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Thu, 31 Jan 2008

The Bloodless Abattoir

Even when there were no accidents, traffic on this section of Interstate 80 often slowed to a congested crawl: a rather substantial hill several miles ahead inevitably caused even those truck drivers most oblivious to the posted speed limits to yield to the inexorable pulls of gravity and gearing, slowing down to a near crawl, thus forming an arteriosclerotic clot consisting of eighteen wheelers intermingled with the inevitable cars stuck behind or between them. These traffic plaques would then spread backwards down the road at (to use a phrase) highway speeds, as formerly unencumbered drives slowed down and stopped, trying to navigate through the morass.

But today, for once, the traffic was moving at a sprightly pace, Gerald Roth thought, as he guided his car around the swooshing on-ramp that led from his home town onto the great six-lane highway through northern New Jersey. He had not heard any alerts in the radio traffic reports as dressed, filled his travel mug with coffee, and scooped a corn muffin from the box atop the refrigerator to nibble on en route. For Jerry, this was what often passed for "eating breakfast", but his commute was long enough on a good day, and this way he could sleep twenty minutes later than he would otherwise be able to do.

Satisfied that there were no immediate concerns on the highway ahead, Jerry settled into what he liked to call his "cruise mode" - a state of careful vigilance, always keeping a more than comfortable distance between himself and the cars ahead, moderating the cruise control as needed to keep up with the overall flow of traffic without exceeding the speed limit by too much. The Jersey troopers would generally cut you a decent amount of slack regarding your speed, and, as a rule, going no more than five miles per hour above the posted limit was considered safe from the threat of a speeding ticket. Jerry had spent decades riding the commuter trains to the office, so, when the office moved from downtown to a suburban office complex five years ago and Jerry found himself commuting for the first time in his life by car every day, he quickly systematized the process and turned it into a new routine. Jerry liked things to be routine.

It was now about ten minutes to eight, and Jerry tuned the radio to the local NPR station so he could pick up the morning business report on Morning Edition. He liked having a bit of a heads-up on what was happening in the business and financial worlds before he got to the office. Jerry worked for a large financial services company, and, given the vicissitudes of the industry with the collapse of the housing bubble and all the subprime mortgage messes in the last year or so, hearing the name of the company mentioned on the business report rarely meant that there was good news to follow. That was the case today:

Financial services firm DollarCorp announced after the close of trading yesterday that it expected to take larger than expected losses in the current quarter, due to writeoffs on bad mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. A spokesman for the company said that the extent of the losses was still being determined....

Another round of losses, Jerry thought, as he continued down the highway. This had been going on for nearly a year now, not just at DollarCorp, but throughout the industry. He sincerely wished all this bad news would just go away; the worst thing about the situation was the "death of a thousand cuts" aspect to it - each quarter would come an announcement, and each time Jerry would think, "Well, that's finally got to be the end of it," but the next quarter would bring more of the same, and the quarter after that did as well. "Why can't the accountants make some of those rocket scientists who got them into this figure out just how bad it really is?" Jerry thought. It really annoyed him that the bad news just seemed to dribble out with no end in sight.

Mulling over the financial news at least had the beneficial side effect of masking the ordinary tedium of the trip, and before he knew it, Jerry was at his exit. He turned off the highway and drove up to the gated entrance to the DollarCorp office complex. (Jerry always thought it was kind of amusing that the sign on the side of the road did not mention DollarCorp by name; instead, it just gave the street address of the complex, as if a terrorist group capable of wreaking havoc there would be stymied by not seeing the company name at the entrance.) Like many suburban offices, the buildings themselves were far from the road and the gated entrance, neatly landscaped into the surrounding terrain to make them fairly inconspicuous -- quite a change for a company that once built signature skyscrapers around the world with the corporate logo glaring out from the 50th floor on all sides of the building. Jerry waved his ID at the security guard at the gate, who indifferently curled a couple of fingers as a signal to proceed.

A couple of stops and turns brought Jerry to the parking garage. With the exception of a dozen or so reserved spaces for the senior management and the usual blue-logoed handicapped parking spaces, the garage worked on a first come, first served basis, and Jerry was pleased that the light traffic today meant he was a few minutes earlier than usual, and thus there were several spaces available directly across from the entrance to the building, and he would not have to drive up to the roof or down to the subbasement to find a place for his car. He dusted the muffin crumbs from his coat and walked inside, joining a small but steady stream of his fellow workers as they prepared to start their day.

Jerry badged through the security gates in the lobby of the building and walked over to the elevator bank, joining a small group already inside the cab just before the doors closed. No midtown high rise, Jerry's office was on the top (fourth) floor, so the trip up was, like always, brief and uneventful. Stepping out, he walked past the coffee and vending machines, where the real caffeine addicts were already loading up with the first of their many cups of daily coffee. Jerry strode past, down the hallways, and over to his office.

