Job loss is a ‘reality’ of the business cycle, says labor expert. Take these 6 key steps after a layoff

Personal finance

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At a macro level, the job market is still hot and companies aren’t yet shedding jobs in earnest. Layoffs were at a historic low in April, unemployment claims are around pre-pandemic levels and the unemployment rate is hovering near a five-decade low.

But cracks are emerging. Recruiters think Wall Street seems poised for significant cutbacks in the second half of the year, while firms such as Tesla and Coinbase have recently announced workforce reductions.

Fears have risen in recent weeks that the economy may tip into a recession. That’s not a foregone conclusion, but if it happens, layoffs would almost certainly increase. The Federal Reserve is anticipating joblessness will rise in coming years as policymakers increase interest rates to combat inflation.

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“The business cycle goes up and down,” said Demetra Nightingale, a labor and employment expert at the Urban Institute. “Everybody should always be prepared for the possibility of a future layoff or job loss.

“That’s part of the reality.”

Here are six key financial steps to take if it happens to you.

1. Take a financial inventory

Among the first things to do if you lose your job is take stock of financial resources at your disposal, according to financial advisors.

Those may include other streams of income such as a partner’s salary, as well as emergency savings, company stock and financial accounts including a 401(k) or individual retirement account (more on this in a bit).

Your resources may also include company benefits like severance pay or cashing out unused leave like vacation and sick days. Workers should also check to see if they can continue receiving benefits like company-sponsored health and life insurance.

Households should also update their budgets to get a sense of current spending and how that could be adjusted without your paycheck.

“You want to get clarity,” said financial advisor Winnie Sun, co-founder of Sun Group Wealth Partners in Irvine, California, and a member of CNBC’s Advisor Council. “We all think we don’t spend that much.

“But most of us probably do.”

These factors — your budget and money stash — will help dictate your timeline for finding a new job.

2. Apply for unemployment insurance

Unemployment insurance may also factor into your cash flow.

Benefit amount and duration vary widely among states and also depend on factors like your earnings and work history. The average person collected about $363 a week over the 12 months through April 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Workers should apply right away (generally online or by phone) after a layoff, even if they think they’re not eligible, Nightingale said.

Applicants generally submit a claim for benefits in the state where they worked, according to the Labor Department. You can consult the DOL’s state directory or CareerOneStop.org for agency contact and application information.

Further, be prepared with relevant information like employment records for about the past two years, Nightingale said.

“Don’t just pick up the phone and say, ‘I was working at XYZ Company,’ because you need more than that to apply,” she said.

You may not be immediately eligible for unemployment insurance if you’re receiving severance pay. But you may be eligible for full or partial benefits depending on your individual circumstance and state rules. If you’re deemed ineligible, file a new claim once severance pay stops.

3. Negotiate your exit

There may be some wiggle room to negotiate on severance and other company benefits, Sun said. (Not all businesses offer severance, though.)

If you are in good standing with your company, ask your manager if you can get a few extra months of severance pay, and an associated extension to medical and dental benefits.

Or, similarly, ask if you can extend your employment (and delay the layoff) by a few months. This becomes especially important if you’re close to being — but aren’t yet — fully vested in benefits like a 401(k) match or company stock, Sun said.

Typically, those who try get something.
Winnie Sun
co-founder of Sun Group Wealth Partners

There may also be room to negotiate staying on part-time or as a freelancer — which may be particularly important for workers closer to retirement age who aren’t confident they’ll be able to find another job quickly, Sun said.

“At this point, what’s the worst thing that’ll happen to you?” Sun said. “Typically, those who try get something.”

4. Figure out which assets to tap, in what order

Knowing where to draw money from can be a delicate balancing act, due to potential tax consequences.

If you need to pull from financial accounts, cash from an emergency fund — if you have one — will generally be your first choice, according to financial advisors.

Savers with Roth IRAs can typically withdraw their account contributions tax- and penalty-free. (That’s not true of investment earnings, though. Some limitations may also apply to pre-tax IRA contributions that were subsequently converted to Roth IRA funds.)

Roth 401(k) accountholders can also pull out money tax- and penalty-free, under two conditions: The owner must be over 59½ years old and made a contribution at least five tax years ago.

Those with long-term investments (held for more than a year) in taxable brokerage accounts can sell them for income at a preferential tax rate.

Tax-deferred accounts like a pre-tax 401(k) or IRA should generally be a last resort, according to Ivory Johnson, a certified financial planner and founder of Delancey Wealth Management, based in Washington.

Workers would owe income tax on that distribution, and those under age 59½ would pay an additional penalty. One exception: The “Rule of 55” allows a laid-off worker who’s at least 55 years old to withdraw 401(k) funds without that 10% early-withdrawal penalty.

“You may be someone who always said, ‘I’ll never withdraw those retirement contributions,'” said Kevin Mahoney, CFP, founder and CEO of Illumint, based in Washington. “But under certain circumstances, that’s the most prudent move to make.”

5. Network and build job skills

10’000 Hours | Digitalvision | Getty Images

It’s a given you should update your resume when looking for a new job. But make sure you have different versions depending on the type of job you want, since targeting will help you stand out, Nightingale said.

Leverage your personal and professional networks to find opportunities — perhaps a union membership, professional association, business contacts, former colleagues, and friends and relatives. Connect with people on LinkedIn and ask for public endorsements, Sun said.

Further, local job services offices offer free employment and training resources. There are about 2,500 offices around the country, Nightingale said. You can find a local office and other job resources at CareerOneStop.org.

Those with free time may wish to get a certificate or acquire a new professional skill, said Johnson, a member of CNBC’s Advisor Council.

“Use your time wisely,” he said. “It shows employers you weren’t just sitting around, you were trying to get better.”

6. Take a deep breath

Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Recognize that layoffs are often due to factors beyond an individual’s control instead of a personal failure.

Take a deep breath. Use your available time to step back and reflect on your career — what’s important to you? Would you like to try something new?

“Life is a long-term race, not a sprint,” Johnson said. “Sometimes it’s really a blessing to get laid off” even though it may not seem that way right now, he added.

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