Enron workers find solidarity in loss

Former Enron employees help each other with résumés, jobs tips, and grocery money

In one sense, Rebekah Rushing was fortunate. Though laid off from Enron last month after the firm's collapse, she found a job at another oil and gas company the next day.

But that wasn't enough for this wife and mother who, along with thousands of others, watched her retirement and stock options vanish. She wanted to help. So she marched down to her local bank and deposited $90 from her own pocket into an account to help coworkers pay for rent and groceries.

"I asked myself, 'How could I help make a difference?' because these Enron employees were like family to me," she says.

Behind the anger, shock, and frustration felt by those affected by the largest corporate failure in US history, a sense of humanity is beginning to emerge. From secretaries to security guards, laid-off Enron employees are reaching out to one another to overcome the psychological and practical effects of the demise of a company with an almost Partridge Family culture.

While many are still talking about class-action suits and legal recourse, others are setting up service-oriented websites, support groups, and financial-assistance funds. They want to get on with their lives and help others do so as well.

"It's been a hard time, but it's also been a very powerful time," says James Nutter, pastor at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston. "It took awhile for everyone to kind of catch their breath, but now they want to move on."

Not long after the massive layoffs, the Rev. Mr. Nutter organized a support group for his congregation. Ex-Enron workers sat in a circle and began swapping horror stories. But soon the atmosphere changed. Everyone started offering help. One person volunteered to help others with résumés. Another passed on the names of job recruiters. By the end of the session, several lunch groups had been set up, Nutter says.

Charity starts at work

Enron workers were probably not the kind to wallow for long anyway. By most accounts, the firm hired smart, resourceful, action-oriented people. It promoted a kind of family atmosphere in the workplace. Consequently, it's not surprising workers would band together after the "family" structure disintegrated.

Then, too, many workers across the country have been feeling more of a kinship since Sept. 11. While it's not unusual for laid-off workers to form a tight bond, experts say the spirit of charity and watching out for those in the next cubicle has increased recently.

"It's a social solidarity, where people under some kind of threat or tragedy stand together," says Richard Evans, director of the social-psychology program at the University Houston. "These kinds of pressures lead to a break in the typical patterns of anonymity or lack of interest in others."

Tim Dalton is one who wanted to do something. This former corporate security specialist has set up thecrookede.com, a website selling T-shirts with funny sayings, such as: "I got laid off from Enron and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!" and "My Enron retirement account and 50 cents bought this T-shirt!"

The humor no doubt helps puncture some of the gloom surrounding the debacle. But Mr. Dalton is trying to do more than amuse. Two dollars from the sale of every shirt goes into a fund to help former employees in need.

Those numbers can add up. While Ms. Rushing's donations were slow to come in at first, last week she received an unexpected contribution: US Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York gave $68,000 in campaign money he had received from Enron to her fund, the Ex-Enron Employee Relief Fund Account.

Brandon Rigney, another former Enron employee, has put together a website of resources for his ex-colleagues. He says the workers are proving to themselves, and the world, that a corporation can't break their spirit. While he knows that many people are still angry, his website focuses on the positive. It features links to job centers, chat rooms, and tips on filing for unemployment.

Many former Enron workers could use the practical advice. Some of them have never lost a job before. When they moved on in the past, it was always to take a better position.

Uncharted territory for workers

The level of bewilderment was evident at a meeting run by a state agency the week after the company's layoffs. Many of the newly unemployed were asking basic questions.

"Let's say we take unemployment for a couple of months, but then find a job. Do we have to give that money back?" one man wanted to know. Another asked if, in filling out the annual salary box on the unemployment form, "Do we include our bonuses?" (Bonuses at Enron can double a person's salary.)

Besides the nuts-and-bolts issues, workers are also thinking through some of the larger life lessons that inevitably come with a traumatic experience. Nutter sees them among his congregants. "They are asking very soulful questions," he says. "They are saying, 'I know I don't want to lose myself in that kind of corporate environment again.' "

Nutter is doing his part to help out the workers by ministering to their deeper needs - with compassionate bluntness. "Enron is a metaphor. It is the corporate mindset that allows work to consume people," he says. "In Sunday services, I challenge my CEOs all the time to be godly because it's not their business; it's God's business. And to my lawyers, it's not their practice; it's God's practice."

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