Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Living Wage

with 8 comments

Total Black: $3,956.23
Total Red: $270,710.31

President Obama signed an extension of unemployment benefits today.  Somehow I missed the news that Congress revived the issue and then passed it.  Last I had heard, Republicans blocked it.  And the media rang its death knell.  While driving home from work today I heard debate on NPR about extending unemployment benefits.  A year ago I was still collecting unemployment. 

One of today’s talking heads, Jeffery Miron, Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Department of Economics at Harvard University argued against the extension.

We shouldn’t be thinking so much that this is going to cure the recession, that this is going to stimulate a lot.  It’s a small amount of money.  So that means that the effect on the deficit is also very small.  People have exaggerated that.  But it also means the degree to which it’s stimulating is very, very small, as well.

The negative is it does create an incentive for people not to take jobs, for them not to, in particular, lower their wage demands—to be willing to take jobs that they don’t necessarily want, which aren’t as good as their previous jobs but would provide some level of employment.

I blogged about unemployment benefits back in Benefits They Call Them.  But roughly a year later, I can’t recall now what it was like earning $405.00 a week—before taxes.  That’s the maximum amount New York state authorized regardless of prior earnings or location within the state.  When I think back to April or May 2009, what comes to mind is not having enough money: for the subway, for food, for bills.  That, and the stress of working a full-time job for no income.  Mr. Miron probably would have denied me an extension of benefits because of that.  Certainly not the sot of lowering of the wage demand he spoke of.

Hearing comments like his really infuriates me. But to be completely truthful, I did not apply for any non-legal jobs during my year of unemployment.  I acknowledged in A Bad Review that I had been shown the door a few months before the ax fell.  So when I was laid-off, back in October 2008, I had already put in motion the opportunity to work pro bono for the Brooklyn DA’s office.  After taking the month of October to move into my new apartment, and then the month of November to battle bedbugs—discussed in A Day in the Life and Bring It On—I had to start at the DA’s office in December.  And to get quality experience from my time there, I had to commit to at least a few months.  They wanted six.  I had told them four.  Aside: I would have been better off telling them six or seven and then not staying that long as people who verbally committed to longer stretches but stayed for shorter got fast-tracked faster than I did.  But I’m the type who adheres to commitments and keeps my word.  So when I started in December, I didn’t look for any other opportunities because I had committed to giving them four (to six) months.  And, frankly, enough colleagues there assured me that if you just stuck around long enough, they’d hire you.  Neither I nor they planned on the Great Recession coming.  Actually I just remembered going on an interview with Sara Kim of Yorkson Legal for contract attorney work.  Nothing ever came of it.  So it’s not entirely accurate to say I didn’t apply to any positions.  I did apply to a few permanent ones.  But I was not pounding that proverbial pavement.

But with the luxury of hindsight I can wonder now what I would have done had unemployment benefits not been extended.  Seems that before starting this blog I don’t think I was thinking very clearly.  Rather than look for non-legal work—something I later ended up cherishing when I found New World Stages—I probably would have left New York to move back to Pennsylvania to stay with my mother.  It wasn’t until I started this blog that I started thinking outside the box.  I don’t know why.  I suspect that I had put all my eggs in the DA’s basket.  But once June rolled around, and law firms started deferring associates, job prospects dwindled.  I ultimately did run out of benefits, something alluded to in Bringing It Down though I don’t think I ever made that clear; my claim expired and I would have had to submit a new claim.  I didn’t need to because my final contract attorney position came through and carried me through until I moved here.  But had those “lucky breaks” not happened I certainly would’ve been left with few options.  And had benefits not been extended I probably wouldn’t have ended here either.

It’s funny that we’re debating extending unemployment benefits and whether people deserve an extension, particularly during the worst period of unemployment since the Great Depression.  This morning I received an email with a job offer from Lateral Link—according to them “a full-service legal placement firm of highly qualified recruiting professionals, offering its Members access to thousands of top legal jobs.”

Dear [Laid-off]:

Freddie Mac is looking for a litigation candidate through our Bridge Program. Please let me know if you would be interested in applying.  The job would likely last 12 months and the pay is $30 – $32 per hour.  The job is in the DC area.  Also, please let me know if you could refer anyone if you are not interested.


That works out to $1,200.00 a month before taxes.  $62,400.00 annually.  No, it’s not bad when viewed at an annual rate.  But when you shave off taxes and rent in Washington, D.C., it certainly isn’t anything to get excited about.  And if you’re a young attorney with mounds of debt like me.  Odd that a $30 an hour job actually pays more than my current clerkship.  That’s pretty much one of the lowest rates I’ve seen—other than a few outliers in New Jersey.  I don’t want to open discussion on attorneys expecting higher living wages than blue-collar workers.  Attorneys aren’t blue collar workers so let’s just leave it at that and examine the oranges not apples.  But thirty dollars an hour?  Three.  Zero.  For Freddie Mac too?  The mortgage megalomaniac that contributed to this economic maelstrom we’re all now tossed about in.  And they want to pay $30 an hour.  I know some out there may think I’m up-in-arms for nothing since many non-profit positions and government positions wouldn’t pay roughly $62K a year.  But this is private, banking money—not government or non-profit.  Why not pay $40 or $45?  Or offer overtime at least?  Or give people a flat salary. 

