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The Ethics of Unemployment: Can You Travel While Collecting?

Due to the Recession, many folks I know have been laid off and are now collecting Unemployment. It’s lucky that we live in a country with safety nets! But how, exactly, do the ethics of Unemployment Benefits work?

Can you travel while collecting Unemployment benefits?
Can you travel while collecting unemployment benefits?

Last week I overheard the following conversation on a bus in Southern Thailand:

British Carpenter: “So what do you do for work back in the States?”

American Woman: “Nothing now, but I used to work in finance. Now I just collect Unemployment. It’s more than enough to live on and travel out here in Southeast Asia. I’ve been doing it for over eleven months now.”

British Carpenter: “Traveling for a year on your government’s dime! How is that possible?!”

American Woman: “I just have to log into the website every two weeks, and I get my check.”

British Carpenter: (chokes on Pepsi and nearly falls off the bus)

Ko Lanta isn't a bad place to be unemployed...
Ko Lanta isn’t a bad place to be unemployed…

So. There you have it. A handful of people are seeing the world on Uncle Sam’s dime, thanks to being laid off.

What do we think about this? Since I’ve never been on Unemployment myself (my current state of, er, “self-employment” is a voluntary leave of absence from teaching), I’m speaking from a place of relative ignorance. That said, here are some thoughts:

A.) CONs of travel while collecting Unemployment:

I think my mother would positively slap me across the face if I tried such a stunt, and she’s a peaceful being. There would be a lot of yelling and some choice words about wasting taxpayer money and being a drain on society. And in many ways I might agree.

Collecting unemployment while sitting on a beach in Thailand?
Collecting unemployment while sitting on a beach in Thailand?

From eavesdropping on the rest of the conversation (sorry — it was a small bus!) it was clear that this woman not only had made and saved a decent amount of money in her finance job, but she also came from a relatively wealthy family.

The Socialist within screams out that one should not take any more of a communal resource than absolutely necessary, even one is fully within the official rules of society. Stretching out Unemployment benefits much longer than necessary seems somewhat unethical!

What are the ethics of unemployment benefits?
What are the ethics of unemployment benefits?

B.) PROs of travel while collecting Unemployment:

That said, we do live in a global world with a global economy. This means that, technically, it is just as valid to be “looking for a new job” abroad as it to be “looking for a new job” while sitting on your couch at home.

In fact, the skills and perspectives one might acquire through travel might in fact make a person far more employable in the future. By physically being in a number of different cities in a short amount of time, more job options and interviews can become possible.

Finally, nowadays, the majority of job searching takes place over the Internet, which can just as easily searched in California as in Cambodia. In fact, the cost of living is so low in regions such as Southeast Asia, that travel while on Unemployment usually causes LESS financial stress than not traveling.

Thailand certainly soothes stress.
Thailand certainly soothes stress.

Ergo, perhaps the American woman had a point that it made equal sense for her to be in Thailand collecting Unemployment as to be cold in Chicago.

So there are both sides of the debate. Where do you stand? As always, the answer likely likes in the middle: travel is great, but only use Unemployment benefits as long as you really need them!

(Note: All photos are from my $12-a-night resort in gorgeous Ko Lanta, Thailand… which I am paying for through my savings from working as an English teacher, not from Unemployment benefits!)


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Raphael Alexander Zoren

Thursday 9th of January 2014

Look, this might come a little biased but hear me out, I am proud to be a self-made world traveler (35 countries and counting!) from a Thirld World Country (Mexico), here, when we hear about peole getting paid by their government for not working, we simply cannot understand the logic behind it. That being said, I totally undestand that every country has citizens "playing the system" and taking advantage of their governments but come on, this lady on the bus is taking a VACATION instead of applying 24/7 for a job. THAT is entirely shameful.


Monday 15th of July 2013

Only way I'd travel while unemployed would be to look for another job abroad. Of course, I'd rather have a job lined up before heading over for work again.


Monday 15th of July 2013

That is an ethical and logical answer!

T.J. & Charlotte

Monday 18th of March 2013

This is really interesting. I guess I don't understand how unemployment works. Do you have to take any job that comes along? Or can you be super selective? What if you decide you want to be a movie star, with no prior experience? Could you collect unemployment (while traveling) because you can't find a job being a movie star?


Tuesday 16th of July 2013

First, I would like to reiterate what another commenter has mentioned, that unemployment insurance (UI) is different from one state to the next. They do all require that you conduct an active search (although an "active search" is defined and checked differently state by state) and they all require that you let them know if you're leaving the country. Personally, I see no problem traveling while on UI and I have done it myself.

Some would say that my situation was quite different from that of the woman in question because when I was traveling while on UI, I was traveling for work. All states require that you take all jobs offered to you while on UI, and that you report your earnings (if you work part time/make too little to be disqualified) so they can adjust your benefit accordingly. UI adjusted the amount they paid me because of what the job paid, but I was still entitled to the benefit.

