Notes from the Breadline Roxana St Thomas.jpgEd. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email, at roxanastthomas@gmail.com, or find her on Facebook.

My last days in the office coincide with the final run-up to the holidays, which provide a strange, somewhat dissonant backdrop for being laid off. On one hand, Christmas cheer is almost thankfully difficult to escape, and it is hard not to be swept up, if only briefly, in its glittery tide. On the other hand, the season seems oddly cheerless.

One night just before Christmas I go to dinner with my friend TJ, who lives on the Upper West Side. Walking to the subway afterwards I notice that, although it is one of the final shopping days of the season, the streets are unusually empty. Signs in every store window announce drastic sales which, a year ago, would have caused a virtual stampede; now, however, there is something ominous about the scene. There are too many New Yorkers who, like me, are suddenly planning a budget based on the decidedly modest figure of $405 a week — New York’s maximum allowable unemployment benefit. There are too many more who are planning a budget based on less. The last thing on my mind is a new bra from Victoria’s Secret, even if it is 50% off.

On the bright side, I have recovered from my initial sticker shock at the price of COBRA, and discovered that there are, in fact, more affordable benefit options. To be sure, finding — and then deciphering — these options requires as much work as any other inquiry related to health insurance; there are no easy answers, and even if you find a centralized source of information that will help you compare the relative merits of different plans, there is a tremendous amount of legwork to be done. But, I learn quickly, at least there are plans available.

More details, after the jump.


Cliff — who, as the owner of a small business, has always had to do his own due diligence — tips me off to what appears to be a distinctly viable option, Healthy New York. As the application tells me, “Healthy NY offers comprehensive health insurance to sole proprietors, working individuals, and small businesses. The streamlined benefits package, combined with state funding, means affordable health insurance for you and your family.” Although the program is intended to benefit people who are, in fact, working, I will still be eligible (once I am officially unemployed) as a result of my loss of coverage “due to a specific event” — namely, losing my job. Healthy NY offers a basic benefit package, a basic package with prescription drug coverage, a high deductible plan, or a high deductible plan with prescription drug benefits. For someone like Cliff (a sole proprietor who rarely goes to doctors and takes no prescription drugs), the high deductible plan seems so well-tailored that, I think, one might be tempted to show it off to friends and strangers alike (as in “have you seen my new health insurance? Doesn’t it make me look … streamlined?”). But, I determine quickly, it is not the best choice for someone like me, who fills an expensive prescription every month.

Fortunately, through Healthy NY, packages with drug coverage can be found for around $300 a month, which is a fraction of what my COBRA benefits would cost. After some additional research on www.ehealthinsurance.com, I determine that this is a relatively good rate, since even the most “streamlined” (translation: shitty) benefit packages, when not subsidized, turn frightfully expensive when prescriptions enter the analysis. (Of course, whether Healthy NY is still the best option in light of the new COBRA subsidy remains to be seen; but at the time, the COBRA subsidy did not exist.)

A word to the uninitiated: if you are ever unfortunate enough to find yourself doing health care diligence, make sure you bring your tolerance for frustration. Few things will make you feel more stupid, and contagious, than trying to talk to a potential health insurance provider about your specific coverage needs. Although you are, in theory, the customer, they will do anything to avoid contact with you, and most deploy an army of automated drones to screen your calls. If it is any comfort, many such drones will introduce themselves by name before they start insisting, obtusely, that “your answer was not understood,” perhaps to provoke a sense of guilt when you insist on talking to customer service. Sadly, it is also likely that customer service will make you wish that you could talk to Linda the Robot again. At the very least, Linda’s cluelessness is delivered with a cheerful, intelligible enthusiasm that most humans are unable to muster.

I do not bother to come into the office much these days, and when I do, I spend most of the time talking to Giovanna, when she is not busy hustling for work. I suspect that she has a form of survivor’s guilt: whenever she begins to complain, she catches herself and stops, noting that the current indignities of firm life, no matter how acute, are better than the alternative. I want to tell her not to worry; I am glad that she still has a job, and, if anything, I am oddly relieved not to have to wonder whether every underworked day is another nail in my coffin.

I am also struck by how different it is to leave a job in this environment. Not so long ago, it seemed like every departing attorney sent around an effusive firm-wide email, which usually embodied the high points of a high school year book inscription and a wedding toast, lavishing praise on his or her colleagues and gushing expansively about what a fabulous experience it had been to work at the firm. In the end, the thankless hours, the personality clashes, the oppressive frustration … all the things that made them look for a new job in the first place were forgotten, the relief of departure turning even the people they loathed and fantasized about shooting with the staple gun into BFFs. Nowadays, people just disappear, their whereabouts and ultimate destinations known only to their true friends. And that, I find myself thinking wistfully, is another casualty of being laid off. Working long hours in close quarters can breed contempt, but it can also provide the simple blessing of lunches, coffee breaks, and late-afternoon chats with people you come to know and care about. I do not share these rituals, or the rhythms of daily life, with my sisters, or Bo, or Molly, or Cliff; I share them with Giovanna. And, although I know that we will still be friends, I realize that I am losing the luxury of a closeness that I did not appreciate the magnitude of until I felt its absence looming.

