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Getting Cut Off by AT&T

COLUMN ONE

For workers in the company's tax department, downsizing brought anguish, confusion and a jarring end to an employer-employee bond fast disappearing in corporate America.

February 18, 1996|BARRY BEARAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MORRISTOWN, N.J. — The mass firings at AT&T were supposed to start on Jan. 16, though for reasons deemed humane, some executives gave workers the option of finding out their status on Dec. 21, the Thursday before Christmas.

For the 389 people in the tax department--most of them terror-stricken at the coming of the latest company purge--this was a gut-churning choice. What if you got canned? That would turn your whole family inside out during the holidays. Then again, why let it haunt you if everything was going to be OK?

In the end, most workers decided they could not bear to wait. Throughout the day, they left the maze-like shelter of their gray, shoulder-high cubicles for a private session with one of the tax bosses.

Joe Ottaka, for one, was fairly confident. An accountant, he had been with AT&T for 12 years. His most recent personnel evaluations were all tiptop. The tax unit itself was an award winner. He figured the odds fell his way until he picked up a voice-mail message from a friend that said: "Joe, it's a blood bath."

Suddenly, Ottaka, 51, felt the fateful tug of the corporate undertow, the endless rounds of downsizing and restructuring that now engulf more than 1 million workers a year. An old psychological contract has been broken, loyalty and hard work no longer an even trade for job security. It may well be the biggest change in the American workplace since the introduction of the 40-hour week.

With so many jobs insecure, in good times or bad, a low boil of anxiety percolates within most every office and factory. Ottaka had felt it for years. AT&T was always hemorrhaging jobs, and 40,000 more were about to go. Was it his turn now? He took a seat behind closed doors, and when he actually heard the words, they hit him like a hammer blow:

"Joe, you don't have the skills to fit in at the new AT&T."

Later, Ottaka would learn that this was the company-approved phrase. Over and over, to one employee after another: "Sorry, you don't have the skills." In her session, Shelda Maier, another accountant, demanded to know, "What skills are you talking about?" But the bosses had been coached not to say. Such answers might lead to pledges to improve, begging, arguments, a scene.

Dispensed with only vague explanations, the firings then took on an eerie, inscrutable cast, like an arrest by the secret police in a Kafka novel. Maier was furious as well as hurt. There was no place to appeal, nothing left to do. She hurried to a restroom to cry.

Co-workers were watching each other come out of the offices. Who was safe, who was sorry: News sped its way through the cubicles. People were still trying to calibrate their own chances. Maier was a Fulbright scholar, conscientious and kept to herself. If she was out, what about me?

As the day went on, people separated into pockets of sorrow and pockets of relief. The fired were the easier to spot under the low ceilings and overhead fluorescents. Their troubles seemed almost visible, like a curl of smoke. Some of them slumped, as if their bodies were suddenly without bones.

Bruce Picard was another victim. After 27 years with AT&T, the moment left him oddly puzzled. What should he be doing? Like the others, he had been told he would stay on the payroll until March 15. Should he finish the day? Take a walk? Go home? Finally, he decided to call his wife. "Guess what?" he said.

Ottaka, who is divorced, phoned his girlfriend, then started packing some personal items in a box; he stared at an old photo of himself, competing in a triathlon. Henry Nwokonko, the father of two young children, announced his meager revenge: He'd tell everyone he knew to switch to MCI.

Inevitably, people began their dreary post-mortems, the present unspooling into the past. They searched for the causes of their misfortune: The department was badly run, nothing but a joke, really. Just look at who was kept and who was not.

But then the brooding would take an inward turn. People blamed themselves--or blamed their circumstances. Careers and personal choices were picked over. They should have schmoozed more or kissed up or been more political. They should have put in longer hours. They should have seen that competitive pressures would force the company into drastic changes.

Life's blessings were work's curses. Maier, 39, was divorced. Her kids were 7 and 5. "Single parents are vulnerable," she thought. "AT&T knows I have other obligations. They know they can't get as much out of me."

In all, the tax unit was cut by 53 people. The fired tried to soothe each other with the well-worn homilies of the grieving. They told themselves that life went on. They still had their families, their friends, their good health. The thing to do was to look ahead. Their job now was to find another job.

Finally, they all went home. "Mommy had a bad day," Maier told her son. Then they went to watch her daughter in a Christmas pageant. The little girl wore one of Maier's nightgowns to play the Virgin Mary.

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