Ten years ago I started working for one of my favorite people in this world, in the exciting-sounding industry of televison and video production.
Don’t get me wrong, TV had its moments. Lying along the yellow line getting footage of a born-again biker gang barreling past is still one of my favorite days on the job. But for the most part, working in video production is tough on the feet. And the lower back, if not always on the belly, in the middle of the road.
I only worked with J (I’ll just call him that so that I don’t inadvertently rat out the people we will soon be talking about here) for about six months, partly because I was not as proficient in the video arts as my film school training had led me to believe and partly because J was struggling at the time.
Today I live just a few blocks from J so I run into him every now and again, and he keeps me apprised on how his business is running. A few years ago everything was great. By last year he had to lay off his entire staff.
I ran into J a week or two ago for the first time in months. Things, I was glad to hear, were better now. He was able to hire someone, but the thing is, it was not anyone he had laid off. Those employees, he said, wanted to continue collecting unemployment checks, which offered them about two-thirds of their pay, without the worry of, you know, doing anything with themselves.
J’s new hire, at least is hungry, enthusiastic, and smart, which makes me happy. But his words have just camped out in my head. “They’d rather collect unemployment than come back to work . . .”
I’m not a workaholic by any definition. I work because it’s what you do, for your self, for your world, and for your family. I’ve never been on unemployment, but were I, I don’t think it ever would have entered my head to say no, I’d rather just collect government checks.
I mean, what would my wife think of me if I felt that way? “No, dear, I’m not putting on pants today either. Welfare is the only clothing I need.”
The past couple years have been rough on a lot of people I know. Many used to be reporters and editors, many more used to be a lot of other things. Most, it seems, found some other kind of work fairly quickly, but some have had a harder time. I support unemployment assistance because, well, you need it. Losing a job is a big deal, and knowing that there is a safety net to help carry you through is a good aspect of government.
Taking advantage of it as though it’s a yearlong sabbatical, though, doesn’t sit well with me. Unemployment isn’t meant to be vacation time, and the very act of coasting until your assistance is up is a dangerous thing.
Knowing you have six months to find a job has turned once-industrious people I know into, let’s say, “kept” men and women. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the state is their sugar daddy.
That’s not a shot at people who are using the time to re-evaluate their lives and maybe try something new. Nor is it a shot at people who are just not getting anywhere in the job search.
It’s a shot at people who have turned their unemployment into a paid, extended leave. It’s a shot at people who have a job waiting for them but opt to forego returning to it. If that’s your solution to creating more job openings, it really sucks.
Governor Chris Christie is getting a lot of praise and a lot of flack for his slash-and-burn approach to the state budget. I agree with him in theory. I think his approach is well-intentioned and necessary, though his targets are not always the right ones. Money is being cut from education, social programs, special needs assistance, the arts, and the other usual suspects. But much of the reason he’s taken his broad, sweeping ax to the budget is because he has to fill in a nearly half-billion dollar hole left by a depleted unemployment program.
So here’s my solution. Governor Christie: Carry on, because there is little else you can do. You will hurt the wrong people. You will short-change the wrong programs. But you have no real choice in the matter. You have to fill a deficit created by people who would rather collect a check than get off their asses and go back to a job that is waiting for them.
And for those of you cruising on unemployment despite being asked to come back to work: Get back to work. Contribute something to society.
Governor Christie is madly hacking at the budget because of people like you; people who wait five months to start looking for work and then getting an extension for another six months because you didn’t land the perfect job. You’re screwing everybody, so stop it.
Your self-respect will thank you for it.