I don't see traveling while on unemployment as a detriment for the reasons Lillie stated (like developing skills, making yourself a better employment prospect, and the opportunities overseas you could be going for) but also because of economics. If this woman was able to live more frugally in another country, that means she is able to get more out of her benefit. What is the harm in that? As another commenter mentioned, we wouldn't see traveling within the US as a problem. Wouldn't any conservative person advocate that the unemployed reduce their spending where it is at all possible? Sure, she had to pay for the airfare up front, but even with that expense, going to a developing country significantly reduces a person's expenses, making her actually more fiscally responsible than someone like me who is currently paying astronomical Boston rent with my benefit, and could potentially need other government help to pay for other things like food or health expenses. Another issue I take is that I don't believe that anyone who needs government assistance needs to immediately get rid of their cell phone, cable, internet and car, as many others do, and I don't think they have to live like an ascetic monk, having no fun and never leaving their job search unless it's to eat, sleep or interview. Searching for a job is hard work and mentally taxing, and the anxiety it produces increases the longer a person is unemployed. Expecting someone not to enjoy themselves or take a break is unreasonable and really rather classist. For all we know, this woman could be putting up a brave face because she's sick of the looks or disgust or pity (I see both rather frequently) she gets when she tells people she is on unemployment.

I understand the concern that she could be misrepresenting herself, but as long as she is still applying to jobs, who cares? (many states, like Massachusetts, require three "work search activities" per week, while others, like New Hampshire, are not explicit about how much searching is enough, and have a narrower scope of what they consider a "work search activity") The downside of this being an overheard conversation is that we do not know if she lives in a state that requires her to physically check in (Massachusetts does not, but can request it) or doesn't (NH doesn't even mention any in-person services to help you in your job hunt.) We also don't know how much she's looking. Also, it's really none of our business. It's also none of our business whether she is somehow independently wealthy or has a lot of savings. Moreover, should she be penalized for having the forethought and a high enough paying job to save up in advance?

I would advise her to reduce her spending (which it sounds like she did) and take the benefit until it runs out (a max of 26 weeks nationwide, but lower in some states like Mass) and then use her savings to sustain her for any remaining time until she becomes employed again. It's also important to remember that the weekly UI benefit is not very much. It automatically tops out at 50% of your previous weekly pay, and can be adjusted lower especially if you are unwed and have no dependents (there was no mention of a spouse or children in the post.) It can also be suddenly lower when something like oh, say, the current sequester happens, and while assistance for purchasing health insurance is available, it still usually costs more to ensure oneself through MassHealth than through their previous employment. All this is not to mention the stigma attached to unemployed people when they apply to jobs, or the stigma of unemployment contacting whatever part time or temp job you secure to try to make ends meet.

As may be apparent, I've spent an ungodly amount of time with two different state's unemployment agencies recently, and I must say, they don't make it easy. It makes me wonder how a person who doesn't speak English very well (they offer services in Spanish, but no other languages) or who isn't very educated or has to work a part-time or lower-paying job during the hours that UI operations manages to get anywhere, since I've had such a hard time figuring it out in my native tongue with a college degree and a decent amount of critical thinking skills under my belt. Any time I hear someone talk about unemployment, I'm tempted to ask whether they've ever actually had to go through the process, since it's really quite time consuming and confusing. I also hear people say things about UI all the time that are flat out false, mostly about people someone making more money on unemployment than they did while working, which is simply impossible given the layout of the system. Anyway, I just really urge people not to rush to judgement on a person they don't know, about whose financial details they can only speculate, and especially if they're unaware of how the unemployment system works or how highly variable it can be.

Phew, that was a long one! Thanks for getting an interesting discussion rolling, Lillie!


Monday 18th of March 2013

Good questions! I'm not sure, but maybe someone else can weigh in?


Wednesday 9th of May 2012

I met a traveler once who was unemployed and traveling while collecting checks. But they were not traveling perpetually, just a three week trip to a country in SE. Asia. I believe they said they have to check in physically at a department once every few weeks to discuss the job search, but mostly in his time off he went skiing and then the vacation. From the conversation, I was getting the feeling that they were planning the trip anyway so no point not taking it just because you got laid off a few months before.

I feel like if I ever got laid off and then went off to travel the life of a nomad, I wouldn't even bother. I would just become that statistic of people who stopped looking for work. Or at the very least, collect unemployment until you leave, then quit. But I suspect that with a website that earns revenue and the public knowledge of you traveling would kind of make that one even a bit difficult.

Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Wednesday 9th of May 2012

As long as she is truly looking for a job, then I see no problem with her physically residing wherever she wants to. She could be living in California, Idaho, Paris, or Thailand and it wouldn't make a difference. The question then becomes: was she actively looking for a job? We'll never know.


Wednesday 9th of May 2012

Good point! Although someday she may find her way to my site and share her story. It's happened before!

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