Finally, a chance to catch up on their sleep

Some laid-off dotcom workers have an unexpected reaction to downturn: relief.

By

Nestor Fernandez experienced a downturn in his finances long before the Nasdaq took a prolonged nosedive.

In 1996, the Internet architect and his co-workers temporarily went on half-salary at their company, The Mining Company. He and a tightly knit group of true believers worked 85-hour weeks, without benefits or paid vacations. Mr. Fernandez's marriage collapsed, he says, partly because of the 14-hour days.

"At one point we worked three straight days," says Fernandez, one of the original programmers at The Mining Company, which later became About.com, a popular Internet portal. "Every morning you'd wake up on your keyboard and raise your head, and you'd have keyboard key marks on your face."

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Fernandez's story of long hours spent hunched over a keyboard became a familiar one during the late 1990s (as did the stock options and financial rewards ultimately showered on Fernandez and his fellow employees). In fact, Americans logged more hours at work than any other nation in the late '90s - adding a month to the work year.

But a year after the market went south, those same dotcommers - exhausted by trying to maintain the pace of the information age - are heaving a collective sigh of relief. Some former workers, who had enough saved from the tech gold rush, decided to sleep till noon and just moonlight a few days a week rather than scramble for another job. Too young to have been paying bills during the 1970s or early 1990s, they don't see the idea of a recession - at least, a mild one - as a particularly bad thing.

Today, from "pink-slip parties" in New York to networking events in San Francisco, former dotcom professionals are toasting the recessing pace of the Internet economy. After years of frenetic workweeks, lost vacations, and the mad dash toward stock options, many in the tech world are far from gloomy that the mania's come to an end. The pressure's off, and now they can breathe.

Ida McCarty is one of the converts who came to regard their pink slips as tickets to freedom.

When she started her job at a Chicago-based dotcom, the CEO was throwing money around with a carefree abandon.

Literally. Piles of $50 bills were stacked on a table at the company Christmas party in 1999, and employees were showered with cash if they came up with witty alternatives to carol lyrics. "Our CEO openly told us this was going to be a success," says Ms. McCarty. "She was going to make us all millionaires - the whole spiel."

Four months later, as the Nasdaq plummeted, McCarty and her co-workers were laid off.

She and others are now discovering the joys of a 40-hour-a-week job - with vacation time.

"I like the fact that I know what I'm going to be doing, and I don't have to worry about being laid off," says McCarty, who works as a database administrator for Wrigley. "I had to take a pay cut ... but it was well worth it: They have benefits, they're established, and you know when you're going to get vacations."

Yet with thousands of layoffs expected at companies such as AOL Time Warner and even blue-chip firms like General Electric, this slack-off euphoria could quickly revert to slacker angst as jobs become more scarce.

Happiness in the H.R.

Employers are pleased with at least one aspect of the downturn: It's put them back in charge. Weary of college grads expecting high salaries, lavish bonuses, and instant promotions, people doing the hiring in traditional companies have greeted the slowdown with a hint of schadenfreude.

"Frankly, the economic slowdown was a God-send in some ways," says Nancy Tamosaitis, executive director of technology practice for GCI Group, a global PR firm. "I am no longer interviewing [people] who think six months' job experience translates to a huge salary." Like their dotcom colleagues, her hires expected perks like a pool table in the foyer and frequent office bashes - at company expense, of course.

"Twentysomethings have never had to deal with an economic slowdown in their working lives," she says. "It's a wake-up call ... that translates into more-humble and prepared job candidates."

Search for stability

Indeed, the most prized perk today may be peace of mind. "Now it's not so much about salaries or anything like that," says Rick Dionisio, district manager at TechieGold.com, an online job-placement service. "Really what it comes down to is a good, stable work environment, in terms of potential to move up, and not having to be downsized."

Yet the sense of relief coming at the end of the sizzling pace of the erstwhile New Economy also leaves room for nostalgia.

Fernandez, who now works in production at a TV company, fondly remembers his days at About.com, when a handful of programmers worked in absolute secrecy in a tiny office with no phones. They called the start-up ICSN - "I can't say nothing."

"It was a blast," he says. "It was a tightly knit group, and it was all about getting it done. Yet now, the overwhelming goal for everyone out there is stability."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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