Monday, January 26, 2009

Help! I've been furloughed!!

Last week I had dinner in Washington DC with some old cronies from my days as a South Florida journalist. Of the six who attended, two were still in the struggling newspaper business. One worked for Gannett, the world’s largest newspaper publisher, which recently announced that all employees would have to take a weeklong furlough.

In other words, a week of unemployment.

As our country grapples with the worst economic mess since (choose one):

A) The Great Depression
B) The Boston Tea Party
C) The New York Yankees

it’s amazing how the words used to describe unemployment have multiplied exponentially. While companies like Gannett “furlough,” others “tighten their belts” while others “realign” and still others engage in “selective reduction.”

I find the last one to be the most humiliating. Imagine coming into your boss’s office one morning and being told you have been selectively reduced. I’d leave with all the dignity of a chicken embryo.

According to Gannett chairman Craig Debow, the furlough was Gannett’s way of avoiding more layoffs for an industry that is losing customers and advertising dollars faster than Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is losing his sanity.

Note that Debow didn’t say the furlough would avoid layoffs. He said it would help avoid more layoffs. Yet my former co-worker seemed resigned to the probability that his furlough would eventually become permanent.

I tried to make light of an awkward moment.

“Maybe the furlough is just a chance for you to see whether you like being unemployed,” I said. “If not, just go to your bosses and say, ‘this unemployment thing isn’t for me. I’d really like to keep my job.’”

My friend laughed although I don’t think he found it funny. When you’re the one on the chopping block, it’s hard to laugh. More than eight percent of the current workforce can attest to that.

I don’t know what it’s like to be unemployed for I have never been fired. But I also can only vaguely remember what it’s like to have a normal job. In other words, a line of work that begins at 8, ends at 5, and usually involves sitting in traffic, a lame Christmas party and gossip.

For the past 20 years I have been self-employed. When you work for yourself, you constantly hover between having a job and being unemployed. If I perform my stand-up comedy routine for a corporation on a given day then yes, I’m employed. If I go seven days between gigs, then I guess you could say I’m unemployed. If I choose to spend those seven days combing the Internet looking for a company that could use a comedian at its next event, then I guess I’m in the job market.

I am also faced with, for the first time in several years, a work “slowdown.” The calendar is a bit leaner in 2009 than I would like. This puts me in a precarious position: Should I be thankful that at least I have SOME dates on my calendar and operate in a “business as usual” mode? Or should I assume that a work slowdown eventually will lead to a work “stoppage” and start stocking up on canned tuna fish, Hamburger Helper and Ramen Noodles?

I realized I am not even close to answering this question when I compiled a “to do” list of things to occupy my time until the economy gathers steam. I highly recommend everybody make a “to do” list. Heck, President Obama made one. Of course his includes things like “fix the financial crisis,” “end the war” and “keep Kanye West on a short leash” but at least it shows he is motivated.

If you are unemployed, your “to do” list is fairly concrete:

1) Find another job

A furloughed employee’s list is only slightly longer:

1) Realize you will soon be unemployed
2) Start looking NOW for another job

If you were selectively reduced, your list contains an element of revenge:

1) Vow never to be selectively reduced again
2) Start your own business even if that business is raking leaves by hand in a forest preserve
3) Take all the leaves you have raked and dump them on your former boss’ lawn.
4) Ring his doorbell and tell him you will selectively reduce the leaves for a fee – plus health insurance

Here’s my list. Like I said, I’m having trouble defining a theme. Optimism or panic? When in doubt, include both:

1) Start novel that has been kicking around in my head for years
2) Realize that novel will probably remain in head forever
3) Clean out following inboxes: Outlook, Yahoo mail, alternate Yahoo mail account, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace
4) Marvel that one dedicated spammer managed to infiltrate all seven inboxes
5) Google myself repeatedly just to make sure there are plenty of available avenues to locate me.
6) Wonder why I have 23,000 hits at 4:50 p.m. and only 22,000 hits at 4:55 p.m.
7) Become temporarily depressed
8) Cheer up after reading that Google just laid off about 5,000 workers.
9) Send out eblast to every client who ever hired me in the past ten years, letting them know that I have plenty of new material and am therefore ready for a return engagement
10) Wait five minutes
11) Delete 75 percent of eblasts that bounced back because the recipients are now unemployed
12) Wonder if I should have taken that emcee job for the food company where the client wanted me to walk out dressed as a slice of cheese
13) Briefly contemplate that a guy dressed as a cheese slice might be a great central character for a novel
14) Wonder if Jerry Seinfeld is cutting HIS fee for corporate dates.
15) Convince myself that making a list really is a productive use of time
16) Log onto Facebook at 1 p.m. and see that I have five new friend requests.
17) Check out their profiles. Discover that all are unemployed, which explains why they are trolling Facebook at 1 p.m when they could be making to do lists.
18) Make new list of home projects I have been putting off because of my previously hectic schedule
19) Actually go to Home Depot to get supplies. Greet recently laid off neighbor who found another job…at Home Depot
20) Return to office, check email and get tremendously excited that a prospective clients wants to hire me for a show in late October
21) Become less excited when client wants to know if contract can include a 30-day ‘out’ clause
22) Discuss with family whether we can afford to get a dog right now
23) Take family to see “Marley and Me.” Realize that, even though the movie cost 40 bucks, I may have saved thousands of dollars because I will NEVER get a dog unless it is guaranteed not to get sick and die
24) Start writing material for an upcoming date in Vegas
25) Say a prayer and be thankful that I still get to make people laugh for a living. You can’t put a price on that.

About Greg Schwem

Greg Schwem is a corporate stand-up comedian and humorous speaker. He is president of Comedy With a Byte. View clips of Greg by visiting or viewing Greg's YouTube playlist by clicking here

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