, and under this act, you can continue to receive the same healthcare benefits that you received under your employer-sponsored plan. COBRA coverage typically lasts 18-36 months, and even dependents can continue to receive coverage through it.

The catch? COBRA can be expensive. Under COBRA, individuals take on the total cost of the plan. (Under an employer-sponsored plan, the employer and employee share the total cost.) Not to mention there’s a 2% administrative fee. However, some employers may include COBRA coverage as part of your severance agreement, so it’s worth asking your HR department about it.

Beside COBRA, your other option is enrolling in a Marketplace health insurance plan. People in most states can find a Marketplace application through HealthCare.gov. However, there are some states (18 of them to be exact) that have their own Marketplace.

If you live in one of those 18 states, you’ll apply through your state Marketplace instead of HealthCare.gov. For example, if you live in California, your state Marketplace is Covered California. If you live in New York, your state Marketplace is New York State of Health. Click here to find out how to apply in your state.

After you submit your Marketplace application, you’ll find out which health insurance plans you qualify for. There’s Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and plans from the Marketplace itself.

The basics of severance pay

Here’s a fact you may not know: The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) doesn’t require employers to provide severance pay to employees who’ve been let go. As the Department of Labor puts it, “Severance pay is a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee (or the employee's representative).”

If, however, your employer made any promises about a severance package, either in your employee contract or in the employee handbook, they have to follow through on those promises.

If you do have a severance agreement between you and your employer, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Severance pay is usually based on the length of time you worked for the employer. According to Investopedia, employers typically provide 1-2 weeks’ worth of pay for each year of employment, but it could be more.
  • Severance pay is typically a lump sum payment, meaning it’s a one-time payment versus a series of payments made over a period of time.
  • Severance pay is also taxable the year you receive it, but there are a few ways to reduce your tax liability. 
  • Severance pay could have an impact on your ability to receive unemployment benefits, depending on which state you live in.

Paperwork may not be the hardest part of being laid off, but it’s definitely not the easiest. As mentioned earlier, consider hiring an employment attorney to review your severance agreement. That way, you’ll be 100% confident about what you’re receiving and the terms you’re agreeing to.

Bonus tips

  • Know your rights when it comes to receiving a payout for unused vacation days, which depend on the state.
  • Know about the WARN Act (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act). Under this act, companies need to give their employees a 60-day notice before letting them go during a mass layoff.
  • Furlough is different from a layoff and involves a temporary leave of absence or reduced unpaid hours. However, you might still qualify for unemployment insurance under furlough.
  • Do you want to make a career change? Although layoffs can trigger a lot of stress, they can also be opportunities to pivot. For career advice, consider reaching out to someone whose career you admire (like a friend or family member) or talking to a career coach.
  • When filling out job applications, don’t underestimate the power of writing cover letters that are specific to each company. Feel free to use templates for the basic framework, but always finish with a personal touch that shows you’ve done your homework. Hiring managers will recognize the care and attention you put into it.

Moving forward after a tech layoff

Losing your job is incredibly stressful. Experiencing job loss in a recession and global pandemic is a whole nother level. It’s easy to make mistakes and lose momentum when we’re under stress. Begin by remembering to breathe and feel your feelings. Then exit your job with grace and kindness to maintain positive relationships as much as possible. Lean hard on your friends, family, and professional network to help you find your next gig. Don’t be shy about telling people you’re looking for work. There’s nothing shameful about it and people want to help. Be open to learning new skills and looking at other cities when finding your next job. Lastly, know the ins and outs of health insurance and severance pay.

About the author

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is the former Head of Content at Clockwise. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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