I don’t understand this race to the bottom.  It’s one thing to follow the advice of Mr. Miron and accept a reduced wage or salary because times are tough and we all have to band together.  Or because you’ve gotta take what’s out there because nothing else may be coming soon.  As NPR’s Neil Cohan said, “it’s certainly a buyers’ market at this point, yeah, or a hirers’ market.”  But why?  Why is it acceptable to sprint to the bottom?  Doesn’t Freddie Mac have a responsibility to repair what they’ve helped cause?  And part of that repair can be providing a living wage for honest, professional work.  Thirty dollars?  And not for contract attorney work.  Lateral Link is not a temporary attorney staffing agency.  They’re an exclusive headhunter, a placement agency.  Their bridge program is intended to link laid-off attorneys with potential salaried positions.  By the way, if you’re interested, let me know.  I’ll pass along the info.

Thankfully we have still have Democrats in control who don’t turn a blind’s eye to the realities of the street.  One caller, an executive placement officer in Detroit, explained what she was seeing, that people who worked for hire wages can’t get lower-paying jobs as Mr. Miron advised.  She told NPR: “if I find if I have a client who has a director-level job that’s paying $120,000, and a $160,000 candidate or a $150,000 candidate says I’m willing to do that for $100,000 and less bonus and less vacation, the client says no.  I don’t want them because they’ll keep looking once things straighten out.”  Even if we downgrade our wage requirements, we may not get hired.  The caller noted that job candidates “don’t always have the choice of taking a lesser job or lesser pay.”  But hard-numbers folks—Miron’s minions—wouldn’t care.  Because aberrant and illogical human psychology isn’t accounted for in economic modeling.  Instead, if you don’t have a job it’s because you’re lazy and don’t want to work and just want to suckle off the government even longer.  Yeah, maybe there are a few who do, but they aren’t the majority.  One function of unemployment benefits is to allow unemployed person the time to pursue another career path—something I did, actually with my time at the DA’s office.  It was akin to signing up for new training; it just didn’t turn into a job.  Instead I opted to study for the Pennsylvania bar exam, another function of unemployment benefits—education.  Thankfully things did pan out ultimately.  But for many out there that isn’t the case.  I’m happy Congress acted for the people and not in spite of the people.

Will we ever see a real living wage return?

Total black is down because I sent payments to the canceled Visa card.  I also made this month’s IRS payment a bit earlier.  No sense delaying the inevitable.  Not sure why total red went up.  Transfers between Bank of St. Croix and Bank of America are up and running.

8 Responses

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  1. “The negative is it does create an incentive for people not to take jobs”

    The GOP and their media pundits continue to repeat this same talking point (even Ben Stein got into the act!) and it just isn’t true.

    I’ve been unemployed for 18 months from my profession as a art director/design manager. When I do apply for those lower-end jobs outside of my field, I don’t get calls. And I’ve applied for a lot! from Target, Trader Joes, Walmart, Giant, to local pizza shops and car lots. The minute THOSE places see a college degree and 15+ years of experience THEY WILL NOT HIRE YOU. Places like this do not really want smart and educated people, [it is my thought] because we cannot be bullied or pushed around and we know our rights as employees.

    With some entry-level office jobs, they send you the “overqualified” notice. When I challenged a HR manager for a administrative assistant position about this, she said it was bad to hire an overqualified person because “they would only leave when things got better.” I tried to change her mind by saying perhaps a person would be grateful for the job and really like the company, and at least get an interview, but it was a no-go.


    July 23, 2010 at 09:12

  2. Not only is it not true, it should—I hope—work to the Right’s disadvantage.

    All the hard-working but out-of-work individuals should feel insulted and disgusted by insinuations that they are just sitting pretty on the public dime. Sure, as I noted above, there will be some who do. And NPR even quoted an email from a listener who said he rode out his unemployment some years back and all the while worked under the table in construction. I trust that if that happens, most do it because they need the extra money; they aren’t doing it out of a desire to get rich quick but just to get leg-up.

    I truly hope the country does not swing back to the Right in November. We’re only just now starting to right this ship.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 23, 2010 at 09:35

  3. I think you’re both looking at the statement too much in black/white terms.

    It certainly seems reasonable that someone, if they are getting unemployment benefits, would be more likely NOT to take a lower paying job because they have the cushion of that income to wait for a higher paying one. That was the point, I believe.

    I think that your (LoL) history kind of supports that notion in that you didn’t look for any non-legal work while you were able to collect the benefits. However, I’m not sure how much this “disincentive” to adjust your salary requirements down really makes a difference in the overall scheme of things, and it didn’t stop the extension from happening anyway.

    I mean, really…if you’re able to get $1600 per month in UC, why would you take a $10 an hour job for that same $1600 when you could collect the UC and continue to hunt for a higher paying job?

