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Okay, folks, story time…

March 25, 2015, 2:03 PM

After hearing far too many people on Reddit spew out the “fact” that you can’t get unemployment insurance if you quit your job, I think it’s time to share a story about one instance why that “fact” is not the case.  It is not, in fact, a hard and fast rule that, if you leave your job on your own, you don’t qualify for unemployment insurance, and it doesn’t make a difference if you head it off by quitting or let your boss fire you.  I should know, because it happened to me.

You may recall that in July 2013, I posted a Journal entry about my last day at Food & Water Watch.  For those of you solely know me through the website, that post probably came as a surprise to you.  Save for a note on a photo feature, I didn’t give any hints prior to that entry that I was leaving Food & Water Watch, and I also never gave a reason in the entry about why I left.  All you knew is that I had left, with no reason given regarding why.  And that made enough sense, because I didn’t want to go into detail while I had an ongoing job search underway in the same field.  Now I feel as though I’m in a place to share, especially now that I’ve changed fields, going from nonprofit operations management to public transportation.

In 2011, I had started to change a bit as a person.  I grew up.  My interests began to shift.  I had also noticed that my own interests and those of the organization had started to diverge.  The organization had also begun to change, with the introduction of anti-fracking work into its fold, beginning its morph from a consumer group into an environmental group.

By the end of 2012, I felt irrelevant, having been left out of the planning process for a major system change (which, when launched, came back very broken), encountering resistance to new procedures designed to streamline processes (with my boss’s approval), and feeling like I wasn’t growing anymore.  That feeling of irrelevance and being taken for granted was confirmed when literally half the staff left a cart full of dirty dishes in the kitchen at the end of the day after a Friday meeting (contrary to the normal idea of cleaning up after one’s self) and went off to a bar.  I could have left it there (since officially, it wasn’t my responsibility), but the alternative was to greet this cart on Monday along with whatever vermin might have found it over the weekend and decided to snack on the contents in the interim.  So I ended up spending an hour washing a cart full of other people’s dirty dishes by hand.  Yuck.

When it became performance evaluation time again in early 2013, I brought up my concerns with my boss about how things had stagnated, and how I wanted more responsibility within the organization.  One suggestion that I had was about the potential of supervising the receptionist.  It made enough sense to me: the receptionist’s job had been split from my position in 2008 as the company expanded, and I had to know and be able to do everything that they did anyway, because whenever they were out, I took care of things, and it reciprocated back the other way to an extent, though not as much.  My boss’s response was that I didn’t have any supervisory experience, and that because of the organization’s size, there was not much room to grow, i.e. I had basically topped out.  I couldn’t argue with that last point much, so I sort of let it go and just continued along, still feeling mostly irrelevant, but now knowing that the proverbial wall that I had hit was real.

In hindsight, I now realize that this was the boss’s way of subtly saying, “It’s time for you to go.”

Around the same time, the job was really starting to take a great toll on my mental health.  I was miserable, and I had thought it was related to something going on with myself.  I was dreading coming into work each day, and on the weekends, I was dreading Monday.  It was a pretty terrible existence.  I had, in fact, started shopping around for therapists.  That search ended, however, when a friend on Facebook posted a quote from someone (exactly who is up for discussion) on their wall that went like this:

Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.

That made entirely too much sense, because that was exactly what I was doing.  To quote Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in the movie Spaceballs, “I knew it.  I’m surrounded by assholes!”  That was a great “aha” moment, because it snapped things into focus, and made me realize the source of those problems.  I felt a bit better after that.

Now fast forward to March.  I took a much-needed two-week vacation at the end of the month, in order to more or less “recharge the batteries” and do some website and photography work.  I discussed what I did on this vacation in the Journal at the time, talking about my visits to Stuarts Draft, the old Springfield Mall, Richmond, Cumberland, Annapolis, and Baltimore.  The photography during this vacation eventually resulted in the Richmond 2013 and Cumberland, Maryland photo sets.  When it was over, I found that the vacation had done exactly what I had hoped that it would do.  It gave me a break from the usual to get some much-needed time to relax, have fun, as well as do a little traveling.  When I came back to work on the Monday after my vacation, I was absolutely glowing.  I was in a great mood, was glad to see everyone, and the smile was genuine.

That glow lasted until exactly 12:00 PM.

