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Opinion Editorials

The truth about unemployment from someone who’s been through it

(EDITORIAL) Unemployment benefits aren’t what you thought they were. Here’s a first-hand experience and what you need to know.

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Have I ever told you how I owed the government over two grand because of unemployment in 2019, and only just finished paying it back this year?

This isn’t exactly the forum for memoirs, but this is relevant to everyone. So I’ll tell y’all anyway.

It all started back in 2018 when I came into work early, microwaved my breakfast, poured coffee, and got pulled into a collaboration room to hear, “We love you and your work, April, but we’ve been bought out and you’re being laid off.”

It was kind of awkward carrying my stuff out to the car with that Jimmy Dean sandwich in my mouth.

More awkward still was the nine months of unemployment I went through afterwards. Between the fully clothed shower crying, the stream of job denial, catering to people who carried rocks in their nostrils at my part-time job (yes, ew, yes, really), and almost dying of no-health-insurance-itis, I learned a lot!

The bigger lesson though, came in the spring of the following year when I filed my taxes. I should back up for a moment and take the time to let those of you unfamiliar with unemployment in Texas in on a few things that aren’t common knowledge.

1: You’re only eligible if you were laid off. Not if you had quit. Not fired. Your former company can also choose to challenge your eligibility for benefits if they didn’t like your face on the way out. So the only way you’re 100% guaranteed to get paid in (what the state calls) “a timely manner”, is a completely amicable split.

2: Overpayments have to go back. Immediately. If there’s an error, like several thousand of Texans found out this week, the government needs that cash back before you can access any more. If you’re not watching your bank account to make sure you’re getting the exact same check each time and you have an overpayment, rest assured that mistake isn’t going to take long to correct. Unfortunately, if you spent that money unknowingly–thought you got an ‘in these uncertain times’ kinder and gentler adjustment and have 0 income, you have a problem. Tying into Coronavirus nonsense is point three!

3: There are no sick days. If ever you’re unable to work for any reason, be it a car accident, childbirth, horrible internal infection (see also no-health-insurance-itis), you are legally required to report it, and you will not be paid for any days you were incapacitated. Personally, my no-health-insurance-itis came with a bad fever and bedrest order that axed me out of my part time job AND killed my unemployment benefits for the week I spent getting my internal organs to like me again. But as it turned out, the payment denial came at the right time because–

4: Unemployment benefits are finite. Even if you choose to lie on your request forms about how hard you’re searching for work, coasting is ill-advised because once the number the state allots you runs out…it’s out. Don’t lie on your request forms, by the way. In my case, since I got cut from my part-time gig, I got a call from the Texas Workforce Commission about why my hours were short. I was able to point out where I’d reported my sickness to them and to my employer, so my unpaid week rolled over to a later request date. I continued to get paid right up until my hiring date which was also EXACTLY when my benefits ran out.

Unemployment isn’t a career, which is odd considering the fact that unemployment payments are qualified by the government as income.

Ergo, fact number five…

5: Your benefits? They’re taxed.

That’s right, you will be TAXED for not having a job.

The stereotype of the ‘lazy unemployment collector burdening society’ should be fading pretty quickly for the hitherto uninformed about now.

To bring it back to my story, I’d completely forgotten that when I filed for unemployment in the first place, I’d asked for my taxes NOT to be withheld from it–assuming that I wasn’t going to be searching for full time work for very long. I figured “Well, I’ll have a tax refund coming since I’ll get work again no problem, it’ll cancel out.”

Except, it was a problem. Because of the nine month situation.

I’d completely forgotten about it by the time I threw myself into my new job, but after doing my taxes, triple checking the laws and what I’d signed, it was clear. Somehow…despite being at my lowest point in life, I owed the highest amount in taxes, somewhere around the 2k mark.

Despite being based on a system that’s tied to how much income you were getting before, and all the frustrating “safeguards” put in place to keep payments as low and infrequent as possible, Uncle Sam still wants a bite out of the gas-station Hostess pie that is your unemployment check. And as I’m writing this, more and more people are finding that out. And even as we enter 2021, there is still more to be aware of – we’re not out of the woods yet.

I’d like to end this on a more positive note… So let’s say we’ve all been positively educated! That’s a net gain, surely.

Keep your heads up, and masked.

You can't spell "Together" without TGOT: That Goth Over There. Staff Writer, April Bingham, is that goth; and she's all about building bridges— both metaphorically between artistry and entrepreneurship, and literally with tools she probably shouldn't be allowed to learn how to use.

Opinion Editorials

Remote work is here to stay: The benefits are just too good to overlook

(EDITORIAL) Employees scream it from the rooftops and businesses don’t want to admit it: Remote work is just too beneficial to pass up- and here’s why.

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Work from home written with scrabble letters.

