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Upside of forced downtime: Some without jobs are embracing their freedom and its new opportunities

MINNEAPOLIS — For Matthew Brogan of St. Paul, Minn., getting laid off in February turned out to be a "blessing in disguise." Armed with severance, he was able to spend time in Michigan helping his parents prepare to move from their longtime home, visit his sister who had surgery, and go to all of his daughter's fast-pitch games.

"When I was working, that wouldn't happen," he said. "Now that summer is coming to an end, I'm ramping up looking for work, but I was very happy to be there for my family when they needed me. When I look back on the summer of 2010, I will definitely remember it with a good feeling."

While unemployment is devastating for most, some idled workers are discovering the upside of downtime. They're making the most of their furloughs by exploring new interests, volunteering or just kicking back.

There's even a new term for it: funemployment, along with websites where the funemployed can find free and low-cost activities (fun-employment.com) or connect (funemployedsingles.com).

But some critics fume that focusing on "fun" dilutes the focus on finding a job, which increases the burden on unemployment benefits. And some who have lost jobs fear that the term trivializes the serious problems they face.

Pat Britt of Eagan, Minn., said unemployment has been very hard on people she knows. But for her, getting laid off several months ago was "kind of a blessing."

"The job had evolved into something I wasn't enjoying," she said. "Sure, you're a little angry and shocked." But she's fortunate to have an employed spouse, a severance package and "a debt-free lifestyle," so she decided to take advantage of the hiatus. "I've worked my whole life, except for a six-month maternity leave," she said. "I've always wanted a summer off with my son." He's now 16, so she's been teaching him to drive.

"I used to hate summer," she said. "But this is a summer to cherish."

Spending time with her children also has been a priority for Lori Klongtruatroke of St. Paul, who graduated from nursing school in May. She has yet to find a full-time position.

"I'm not pushing real hard. It's been three long years, and I'm enjoying every second with my kids," she said. "We're learning about free things we can do around here. My husband has a job. I'm very thankful for that. I'm glad it's worked out this way."

A weak employment climate not only erases jobs; it also erases the stigma of not having one, according to one college professor.

"Recession gives people permission to be unemployed," said Dave Logan of the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. "People gauge their success by comparing themselves to their peers. When their peers are laid off, it dramatically reduces the pressure they feel."

That's what worries critics of "funemployment," who fear it encourages idled workers to delay their job search while living a life of leisure at taxpayer expense. A recent query on startribune.com seeking "funemployed" Minnesotans drew many negative comments. "Anybody that's unemployed and having a good time should lose their benefits," was one printable response.

Beth Miller of Mound, Minn., believes that benefits are necessary for those who need them, but is concerned that they're being taken advantage of by many who don't.

"We have an extended unemployment situation in my own family, and it's been very stressful," she said. "We've made a lot of painful choices." Her husband is currently working two jobs and still making much less than he used to; she had to start a new job five days before their baby was born.

"Funemployment" encourages people "not to take it seriously," she said.

But others who responded view "funemployment" as trying to make the best of a challenging situation.

Theresa Webber of Maple Grove, Minn., considers herself funemployed even though she's working four jobs. They're all part-time, low-key and, yes, fun — at least compared with the full-time job she lost last year.

"The job I had before was stressful and long hours," she said. "Now I work 40 hours or more, but once I leave work, it's off my mind. I'm making about one-third of what I was, but my husband has a good job. The busier I am, the happier I am."

Jed Wannarka, who was laid off in April, is looking for work, but in the meantime, the Richfield, Minn., resident is working on his health and fitness. First he quit smoking. "Smoking is stupid anyway, but without a job, at $5 a pack, it becomes even more stupid."

Then Wannarka started a workout regimen.

"It hasn't been easy, but I look and feel better. I have so little control over our economy and the outside world that focusing on the things I can control and improving them keeps my spirits up."

Zach Peterson expected to enter the workforce after graduating from college in May. "I apply for everything," he said. But even though he hasn't yet gotten a job, he considers his summer a success. Why? He's had a blast: Road trips, enjoying the lakes and even winning third place in a film festival, despite knowing nothing about filmmaking. "I could definitely not do all this stuff if I was working," he said. "It was not the summer I imagined. But I love it." He lives with his parents, but come fall, he plans to move to Hawaii, where his brother will be stationed with the military, find a bartending job and volunteer in youth ministry, the field he hopes to enter.

For some, "funemployment" is an opportunity to enhance professional skills. Mariann Montagne of Minneapolis, a stock investment analyst laid off last year, said she's "keeping on task with stock selection and going to conferences on my own dime." She continues to apply for jobs, but she's also broadened her knowledge and created a record of success. "I've been doing really well. I'd love to open a fund of my own."

That sense of freedom and discovery may wear thin over time.

Tina Tott of Plymouth, Minn., who was laid off in June 2009, decided to look for more fulfilling work. "I wanted something that excites me more," she said. She planned her high school reunion, which was so successful that she decided she'd like to work as an event planner. She's also done volunteer work, charitable fundraising and gotten more involved in her daughter's activities, as well as helping friends with home organization and cleaning.

"Miraculously, I've managed, although it's been a struggle," she said. "I've never lived outside my means and I stay away from debt." At first, the break was a refreshing change. "I've welcomed the freedom in my life, and for a while I really enjoyed it — I've been working since I was 16."

But now the fun is starting to wear off. "I'm ready for a schedule and some consistency," she said. "The last two weeks, I've applied for 10 jobs and heard nothing. I didn't think it would be 14 months."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.