Noon was when I had my weekly meeting with my boss.  It was usually a pretty routine affair, talking about the status of various things going on, and discussing new things, etc.  It usually took around 10-15 minutes.  As soon as I went in, I knew something was up because my boss closed the door to his office.  This, by the way, is where the unemployment-qualifying events begin, going down the road toward “constructive discharge“.  In the meeting, I was informed that they had decided to reorganize the department a bit.  The then-current receptionist was being moved to a development (fundraising) role.  A new position titled “Logistics Manager” would be created and hired out.  My role would be redesigned to “something that we know you can do really well”, said in the most condescending tone possible.  When I was shown my new job description, the intent of the move became plain, i.e. I was being demoted to receptionist from my existing role.  The boss didn’t even bother to change the position title on the printed copy:

The top of the job description that I was given

“Program and Administrative Assistant” had long been the title for the receptionist’s role.  I believe that the only reason that he didn’t change my title was so that he could say that my demotion wasn’t a demotion (and he swore up and down that it wasn’t, despite my immediately seeing right through it).  In the meeting, I was also shown the job description for the Logistics Manager role.  It was my existing job.  The job was slightly changed, making it into everything that I had suggested for my role three months prior, including supervision of the receptionist.  I made my case for why I should have had the other role, but I was told I was “not qualified” for that role.  The Logistics Manager job would be hired out, but in the meantime, I was doing the work of two: the receptionist’s job, as well as the back-office job that I’d been doing.  Plus I had to move my workstation from my office in the back down to Storage Basement B, oh, pardon me, the front desk.

This was when I started looking for other work, as it had become clear that there would be no more growth or opportunity at Food & Water Watch for me.  Oh, and thanks for ruining my vacation.

It had taken me a while to get moved to the front desk, because there was lots of regular work to be done in the meantime, but now with zero management support.  When I did, after getting everything set up there, I realized that the front desk did not fit me well, physically.  The setup caused me pain in my wrists when working on the computer, and because of the non-adjustable design of the desk, there was no way to fix it.  I brought this concern to my boss, as I usually did with concerns that I needed help fixing.  He snapped back with a comment to the effect of why I don’t just move back to my old office, then.  Not long after that, he asked me to come back to his office at 4:00 PM.

Going back to his office, I was given paperwork placing me on 30-day probation.  In other words, if things did not “improve” after 30 days, I would be gone.  Okay, then.

Then the following day, when I got back from my lunch hour, things got worse.  I was informed by my boss that a postal worker had come up to the office and indicated that the mail had not been picked up from the mail room in several days.  I didn’t believe a word of that story (I knew better), but my boss used that as an excuse to put the screws on even further.  The new requirement was to send him a bulleted list of all of my activities each day.

My reaction to that was, that’s it.  After all, with that bulleted list, I was essentially writing my own termination papers.  I put in my resignation the following day.  That day was fun, too.  All of that which used to concern me was no longer my problem.  It was like a weight had been lifted.  And the best thing was this: I had made an appointment for a meeting with my boss at 4:00 at the end of the day.  Considering the events that had occurred in the days prior, he really should have been expecting a resignation.  Would you believe that he was completely taken back and speechless regarding my resignation?  I was very surprised about that. You would think that he would have seen that coming.

Then the following day, I had one of the most enjoyable days that I’d had in quite some time, going out to Harpers Ferry with my friend Pete.  Didn’t matter that I was about to be unemployed.  I was so happy that the Food & Water Watch ordeal would be ending.

The time spent between my resignation and my last day showed what a real professional I was.  I spent the first of the two weeks training my replacement.  For that, I got her settled in her “office” (the front desk), introduced her to all of the various contacts that my position had, got her set up on everything, and showed her how to use it.  Then my final week was spent getting all of my own affairs in order and cleaning out my office.  Let’s admit it – I never really worked at the front desk.  I kept the seat warm for three days, and then moved back to my regular office, where I belonged, for my notice period.  And unlike what would have happened with a firing, I left with my dignity intact, and got to say goodbye to everyone when I left.

And then when the job ended, I made the case for my constructive discharge to the District of Columbia’s unemployment office, and I received unemployment insurance for it.  After all, it wasn’t really anything on my part that led to my departure.  It was the boss’s manipulation of my individual working conditions that was the largest contributor, making my working conditions so intolerable that I had no alternative other than to quit.  That helped keep me afloat while I applied for new jobs, and also completed training for a career change, going from nonprofit operations management to public transportation.

In hindsight, though, I have come to realize that much pain and frustration could have been avoided on everyone’s part if my boss had actually acted like he had a spine and just let me go when he decided he wanted me gone, rather than go through the whole charade of demotion and probation.  A simple, “We’re reorganizing the department, and as part of this reorganization, your position has been eliminated.  Your last day will be [whenever].”  I admit that I still wouldn’t have liked it, but at least then it would have been framed from the outset as a business need and not been made so personal.  That would have also avoided much hard feelings all around, because then it would have been “just business”.  And considering that I still got unemployment insurance after I left, making it so personal, rather than taking the more professional road of framing it as a business need, only caused hard feelings and resentment all around.

But in any case, when people state the “fact” that you can’t get unemployment insurance when you quit your job, please know that they are giving you bad advice.  Depending on the circumstances that led to your departure, you can still get unemployment insurance and leave with dignity.

Categories: Reddit, Work