Remote work has been rising in popularity in the past several years. Especially following the COVID-19 global pandemic, more companies saw significant benefits for both their business and their staff that went beyond the realm of finances by allowing remote labor.

Less happily, many people lost their job during the pandemic, but they ended up having more time to put toward their passions or were compelled to get creative with their remote business ideas to ensure a consistent stream of income.

If you remain on the fence about allowing your employees to work remotely, or are considering a career shift yourself, take a look at the top four benefits of working remotely, which may sway your decision.

Better Overall Quality of Life

Allowing your employees to work remotely doesn’t necessarily mean they work from home full time. There are benefits to having your employees work in an office part of the time – say, two or three days – and working from home, in more familiar surroundings, the rest of the week.

In this way, your workers enjoy some freedom and independence while retaining the ability to interact face-to-face with their peers. That provides human interaction, which can play a substantial role in terms of improved mental health for your staff.

Happy employees means healthier employees, which can save your outfit money in the form of healthcare costs and lost productivity. But we will get further into the cost-saving benefits a little further on.

If you’re a remote worker, you should see yourself becoming significantly more productive. But why would this be the case if you don’t have a manager over your shoulder watching your every move?

It’s true that when employees have a greater sense of independence, they also experience a significant sense of trust on the part of their employers and managers. This is one of the huge benefits of working remotely because it has a trickle-down effect on the quality and overall production of people’s work.

Can Work Anywhere with Internet

Whether you are a small business owner or have crafted your work to tailor toward a life of remote labor, this is an opportunity for someone who has dreamed of being a digital nomad. You have the ability to work anywhere in the world as long as you have access to the Internet. If you love to travel, this is a chance to spend time in various places around the globe while continuing to meet your deadlines.

Multi-member Zoom call on a Apple Mac laptop with a blue mug of black coffee next to it.

Set Your Own Hours

In some cases with remote businesses, you have the freedom to set your own hours. Content writers, for instance, tend to enjoy more flexibility with regard to when they work because a lot of what they produce is project-based rather than tied to a nine-to-five schedule.

When you’re a business owner, this can be incredibly useful when you outsource tasks to save money. You can find a higher quality of performance by searching for contractors anywhere in the world and it doesn’t limit you to workers who live near to your office.

Saves Everyone Time and Money

 In the end, remote work typically saves money for every person and entity involved. Businesses save costs in terms of not having to pay for a physical space, utilities, Internet, and other expenses. This allows you, as the owner, to spend more of your income on providing quality software and benefits for your employees so your operation runs more smoothly and efficiently.

According to FlexJobs, employees or remote business owners may save around $4,000 on average every year for expenses such as car maintenance, transportation, professional clothing in the office, or even money spent dining out for lunch with coworkers. Eventually, the costs add up, which means extra money in your pocket to take that much-needed vacation or save up for a down payment on your first home.

These benefits of working remotely only skim the surface. There are also sustainability factors such as removing cars from the roads and streets, because people don’t have to travel to and from an office; or employees missing fewer workdays since they have the ability and freedom to clock in from home.

Weigh the pros and cons as to whether remote work is right for you as a business owner or online professional. You might be surprised to find that working from home for more than the duration of the pandemic is worthwhile and could have long-lasting benefits.

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Opinion Editorials

Learning in the workplace: An exploratory mindset can foster efficiency

(OPINION) A typical business model is to run a tight ship with fear of inefficiencies, but cultivating learning can bring the best out of organizations

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Left side of brain showing calculations and right side of brain with colorful paint, resembling creativity and learning.

Despite living in an ever-changing world, many people assume that learning, be it academic or vocational, more or less stops with the conclusion of formal education. Harvard Business Review’s John Hagel III posits that an exploratory mindset, rather than fear, is the most effective way to cultivate an ongoing interest in learning – something that, as Hagel reveals, is more beneficial to a modern world than business owners realize.

Inefficiency is perhaps the most common fear of any business owner, and for good reason- Efficiency is tied directly to profits. Because of this, the majority of industries focus on establishing protocols, training employees rigorously, and then holding them to their prescribed models of operation.

And while those models can be extremely restrictive, the fear of inefficiency prevents employers from fostering creativity and personal learning, prompting some to go so far as to penalize employees who color outside of the lines. Indeed, Hagel describes one such interaction affecting an acquaintance of his: “As someone who was excited about improving the company’s supply network, she created and began testing a new intake form to assess supplier reliability.”

“She was fired for not using the standard procurement forms,” he adds.

But Hagel’s acquaintance wasn’t acting maliciously, at least by his description; she had simply identified a bottleneck and attempted to fix it using her own expertise.

We’ve written before about the importance of trusting one’s employees, implementing flexible procedures, and even welcoming constructive criticism in the interest of maintaining efficiency in a growing market. This is exactly the point that Hagel drives home – that holding employees to standards that are optimized for maximum efficiency discourages flexibility, thus culminating in eventual inefficiency.