    It’s a cost/benefit analysis after that $10 then as far as spending your time serving lattes vs. A) job hunting, B) sleeping in, C) whatever.. If you get offered a job for $15/hour, is it worth it to you when you will be looking at it as basically working for $5 per hour, since you could get $10 for not working?

    It seems like a reasonable point to me, but maybe I’m missing something…



    July 23, 2010 at 13:21

  4. Absolutely you’re not going to give up unemployment benefits to take a lower-paying job. Why would you? Moreover, its a trap, frankly, because if you go back to work for a lower-paying job, you can’t later quit and return to unemployment benefits if you find that you can’t make ends meet on that paying job. If you quit that job, you can’t collect unemployment benefits. Similarly, if you are on unemployment benefits you can’t also work a part-time job. But to force people to take only—in my case—$405.00 a week and then to correspondingly penalize them for obtaining work—that’s just insane. And the way New York has it set up it went either by amount earned or days worked. So if I worked more than four days, but only worked one hour each day, I’d lose my benefits for the week.

    It seems almost as if people view The Unemployed as this lazy, do-nothing lot who just want to collect a check. Welfare moms and Crack ‘Hos. Not the case. In my situation, unemployment benefits supported me while I worked my ass off hoping to get picked up by the DA’s office, and then while I studied for another bar exam. But I would have preferred to have picked up a part-time job—perhaps at New World, for example—and also collected unemployment to help carry me along until the new job arrived. Instead I had to turn to the Bank of Mommy for assistance.

    Like it or not, people need to work. We need to produce something, to create, to organize and serve. We only need to do that for money because we’re not living in a world-wide commune. But forcing people to chose between remaining unemployed or taking a lower-paying job is akin to saying do you want a whopper or a can of ravioli. Neither are good for you but the burger is less bad because at least you get lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and so on.

    I didn’t survive in New York City on $405 a week. But I certainly couldn’t have survived on less than that. The entire system is broken and backwards. Unemployment benefits are not a gift from the government. Employers pay taxes for their employees. That money then gets routed back to the employee who ends up unemployed. It’s not Uncle Sam being generous. Here, it may be, to some degree, because Uncle Sam is extending benefits. But those amount “borrowed” for that extension can be repaid with the unemployment taxes paid going forward.

    Unemployment benefits should, in my opinion, be a sort of insurance policy that you pull on for a period of time. If you get laid-off, you get to pull on this unemployment insurance for however long you want. Fine to get a part-time job too or even a full-time if it’s lower-paying. This insurance policy is there to help with that transition. Once it runs out, you’re done. Welfare / public assistance would be your option.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 23, 2010 at 14:06

  5. Yeah, the system definitely has its problems, no argument there…it is crazy how they work the offsets, etc. where one actually gets penalized for picking up some hours.

    Maybe this is another case of something that should be privatized. If you want unemployment insurance, you shop around and pay the premiums for the coverage you want.

    What would work as far as the offsets though…certainly you should be able to earn up to a certain amount before they start taking a dollar-for-dollar offset, but then I’m sure they’d be worried that people would intentionally only work up to the point where the offset became too high (whatever that means).

    I don’t think that most people who collect unemployment are lazy or become lazy…not at all. But it does become a game of “how do I go back to working without screwing myself here?” and apparently it is so hard to do that the easiest thing to do is keep collecting UC unless a REALLY good opportunity comes along.

    I had the same issue when I had a work related injury that lasted a while. I wanted to do something, at least part time, but if I did I got penalized and risked having my employer claim that my working part time was contributing to a longer recovery…so you end up sitting around feeling like a worthless leech.



    July 23, 2010 at 14:51

  6. @T-Bag: you were comment number 1,200! Woo-hoo. You win a prize. What, will be determined later. Enjoy your happy moment.

    Now on to your points: I think the private model is attractive but also wrought with problems. Having lived in Germany and Poland—and having seen doctors in both countries—I’m not crazy about the US medical system only because it’s so expensive and wrought with pre-existing conditions, etc. I can just imagine some private unemployment insurance provider rejecting someone’s unemployment coverage claim because he got laid-off once already in the past year or because she got laid-off for downsizing and already exhausted that options. Sadly, many of these businesses think its their right to just take money and provide nothing in return.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 23, 2010 at 15:33

  7. You’re also forgetting the legions of unemployed who are aged 50+ and must compete for entry level jobs with newly graduated (read: cheap) new hires. The “seasoned” worker doesn’t stand a chance.


    July 23, 2010 at 17:12

  8. T-Bag
    I admit that, the first 3-4 months, I was not too willing to take a $8 per hour minimum-wage job when my unemployment was higher ($13.35/hr). However, I was looking for at least part-time, freelance or temp work as you can earn up to $250 a week without losing or reducing your benefits.

    As time went on though, I began applying for anything. Partially because I am trying to save my house. You need to have gainful employment (ie. earned income) as they don’t count unemployment benefits for that. Therefore ANY job is better than NO job.


    July 25, 2010 at 11:03

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