Hitting the Street -- Getting the Job and Keeping It
Getting a Job, a Career, and a Work Life--Part II
Living in the waiting room of life? Wearing the golden handcuffs of benefits hard-won? Loath to run another gauntlet of bureaucrats and personnel people? Worried about a holey resume, interview traps, rusty skills, knowledge gaps, a 110 percent workpace, or a treatment setback? Has HIV become not just a job, but a career?
In a special feature entitled "Life Beyond Disability" in the February 1999 issue of Body Positive, financial advisor Per Larson wrote about nailing down medical insurance--especially pharmaceutical coverage--before returning to work. In "Keep Covered," he focused on retaining benefits, and in "The Road Back--One Step at a Time," on touching all the financial bases.
Now, in a two-part series, Larson turns his attention to the nuts and bolts of re-entering the world of work. Last month's article, "Getting Back In--A Two-Pronged Strategy," dealt with moving ahead with a job and a career--searching for market intelligence; developing contacts and leads; securing free training geared to increasing job prospects, starting income, and medical, disability, and life insurance benefits.
This month's article shifts this inner focus and hits the streets--discussing resumés, applications, interviewing, and negotiating to get a job. It explores accommodations and other ways to keep the job, networking to build career security, and coaching to generate ever-greater income.
The Caveats: Bear in mind that the focus here is on the financial fallout and career problems specific to HIV, and career techniques particularly useful in overcoming them. This is not a balanced treatment of career issues; hit your bookstore's career section for that.
Also, the advice given here is limited by the space available. It is general, background information. Check your own policies and written descriptions of your own benefits. If you work with someone, take into account the relevance of his or her experience. Your job is to tailor this advice to your own circumstances. And remember--these ballpark observations don't give you aisle and seat numbers!
People with HIV may want jobs that are extra secure, are not too taxing, have regular hours, have time flexibility, give strong social support, are close to home, involve a minimum of travel, are not crisis driven, place little stress on bonuses or commissions, and offer something intrinsically interesting or meaningful to do.
People with HIV may want rich benefits, benefits that kick in immediately, medical insurance that continues past Medicare, good opportunities for tax-free savings, portable disability plans that can be converted into individual plans, tax-free disability benefits, nonmedically underwritten high-value disability options (paying seventy percent or more of salary), and nonmedically underwritten life insurance worth one to five times the job's annual salary.
People with HIV may have skill, knowledge, and experience gaps and special needs for treatment. They may experience temporary setbacks from time to time.
People with HIV may have crisis-management skills, a support group, and fresh training. They may be especially well-rounded and be possessed of perspective, self-knowledge, and gratitude.
Above all, on disability you have the time needed to tailor each job contact, to rehearse interviewing skills, to customize job communications, and to make the most of your best.
Getting HiredJust like applying for disability, everything about the job-hunting process can scream "powerlessness." Success in both arenas comes from understanding, mastering, and turning the process to support your goals. This is another one of those times when it's important to say in each detail, "It's my life."
As with disability, the bureaucrats have devised a gauntlet whose stages are designed to weed out and deny--unless you turn their own tools into opportunities to talk about why they should further your efforts. Reaching the decision makers is the goal. Creating a singular story that sings is the technique. Our work is pouring that content into the different formats organizations use, such as resumés, ads, applications, interviews, and negotiation. The strategy is simple--give them what they're looking for; the tactics are tough--finding out what that is. The secret is listening first, then saying how you uniquely fill their bill.
If you are on disability, some of the tools of job hunting can work against you, and some can be turned to your benefit. Let's handle the problems first, then explore those tools that present opportunities for people on disability.
ProblemsProblems lie in the traditional job-hunting tools of resumés, ads, and applications:
Bookstores and libraries are full of excellent books on resumé writing, but they may not help you work around the gaps in your experience caused by disability.
There are two schools of thought about a disability gap: Either deal with it directly and openly, or lead with your other strengths. I say lead with your strengths. The United States may claim to be the home of Hire The Disabled! but the slogan has only a public relations meaning at best. As you found in going out on disability, death and disease have been banished from corporate America. In their current economic feeding frenzy they want to hear about ability--not disability. You can do that. It means deploying several techniques:
The statistics in replying to help-wanted ads work against everyone. Ads guarantee competition--in the hundreds. People with anomalies on their resumés or who don't match the eligibility criteria perfectly are clearly at a disadvantage.
