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What you can do if you’re laid off or furloughed during the coronavirus pandemic

Sudden job loss can be traumatic. We spoke with some experts on the best way to cope.

A man standing on the sidewalk on 52nd Street is surrounded by local businesses that are closed last month.
A man standing on the sidewalk on 52nd Street is surrounded by local businesses that are closed last month.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The coronavirus has disrupted everything we took for granted: our loved ones, our mortality, and yes, our jobs.

And it’s becoming clear that even before it’s safe for us to hug our parents and grandparents again, our finances could be in serious trouble. Nearly 284,000 Pennsylvanians filed initial unemployment claims last week, Inquirer reporter Andrew Maykuth reported Monday. That brings the state’s total unemployment claims to nearly 1.1 million through three weeks, or 16.3% of the state’s workforce, according to preliminary statistics posted by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

Losing a job is always stressful, but these furloughs and layoffs are even more daunting because they are happening during an economy that’s effectively been stopped. And we really have no idea when it will start up again or how long it will take to regain steam. It’s no wonder we’re having trouble sleeping, concentrating, and living in peace. How will we take care of the people who are depending on us? How will we take care of ourselves?

“This is a time of shock, disbelief, and numbness,” said Linda Copel, a professor at the Fitzpatrick College of Nursing at Villanova University and a marriage and family therapist. “This kind of shock stays with people for a while and can cause anxiety and depression. People can get stuck, and the fear and anxiety of what comes next can make it hard for people to move on. But there are ways to get through it and help prevent that."

So on top of all the anxieties we’re already facing as this crisis deepens around the world, how do we cope? Let alone start looking for work. We asked experts for tips.

Allow yourself to feel sad about this

These job losses happened very suddenly. “Through no fault of our own, something drastic happened,” said Ebony E. White, a licensed counselor and an assistant clinical professor at Drexel University’s counseling and family therapy department. “That’s traumatic.” The key to getting through it is to acknowledge the emotions of sadness and despair, not run from them, said Robi Ludwig, a New York-based psychotherapist. “We often fear that if we admit these frustrations then we won’t be able to get rid of the emotions,” Ludiwg said. “But we have to acknowledge the pain and be OK with how we are feeling.”

It’s also important to remember that our jobs don’t define us, White said. You determine your own worth.

» READ MORE: Domino’s, CVS, Walgreens hiring thousands in Philly area. Here are other companies hiring locally, and in N.J.

Look at the costs you can control

If you’re panicked about money in the short term, look at what you can pay and what you can put off.

  1. Negotiate with your debtorsfor consumer and business loans — and see if you can delay payment or lower your interest.

  2. Reconsider your subscriptions and stop auto payments. Take a look through your credit card bills and see what you can live without right now. Do you really need Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV?

  3. Apply for your unemployment benefits. (You should be eligible for benefits whether you are laid off or furloughed.) Here’s everything you need to know about how to access unemployment benefits.

  4. Trouble paying your rent? In Pennsylvania, renters are protected from eviction through at least April 30 because courts are only open for emergencies. In New Jersey evictions are on hold through Most of May. (However, if you can pay rent, it’s a good idea to pay it. You don’t want to end up owing hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in back rent.)

  5. Delay paying your taxes. Americans have three extra months — new deadline is July 15 — to pay and file taxes. But if you are owed money, file it ASAP. That refund will come in handy right now.

» READ MORE: You don’t have to pay taxes right now, and other ways to conserve cash during coronavirus

The next step doesn’t have to be a big one. Just take it.

Right now your next steps may simply be getting up, having a cup of coffee, straightening up, and scrolling through job openings. “Maybe that’s all you get done for the day,” Ludwig said. “But making a plan for the day and sticking to it will help you feel like you are going in the right direction.” Also, Ludwig said, don’t compare yourself to others. “The most important question you should ask is what’s the right step for you," Ludwig said.

Try to be mindful about how you structure your day. Write down a schedule and stick to it, prioritizing your most important tasks, said Natalie Nixon, a Philadelphia creativity strategist, president of Figure 8 Thinking, and author of Strategic Design Thinking: Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences, and Beyond.

» READ MORE: How to reset your routine, keep your energy up, and stay motivated while social distancing

Reach out to your network

White encourages her clients to connect with people who can help them move their careers forward. “We may be engaging in social distancing, but we still need to rely on our connections because they remind us that we aren’t alone," White said. Write down new ideas in your journal. Talk them over with friends. Reach out to colleagues on LinkedIn and network. “Reach out to people you haven’t spoken to a in a while. Find your tribe. You are not a one-man band,” Ludwig said.

One tip, from Zack James, director of business development at MyNEWPHilly: Make it a habit to reach out to someone every day.

» READ MORE: The best ways to professionally network while socially distancing during coronavirus

Create rituals to help ease your anxiety

There will be nights when you won’t be able to sleep, days when you stress eat, and periods of the day when you mindlessly scroll through social media. “Recognize these mechanisms for what they are,” Copel said. These are the times when you should stop what you are doing and take deep breaths. “The more oxygen you take in, the less short of breath and the less anxious you will feel,” said Copel, who shared with us this breathing exercise:

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.

  2. Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.

  3. Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.

  4. Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.

Ask for the help you need

If you are feeling overwhelmed, know that just because we are social distancing doesn’t mean you have to go through this alone. If you have a form of telemedicine, White said, now is the time to use it. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the city’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 215-685-6440. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Line 800-273-8255, that’s also available 24 hours a day.

Be patient

We are not in control of this period of our lives, Ludwig said. Do your best to stay on top of your finances but don’t be too hard on yourself because you could have not planned this. “Allow things to unfold,” Ludwig said. “Just because things aren’t happening in your time doesn’t mean they haven’t been set in motion."