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posted: 12/16/2012 7:32 AM

Work advice: Fiscal Cliff notes

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Q: I am a government contractor. My program's funding was cut in July, and I knew then that I would be losing my job. I was laid off in the fall. Is there any help for me? I am currently out of work and face losing my insurance and my house.

A: This question was presented to me in the context of the pending "fiscal cliff," which, at press time, the president and Congress were trying to avoid. But even if they come to agreement on a plan, there's still an ongoing longer-term economic crisis that only time will resolve. So, here is my advice for anyone who seems to be heading toward a perilous drop-off:

Locate the nearest lifeboat. I hope you started looking around for new employment the moment you heard about potential funding cuts or layoffs. If you haven't found a job by the time you're cast overboard, grab the best one nearby. This is no time to be picky about rescue vessels.

Secure a safety line. If you're laid off, apply for benefits at your state unemployment office. Consider tapping your retirement accounts; it may be worth the tax and early-withdrawal consequences. And don't let your health insurance lapse. COBRA is pricey, but under the Affordable Care Act, you can find other options for coverage at

Jettison dead weight. Cut all nonessential spending -- now.

Drop or weigh anchor? If you own your home, you won't lose it overnight -- but you may discover it's not worth hanging on to. A good real estate agent will, for free, walk you through your options: short sale, government assistance, renting, even bankruptcy. If you are a renter, line up temporary crash space, or look for someone willing to pool resources with you. Low-income housing and government assistance are available but have long waiting lists.

This advice might make me sound like a delusional cruise activities director on a Niagara-bound barrel. The answer you really need -- a surefire way to find another job -- I don't have. But this will help: Network every chance you get. Join communities on Monster, CareerBuilder and LinkedIn. Chat up connections in your neighborhood, school or place of worship. When you feel yourself sinking, reach out to your fellow castaways for support.

And now, as I go on furlough for the holidays, I wish you a happier new year in which all we have to worry about are clueless bosses and noisy cube mates.

• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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