If you respond to ads, it's usually best either to include only a functional (not a chronological) resumé or to gamble and omit the resumé, instead, putting all your effort into customizing the cover letter. You might make the cover letter a mini-resumé responding to the ad's requirements one by one. This implements the effective job-hunting strategy of giving the gatekeepers only the eligibility information they specify, and not giving them any extraneous information they can use to select you out.
Most working job hunters omit this step because of lack of time and either include no cover note or don't customize it. Be different. Promise the resumé once you hear more about the job, and give them bullets responding to their requirements. And move on to more promising techniques.
If you're responding to an ad, applying for a lower-level job, or tackling a large employer, or if you have been passed on to a personnel department, you can't avoid the application. Remember, your sole purpose is to generate the clinching interview. Just as you will in the interview, focus your responses on what you imagine the job is all about--and volunteer nothing else. Like resumés and interviews, applications are sorting-out tools for employers. It's your challenge to make them target you as an ideal candidate.
OpportunitiesOpportunities lie in the newer tools of job hunting, such as information interviews, networking, interviewing, and negotiating.
Last month's article outlined why information interviews are the disabled person's prime asset in job hunting, and how to conduct them. Most "abled" job hunters are already employed; they have either no time or no liberty to get the lay of the land. If you are on disability, you have the time and freedom to make information interviewing a full-time job in itself, gathering invaluable market data, generating leads, and getting feedback on what in your background is a plus and what needs help. You'll end up with mentors and guides counted in the double digits.
You'll also update yourself. The world of work has its own ever-changing lingo. Being out of the circuit, on disability or otherwise, handicaps you; you look fine, but you sound dated. Information interviews and training give you the language and concepts you need to describe what you can do and to convey that you understand your niche in the industry. You'll end up knowing more about things than your interviewers and being able to offer invaluable market intelligence. You'll be able to guide them about the job they're hiring for. (See "Getting Back In" in the April 2000 Body Positive for tips on how to do this.)
Remember, though, that while information interviewing is key to someone with HIV, it is but a first step. There's much more to career planning and job hunting than this.
You can forego this research if you are looking at a lower salary level, if you have entry-level skills, if you are very young, or if you want a job versus a career.
You can also go back to your panel of mentors and ask increasingly specific questions as you get a better idea of what's possible and what you need and want. The last question in each information interview was, "Who else would you recommend that I talk to?" Add to that: "What geographical areas/organizations will be hiring in the months ahead?" "What kinds of experience are they looking for?" "What kinds of jobs will open up?"--in terms of hours, responsibilities, travel, benefits. "What's the best way to approach these organizations?" "Would you have any names of people I could contact to explore job possibilities there?"
Don't forget to contact people who've written articles about the area, association executives and members, chamber of commerce contacts. If you're a woman, search the women's business groups for contacts; if you're gay, network away; if you're an alumnus or alumna, contact your school. Disability respects no social, class, racial, or economic boundaries. You've undoubtedly met an extraordinary variety of people since taking your time-out. Use those contacts! The sympathy and empathy you get from being disabled may not be enough to get you a job, but it may add useful names now to your leads list. All it takes is time--and that's the one asset you have that working job hunters don't.
Most working job hunters don't have time to bone up on interviewing and hone their techniques by role-playing interviews with friends and videotaping these interviews to learn from the screwups how to do them better. While most abled job hunters do interview constantly, formally or informally, on the job, they rarely get frank feedback. Your information interviews permit you to ask for this missing element, so don't forget to ask for it. Interviewing is an acquired skill. It's that Carnegie Hall thing--practice, practice, practice. You've got an edge here--time. Use it wisely.
Interviews for people with HIV or people with a disability time-out are loaded with land-mines. Let's see first what the law says--and then what interviewers actually do.
Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA covers all jobs in workplaces with fifteen or more employees. It dictates protections both before and after a job offer. This, plus the greater likelihood of comparatively rich benefits, is yet another reason to go after bigger employers for that first job back.
A key concept in the ADA is that of "essential functions" of the job. The focus prior to hire should be solely on this. Employers can't legally ask about disabilities. A medical exam is only permitted if job-related and required of all applicants. (Call (800)232-9675 for protection guidelines.)
