Unalienable: Reflections on Independence and Belonging

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With tech layoffs in the headlines, I thought I would describe my own brushes with this standing-at-the-edge-of-the-cliff experience. These events occurred thirty years ago.

The Pink Slip

When the HR manager handed me the pink slip, I was incongruously surprised by its color. After all, a green card is not green and people in white-collar jobs no longer wear shirts with white collars. But the pink slip was actually pink.

I was laid off. Just like that. 

On a Monday morning, I went to work as usual. I’d completed a year of employment with the company, so I was expecting news about a good raise as my performance had been rated superlative. 

The day before, I bought my ticket to go to India on vacation. Most importantly, I was pregnant with my second child and grateful for my great part-time job close to home. 

And here was this HR manager telling me calmly, without a hint of regret or tension, that I should register my important pink slip at the state unemployment office as soon as possible so that I could start receiving my unemployment benefits. 

Oh, and that I must gather all my belongings in the next fifteen minutes so that I could be escorted out of the building. 

Letting Go 

Within a couple of hours of leaving home to get to work, I was back at home. I had said goodbye to my colleagues – not the way I might have because of my upcoming trip to India or because I was voluntarily leaving for a new job elsewhere. These were rushed words, tinged with uncertainty on my part and a guilty relief on theirs. With hesitant smiles, and promises to stay in touch, my colleagues assured me—and maybe themselves as well—that everything would work out okay. 

I made only one detour on my way out – a quick peek into my boss’s office – begging him to reconsider letting (more like making) me go. After all, I reminded him, I was scheduled to go on vacation for a month without pay anyway. I would come back from vacation and reduce my hours to whatever he felt comfortable offering me: twenty instead of my usual thirty. He was sympathetic but said his hands were tied. 

Pink Slip. My Pregnancy

When I got home, I called my husband. He came home at lunch and we discussed our options. We decided to go to India as planned. After all, the tickets were paid for and were non-refundable. 

Concerned about the effect of this shock on my pregnancy, we decided that going away and being with family would actually be a good thing. Fortunately, meeting day-to-day expenses was not an immediate concern. 

After my husband returned to work, I was left to deal with the storm of emotions by myself. I felt angry and hurt, betrayed even. 

“How could they do this to me?” I thought. I had just disclosed my pregnancy. Could they have singled me out because of that, I wondered? 

The Mommy Track

I worried about finding another job, even half as well-suited as this one. The economic climate was bad enough, but I had several other strikes against me. I was a Burroughs programmer in an IBM-dominated world; a mainframe programmer in a DOS-dominated world. I had been out of the workforce for three years. I had chosen the mommy track as I learned to become a mother in a new country without the support of an extended family. I was a pregnant woman who did not want to work full-time, but who wanted, oh so badly, to work. 

I had heard of other people getting laid off, of course. In fact, a few months earlier, my husband’s company and mine had laid off employees. At that time, we had both been spared. But now it was my turn. It was like I had imagined – standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down. 

The Unemployment Office

It’s the first time that writing it all down proved therapeutic. I let it all flow – my anger, my sense of betrayal, my fear. Once it was out of my system, the truth of the situation struck me. The company did not do this to me personally. A company that has to lay off valuable employees, is probably in dire straits too. I realized I had done nothing wrong. I had nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. A helpful, now-ex colleague, allayed my doubts about whether I would be eligible – though I was not a US citizen, I did have a green card.

But it took a few days to take myself down to the state unemployment office.

The staff there were kind and sympathetic. They assured me that payments would begin by the end of the week. They urged me to keep looking for a job and to document my efforts. It was required to continue receiving unemployment benefits. I would not, however, get any benefits during my India trip but that seemed fair. 

A few days later, a manager at my old company called me. His wife had been laid off from her job and had started a support group. He suggested I  attend a meeting. The fact that a manager took the trouble to call me even though he did not know me personally was uplifting.  

After My India Trip

The trip to India was everything my husband and I had hoped for. Being away from reminders of my situation helped, as did being enveloped in the familiar rituals of family and friends. 

The best part was waiting when I returned.

A call on the answering machine from my old boss said he wanted to rehire me! He told me that the company had let many people go because the bank had forced a payroll cut. They zeroed in on part-timers like me as a strategy to reduce headcount.

Pink Slip. Tossed

Within weeks the situation changed. How, you ask? I have no idea. Then, the words “venture capital” not yet an everyday term,  made it possible to rehire some laid-off employees. I was one of the first rehired. 

I started a twenty-hour work week which continued even after my son was born. 

While on maternity leave, my boss offered me a promotion. It was full-time work. I was thrilled, I thanked him profusely, but declined the offer. 

Little did I know then that my husband and I would experience more challenging layoffs in the future. The recession after 9/11 was brutal. 

But that is a story for another time. 

Photo by Jorge Salvador on Unsplash

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Nandini Patwardhan

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu....