Why Being Laid Off Is Tougher These Days

With more than 7 million people losing their jobs between Jan. 1 and the end of June, the first half of 2009 saw the deepest job losses for that period since World War II. And with unemployment lasting an average of 24.5 weeks as of the end of June, the longest since the government began tracking that stat in 1948, departing workers need to wring more than ever out of whatever severance or other benefits their former employers offer. Here are some areas laid-off workers are focused on:

THE SEVERANCE SQUEEZEMost companies have severance policies in place dictating the minimum and maximum pay for laid-off employees, typically based on years of service. During the past decade, some companies had been offering more generous severance pay than their policies dictated, as a way of generating goodwill, notes Grant Freeland, senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group. Thanks to the brutal economic times, though, "enhanced severance is off the table," he says, and companies are revising their policies.

COBRA'S BIGGER BITECompanies are required by law to offer departing employees a chance to keep medical insurance if the laid-off workers pay their own premiums. But while a greater portion of workers than ever is being offered COBRA coverage, only 1 in 10 accepted last year—which the newsletter Spencer's Benefits Reports says is the lowest percentage since it began surveying in 1989. Why? Premiums have skyrocketed.

LONGER WAIT, LOWER WAGESTo offset falling revenues, companies are looking at every possible budget item to cut costs, including slowing down the hiring process and slashing salaries. A survey by the online job listing company Dice Holdings found that 38% of companies are paying slightly or significantly less to new hires than last year, while only 11% are paying more. Almost 50% of companies taking longer to fill positions cited caution due to the economy as the reason.

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