To Disclose or Not To Disclose. Some career counselors point out possible advantages to disclosing a disability prior to hiring: proof of self-acceptance, evidence of mastery of difficult circumstances, a way to unearth bad employers, elimination of surprise as a barrier to success later on, demonstration of high character. But nearly everyone passes on this "opportunity." Handling such complexities before even getting to job specs can be emotionally taxing. Realistically, most employers and interviewers harbor prejudice. The truth is, it's none of their business at this time--and it's no longer the main focus of your life. And don't forget, as the boomers age, more and more of the population is only temporarily able-bodied.
If you require accommodations from the start, however, you may have to disclose this. If you don't, the employer may be able to claim that you lied in the hiring process. If this may be your situation, seek legal counsel--and don't rely solely on articles like this!
Interview LandminesExpect interviewers to ask illegal questions: "Have you ever filed a disability claim?" "Do you have any physical/medical/mental problems?" "Are you currently taking any medications?" "Have you ever been treated for ----?" Some questions, on the other hand, sound illegal but may pass, such as, "How many days were you out sick last year?"
In a national survey of small to midsized employers, all the firms surveyed routinely asked some of these illegal questions. Nearly two-thirds of the nation's workers are employed by non-Fortune 1000 firms that don't have the resources to be on top of these issues. It's up to you to anticipate screwups. Remember, asking an illegal question itself isn't enough for you to sue. You must show that asking it prevented you from getting the job--a hard and perhaps poorly compensated task. You're applying for a job--not to be their lawyer.
Line up strong peer support and practice before interviewing. As with resumés, gear what you say strictly to the job being discussed. Extraneous information will only distract at best or be used to eliminate you at worst. The task facing most interviewers in ad-response situations is to eliminate. Your task is to help them select--you. In staying job-focused you'll be at an advantage over a garrulous working job applicant.
The toughest questions: "Why did you leave your job?" and "What have you done since?" Plan your responses this way:
Nothing helps an interview more than taking control by interviewing the interviewer. Ask about responsibilities, performance appraisal, supervision, future opportunities, bonuses, evaluation criteria, training, rewards for staying with the company. Above all, analyze and ask endless questions about the job as if it were the only thing important in your life. At this moment, it is.
NegotiationOnce the job offer is made, orally or in writing (if you can, get it in writing!), your legal ground shifts. This is another spot where you may need legal counsel. Questioning may become more detailed. They may even ask you for a medical exam and blood tests -- which is legal if they do that for all employees for your kind of job. Be aware that there are cases where employers have reneged on job offers because of test results--and that while this is probably illegal, it may be costly, taxing, difficult, and unrewarding to fight. If discussion moves directly to details of your taking the job, ask for a copy of the booklets that describe medical, disability, and/or life insurance coverage and personnel policies. You may be reluctant to do anything that may jeopardize (in your mind) the offer. If so:
TransitionOnce you return to work, you trigger what's called a Trial Work Period if you've been getting Social Security. The many complicated implications of this were discussed in "Life Beyond Disability," "Keep Covered," and "The Road Back--One Step at a Time" in the February 1999 issue of Body Positive. Suffice it to say that you must analyze in excruciating detail these implications before starting your job search, not at offer time. But many of us are fallible human beings, so here's a much-abbreviated summary of what to watch out for.
One reason you asked for the booklets was actually to read them. Do so--in detail. Why? It may be that the new coverage has more limited terms than your old medical or disability plans. For example, there is a trend toward giving the employer and the insurer the power to initiate either a return to work or a medical treatment plan. If the physician and patient cannot show why these plans should not be followed and do not follow them, disability benefits can be terminated in three months. Beware what lurks in benefits booklets!
The benefits booklets may also offer improved benefits. Most common in the New York City metropolitan area is the offering of portable disability benefits. After going into effect, these can be changed into a private disability policy having essentially the same features if the employee leaves work.
Going from Old to New Disability Benefits
You need to notify Social Security when returning to work because this triggers the Trial Work Period. You will have extensive forms to fill out. Social Security will continue to pay you during the first nine months of employment no matter what you earn. In the following three-month grace period, Social Security will make up its mind whether your new job and its pay constitute "Substantial Gainful Income." If it does, the checks stop. If you fall sick, however, and do not work for a month, you should call Social Security and they will resume your payments until you return to work again.
If you have been receiving group disability benefits, you must notify the carrier immediately. Read the booklet describing your old coverage to see what provisions they have for going back onto claim, for residual benefits, for part-time benefits, or for rehabilitative employment before you make any decision final or take any action.