On my last day in the office, Don, one of the partners with whom I have worked closely, asks me to stop by. He has been away on vacation, so I wasn’t sure whether I would have a chance to say goodbye to him at all. Still, my initial response is apprehension; I don’t want to discuss any more cases, or put together another crib sheet to prepare a partner who has not bothered to look at the file.

When I get to his office, however, I am immediately shamed by my own cynicism. “I just found out that you were leaving,” he says. “Why didn’t you tell me this was happening, Roxana? I would have gone to bat for you.” I want to hug him. I explain that I didn’t know, and that by the time I found out, it was too late to do anything. He says he is upset that he wasn’t asked for input, and learned about my departure the day before, when he was notified by email that I would not be handling his cases anymore. “It’s really a shame,” he laments, flipping through the time reports for the past month. He shows me the short list of people, partners and associates, who were “at goal” (meeting their monthly billable targets), and the much longer list of people who were not. “You know, the people at the top won’t feel this one bit,” he says caustically. “They’re making these cuts preemptively, so that none of them will have a bad year.”

I start to get angry again. I know that the firm is a business, but the decision to lay off staff and attorneys so that the highest earners can ride out the recession unscathed, refusing to shoulder any part of a burden that they are better equipped to carry, still feels depraved. “That’s how capitalism works!” I can hear my father saying, and I know; I get it. Nonetheless, rank greed is ugly to look at, and even more difficult to stomach.

But I am tired of being angry. It is almost Christmas, and Don is thanking me for the work I have done for him. I am packing light when I leave this place, and I don’t want to waste precious space carrying a grudge against people who mean even less to me than I mean to them. Don tells me that he will do whatever he can to help me, and reminds me that he is a phone call away if I ever need anything. I leave feeling lighter, strangely unburdened by my gratitude for Don’s kindness.

I go back to my office to finish packing. I don’t want to lug around the detritus of this job, so I have decided that I will only take what I can fit in one box. Cliff calls to ask me whether I remembered to bring an egg. No, I tell him; I forgot. I look around at what I have left and ask him what I can do, a la MacGyver, with a bunch of paper clips, a box of teabags, four packages of gum, several packets of miso soup, and a handful of tampons. He comes up with an elaborate system that will, if constructed properly, erode the foundations of the building (or something), but which appears to require advanced engineering skills. I resign myself to the fact that there will be no malodorous souvenir, no Michael Bay-style explosion as I walk away, no strategic ceiling collapse in the middle of a deposition that leaves a rubble-covered partner shaking his fist at the sky and shouting, “I’ll get you Roxana, if it’s the last thing I do!” Like many events of significance (real or imagined), my tenure here will end not with a bang, but a whimper.

This departure has been an idea for two weeks, and now it is a reality. I pack the last few things and call Giovanna so that she can walk me out. I thought I would have a lot to carry, so my car is downstairs in the garage. She meets me in my office and gathers the rest of my things, piling her arms with everything I cannot manage myself. When I walk out for the last time, she turns off the light and closes the door behind me.

It is only 5:30 or so, but it feels much later; the office is empty and the winter night is dark. We walk down to the garage and I realize that, since the day in the assignment partner’s office when I willed myself not to cry, I have not shed a tear. I have been angry, frustrated, scared, and, on a few occasions, sad, but I still haven’t cried. Giovanna is bantering cheerfully, so I brush the thought aside. She has work to do tonight, and I want her to get back upstairs quickly so that any loitering partners can see her at her desk, toiling away. When we get to the car, I take my keys off and give them to her to return. “You don’t have to do that yet,” she says. “You’re still an employee for another two weeks.”

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “It’s not like I’m coming back.” We stand by the car for a minute, and silence descends. “Well,” I say, “this is it.” I don’t know what else to say, so I hug her.

“I’m not saying goodbye to you,” she tells me sternly. “What the fuck? I’ll call you tomorrow.” She laughs and hugs me back. I wish her an evening full of billable hours for her timesheets, shoo her upstairs, and get in the car.

Once I am out of the garage, I roll down the windows. The night is unseasonably warm, and for a minute I forget that it will be Christmas soon. I drive slowly, the wind blowing in my face as I drift downtown. By the time I get home, my tears are dry.

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Roxana St. Thomas is a laid-off lawyer living in New York. You can reach her by email, at roxanastthomas@gmail.com, or find her on Facebook.

Earlier: Prior installments of Notes from the Breadline


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