Furloughs: The Vacation You Never Wanted

How to spend your forced time out of the office productively.

September 9, 2008, 6:15 PM

April 9, 2009 — -- From government agencies and auto makers to newspapers and the NFL, it seems no organization is immune to furloughs these days.

Even fictional reporter Brenda Starr recently got word from her comic-strip boss, B. Babbitt Bottomline, that she has been furloughed until further notice.

With the increasing likelihood that these mandatory unpaid days off may be coming soon to a cubicle near you (or worse yet, the one you're sitting in), is there anything you should do to prepare, besides saving your pennies in anticipation of those lost paychecks and the potential financial hardships?

Looking for career advice? Click here to send Michelle your questions and they might end up as a topic for her next column.

In other words, should you take this as your cue to dust off the old resume and hit the nearest career fair? Or should you throw economic caution to the wind, treat your furlough as an unpaid vacation and catch up on your sleep and soap opera viewing?

Forty-two percent of working dads and 34 percent of working moms would take a pay cut of 10 percent or more if it meant they could spend extra time with their kids, according to a pair of CareerBuilder surveys conducted between mid-February and mid-March of 2008.

(If anyone had bothered to ask non-parents whether they'd be willing to swap 10 percent of their pay for more time off, I suspect that a sizable percentage would also have said, "Hell, yeah!")

But what about in 2009, the year of the seemingly bottomless recession? Are workers who've been forced to take an unpaid leave of five, 10, even 15-plus days embracing their unplanned vacations with all the gusto of a school kid on spring break?

Apparently so.

"With my days off, I did not want to think about work," said an advertising sales manager at a newspaper in Madison, Wis., who declined to give his name for this article. "I really did not consider updating my resume or looking at other career paths. I wanted to have those days as an escape."

Family Quality Time

The ad man spent three furlough days of quality time in March with his pre-school daughter and at collegiate basketball games. And, if the weather cooperates, he plans to spend one or both of his remaining two furlough days (one in April, one in May) at a Cubs game.

But he's not the only one milking his mandatory days off for all they're worth.

Tomi Tuel, an analyst for a California state agency, spent her two furlough days in February working on the novel she has been writing.

Another newspaper manager who declined to give his name spent his weeklong February furlough (his first of three unpaid weeks off he'll be taking this year) cleaning the garage of his Southwest home, repairing the drywall in his bathroom and doing some gardening. He plans to send his next weeklong furlough, coming up in May, visiting friends and relatives in the Midwest.

And Seattleite Natasha Jones, a county government worker who'll have 10 furlough days this year, was thrilled to spend the extra time with her husband and pre-school daughter.

"We never get to spend a full weekday together unless I burn a vacation day or I'm sick," Jones said, who works as a deputy communications director. "I am definitely in the camp of, 'Thanks for some days of my life back, even if it drops my income a bit.'"

That's not to say all furloughed workers have their head in the sand.

Many employees take their mandatory leave as a cue to work on that Plan B in case their employer's next move is to pass out pink slips.

Besides enjoying some newfound family time, "I'm also scoping out the employment landscape, burnishing my resume and deciding where I next want to apply my skills and what kinds of problems I want to help my next employer solve," Jones said.

Smart move, said career coach Miriam Salpeter of Keppie Careers in Atlanta.

While you don't have to spend your entire furlough on professional development (after all, who doesn't need a day or three off?), the best time to start plotting your next step is while you're still employed, Salpeter said.

Search for a Job

"Most people are not ready at the drop of the hat to look for a job," she explained. "It's a good idea to use some of that unexpected free time to prepare."

That's what Heidi Waterfield of San Francisco did.

When she was furloughed for three weeks in December from one of her two part-time marketing jobs, the former teacher poured herself into developing the educational consulting business she wants to launch, helped plan an auction at her daughter's school and helped some friends navigate the local school-placement process.

"Through this, I gained a bit of exposure as well as the opportunity to work with two families that could potentially need more [paid] help," Waterfield said in an e-mail interview.

An East Coast public relations professional I'll call "Laura" has been using the one-day-a-week furlough she has been on since Feb. 1 for a similar purpose.

(Laura asked to remain anonymous because her firm doesn't want to worry its clients with news of its cost-cutting measures.)

"Throughout the past two-and-a-half months, I have met with three small business owners and five non-profit organizations, assessing their business and basically providing free public relations consulting for them," said Laura, who's accustomed to working with national and international firms.

"I can now add PR consulting to my young resume, and I know that if I ever need it, I will have several really happy people who can give me a glowing reference."

More important, Laura's recent adventures in networking provided her with a ready-made answer when, over lunch, her boss unexpectedly asked, "What are some things you think our company can do to provide additional services to customers, and how do you see yourself fitting into this picture?"

Imagine Laura's elation when she didn't have to fumble for an answer, despite the fact that she was essentially being asked to interview for her own job.

First, she told her boss that in recent weeks she'd seen a great need in the local businesses community for public relations training.

"So," she said, "I came up with the idea of creating a small business PR kit and selling it to them."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.