Negotiating New Group Disability Terms
New Yorkers benefit from a law that permits them to apply any time they were eligible for old group disability benefits (including time on claim) toward any waiting period for pre-existing conditions on new group coverage. This is like similar continuity-of-coverage provisions under New York State insurance law for previous medical coverage. To avoid a dispute in case you have to make a claim between your seventh and twelfth month of new employment, discuss this law with professional counsel or make sure that the new carrier knows about it and agrees with it .
Outside of New York, you may wish to negotiate with the carrier to modify the usual six-month limitation on the time during which you can go back onto that original claim. Your new job may carry group disability benefits as well, but these may not be applicable to you until after twelve months. Some carriers have extended the six-month limit to twelve or thirteen months, so that you have seamless protection--and so they can get you off their claim permanently. Negotiate this with a professional.
Going from Old to New Medical Benefits
You may be on COBRA. Keep it until you are absolutely sure there are no pre-existing conditions that may apply to gaps in your old coverage or until the new coverage unequivocally goes into full effect.
If you have Medicare, it becomes secondary to the new plan if the employer has twenty or more employees. A small detail here is terribly important: The medical claim form for the employer's carrier will ask you if you are Medicare eligible. While the correct answer is "yes," many people answer "no" out of fear (rational or not) for their jobs. This lying may have no material effect on the carrier or on Medicare. You may then be able to file claims after payment by the group's primary carrier with Medicare.
If you are getting Social Security but have not yet qualified for Medicare, you should know that your working time on the Trial Work Period, its three-month grace period, and the extended period of 36 months after counts toward making you Medicare eligible. If you lose your job after this, you will not be able to get individual medical insurance, although you will be able to continue the group benefits under COBRA. This is potentially a big problem for some people in high income brackets who do not qualify for state drug programs.
You should seriously consider continuing Medicare during your return to work. Part A is free for the first three years (this will be longer under the Ticket to Work legislation discussed in last month's installment). But you must arrange to pay for Part B. Be warned: This is not easy to arrange, and missing the deadline penalizes you. It's important to do because you have eligibility for Medicare as long as you have the condition that originally disabled you. This makes Medicare your ultimate fallback for medical insurance. If you have questions about Medicare, call the Medicare Rights Center at (212) 869-3850 Monday through Thursday between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., or check your local phone book. Government booklets on Medicare do not give much information for people who qualify for Medicare because of disability. The first mention of disability is on page 38 of Medicare's "1999 Guide" (available from (800) MEDICARE.).
Going from Old to New Life Insurance Benefits
You may have continued your old group life insurance benefits by applying for a disability waiver of premium about six to nine months after going out on disability. You must notify your carrier of your return to work. This will trigger an end to the waiver and an offer to convert that life coverage into an individual policy. The carrier may need prompting on getting out the conversion paperwork. The policy offered will be whole life coverage geared to people on disability--and so it will have very high rates (about $30 to $40 per $1,000 of coverage per year). While this may be saleable if you are very sick (perhaps unlikely if you're returning to work), this is a saleable asset if your health declines again--making this a very difficult financial decision.
One factor may delay this decision for residents of New York. If you ask, the insurer will very likely give you the coverage at term rates the first year, according to an old New York Insurance Department rule. This will make the coverage affordable during the first year you hold it, enabling you to remake the decision when it comes time for the policy to shift to higher whole life rates.
Once you're on board, your work at working continues. You may need accommodations. You'll need to keep the job. You'll want to network, either to protect your job or to advance. You may wish to change jobs in the organization or move to a new employer to get better accommodations, greater income, or more opportunities for self-expression.
Selling yourself never stops. It's part of what makes work work and not play. If you don't make any effort, it's simply a poor or passive sales effort--and in today's work world you'll reap the poor results more promptly than before.
You may get enough assets, skills, and experience under your belt to want to go out on your own. Entrepreneurship has a special ring for people with a disability. Here again you'll have to both pursue and test the dream.
A return to work is all about discovering a working relationship with the world. HIV teaches what we need, uncovers what we want, and after stripping away all we had sometimes reveals what we're capable of. This may be what it means to have a calling. Needs and wants are all about the past and the present; capabilities are all about our future. Now that you have a future, the real work begins.
Back to the May 2000 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.