“In a rapidly changing world with growing uncertainty, front-line workers find themselves consuming much more time and effort because they have to deviate from the tightly specified processes, so scalable efficiency is becoming increasingly inefficient,” says Hagel.

The irony of rigidly efficient practices inspiring inefficiency is clear, but the process of moving away from those structures is fraught with missteps and a general lack of understanding regarding what truly motivates employees to seek education on their own.

Let’s be clear: No one is advocating for a Montessori approach to work, one in which employees spend more time licking the walls and asking questions about the sky than they do attending to the tasks at hand. But employees who have been encouraged to explore alternative solutions and procedures, especially if they are supported through both their successes and failures, tend to be more ready to “scale” to increasingly changing demands in the work environment.

Ultimately, those employees and their expertise will create a more efficient system than all of the best-thought-out procedures and guidelines one can muster.

“Cultivating the passion of the explorer enables innovative thinking in the organization at a whole new level,” Hagel summarizes. “But harnessing that opportunity requires us to move beyond fear and to find and cultivate the passion of the explorer that lies waiting to be discovered in all of us.”

It is both Hagel’s and our own hope that businesses will find ways to appeal to that same exploratory passion – if not because it is in the best interests of employees, then, at least, in the name of improved efficiency.

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Opinion Editorials

Art meets business: Entrepreneurship tips for creative people

(EDITORIAL) Making your creative hobby into a business is an uphill battle, but hey, many other people have done it. This is how they crested that hill.

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creative artist doodle

If the success of platforms like Etsy has proven anything, it’s that creative people can launch successful businesses, even with relatively few tools at their disposal – and for many hobbyists, this is the dream. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though, and what pushes someone from creator to businessperson can be hard to pin down. In one study, the determining factor was encouragement by family and friends. Others make a slower transition from hobby to side hustle to full-time employment in the arts. Whatever the motivating factors, though, artists interested in becoming entrepreneurs need to hone an additional set of skills.

It’s All In The Plan

From one perspective, artists know how to follow a plan. Whether we’re talking about a knitter who can work through a pattern or a novelist outlining a chapter and building characters, creative thinkers also tend to be very methodical. Just because someone can create or follow a plan, that doesn’t mean they know how to develop a business plan. Luckily, there are plenty of guides to starting a business out there that contain all the basic information you’ll need to get started.

Business development guides are full of valuable technical information – what paperwork you’ll need to file, the cost of licenses, and other similar details – but they can also help you answer questions about your goals. Before you can even start writing a business plan, you’ll need to consider what service or product you want to offer, who your clients will be, and what differentiates your product from others out there. This last question is more important than ever before as more people try to break into creative fields.

Assess Your System

Once you know what your business goals are and what products you’ll be offering, you need to consider whether you have the ability to scale up that operation to fulfill market demand. There aren’t very many art forms that you can pay the bills with fulfilling commissions one at a time. The ability to scale up the artistic process is what made the famous painter Thomas Kinkade so successful during his lifetime when many others have failed. For the modern artist, this might mean asking whether you can mechanize or outsource any of your activities, or if you’ll be doing only exclusive work for high-paying clients.

Find The Right Supports

Every business needs support to thrive, whether in the form of a startup accelerator, a bank loan, a community of fellow professionals, or some other organization or resource. Artists are no different. If you’re going to develop a successful creative business, you need to research and connect with supports for working artists. They may be able to help you access tools or studio space, get loans, market your business, or connect you with a receptive audience. These groups are expert repositories of information and you don’t have to be in a major city to connect with them.

Find Professional Partners

You’re a talented artist. You have a vision and a plan. That doesn’t mean you have to go it alone – or even that you should. To build a successful creative business, you’ll want to partner with people who have different strengths. Not only will these people be able to lend their expertise to your operation, but they’ll make you a better artist and entrepreneur by lending a critical eye to your approach. Just like a major corporation won’t thrive if it’s composed of yes-men who are just along for the ride, your creative undertaking needs internal critics whose ultimate aim is to support you.

Stay Inspired

It’s easy to get bogged down in business logistics and lose your creative spark. In fact, that’s why many artists are reticent to monetize their work, but you shouldn’t let that fear hold you back. Instead, put in the effort to stay inspired. Read books about art and creativity, keep a journal, or go to museums. Experiment with new forms. Be willing to push your own limits and know that it’s okay to fail. Many businesses that aren’t tied to creative output flounder and struggle to find their way, and there’s no reason your business should be any different. Still, the surest path to failure is stagnation and losing your spark. That’s worse for any artist than a sloppy business plan.

Artists are often told that they aren’t meant to be entrepreneurs – but the most successful businesspeople are creative types, even if they aren’t typical artists. Use that outside-the-box thinking to your advantage and make a splash. If you want to do more with your art, you owe it to yourself to try.

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