As offices went, Jerry's was nothing special. In fact, most of the floor space in the building was occupied with cubicles, and the offices were arranged around a central core in the middle of the floor. There were only three kinds of offices: a relatively large one with room to hold a small meeting, assigned to the very senior managers; a very modestly sized one with room for a visitor or two, which nearly all the rest of the office holders got; and a handful of small offices not much bigger than the cubicles outside, with just enough room for a guest chair. Jerry's office was one of these, but he really didn't mind: it was quiet and somewhat private (he could at least close the door when needed), and besides, Jerry had never felt it necessary to measure his worth to the company by the number of square feet of floor space he occupied; ego games like that bored him.

Jerry's first order of business each morning after hanging up his coat was to answer any voicemail messages while he waited for his PC to start up. The indicator light on the phone was glowing, so somebody had obviously called him either late yesterday or very early this morning. He punched up the speakerphone and keyed in his access code to play his messages.

"Jerry, this is Helen Carter. I need to see you as soon as you get in tomorrow morning. Please come by my office as soon as you get this message. Thanks."

The synthesized timestamp announced that the message had been recorded at 6:45 PM the previous evening. Helen was the Human Resources officer for Jerry's group, and usually she called when she had forms or personal announcements for Jerry to distribute to his team. The corporate board had just met a day or two ago, and that was the time when these sorts of announcements were made, so Jerry pressed the "Delete" button and turned off the speakerphone. His PC was still in the process of booting up, so this seemed like as good a time as any to take care of this errand, before he got bogged down in responding to the overnight e-mails. Helen's office was on the third floor in the other wing of the building, so the trip there and back would not take long. Instead of taking the elevator, Jerry often took the stairs for trips within the building during the day - the number of floors he had to go up or down was limited, and oftentimes this constituted his only real exercise at work.

Helen looked up as Jerry stood in the doorway to her office. "Please close the door and come in," she said, motioning to the chairs arranged on the other side of her desk. Jerry closed the door, and then sat down across from Helen. She opened the file drawer behind her and took out a manila folder containing a sheaf of papers and forms. She put it down in front of her and began to speak.

"Jerry, I'm sure you know about the difficult times the company has been going through recently."

"Sure, it's hard to avoid hearing about it."

"Yes, that's true. And I'm sure you also know that the company has been putting a series of actions in place to address the problems and help the company return to profitability."

"Yes." Jerry suddenly got an odd, prickly feeling on the back of his neck. Usually his chats with Helen we of the "Here's this year's forms for people to elect how much of their bonus they want to deposit into their 401(k)" variety. He wasn't sure where this conversation was going, but all of a sudden it didn't sound all that good.

"One of the programs the company has put in place, Jerry, is a series of workforce reductions. And, unfortunately, your position has been eliminated. I'm very sorry."

Jerry sat there, more than a little confused. Had he heard correctly? His job performance had always been good - very good, in fact. He had more than twenty years at the company, and they had always talked about the need to retain skilled, experienced people. Surely that was he! Without meaning to, he sputtered out the only word that immediately came to his mind.

"Pardon?"

"I'm sorry, Jerry, but you're being let go." Helen kept the folder closed on the desk in front of her. It wasn't yet time for it, she knew from experience.

Jerry was still a bit stunned. He knew what he had heard, knew what was happening, and yet he still couldn't quite believe it. Fired? Me?

"Why?"

"Each of the major lines of business has been tasked with making reductions in their workforce so as to achieve immediate cost savings. Your position was one of them."

"But why me? My work has always been very good."

"These reductions are not based strictly on people's job performance. There are percentage reduction targets that the businesses have to meet." Jerry gulped a bit. His mouth was dry, but his hands were clammy with sweat.

"When is this effective?"

"Today is your last day, Jerry. I'm sorry."

"Helen," Jerry replied, "we always insist that employees give the company two weeks notice if they decide to leave. You'd think we'd get the same courtesy when the situation is reversed."

"These days we can't allow employees to continue working once their termination date has been set. Too many times somebody would try to 'get even' and cause some damage to the company or its customers during an exit period like that."

"Oh, come on, Helen. Do you really think I would pull anything like that?"

"I hear what you're saying, but that's the situation, Jerry. I am sorry."

"But I've been here for more than twenty years. I'm sure we can work out some kind of arrangement." Jerry didn't have a clue as to exactly what kind of arrangement he wanted, but right now anything was better than nothing.

"No, not with this. I understand how you feel, but there's nothing I can negotiate."

"So, what happens now?"

Helen had been waiting for this question. She opened the manila folder and began handing a series of forms to Jerry, explaining each as she handed it over. There was an "Acknowledgment of Termination of Employment" he had to read over and sign. There was a long checklist describing the status of his benefits now that he had been fired.

To a large extent, many of his financial benefits would be forfeited after today. For years now, Jerry's annual compensation had shifted from increases in base salary to a fairly large percentage of compensation being given as bonuses paid in options on company stock; after today, his unvested options would expire. "They're all under water now anyway," Jerry thought, a notion he found oddly comforting under the circumstances.

Jerry's medical and dental coverage ended as of today too, although, as the next form noted, he could continue them for a year under CORBA; he would have to pay the entire cost without DollarCorp picking up a large part of the tab. He didn't know how much that would be, but his wife and kids depended on the medical coverage, so he signed the form and handed it back.

There were forms for his pension (he had been there long enough to be grandfathered in under the old "traditional" pension plan based on his salary and years of service), and 401(k) distributions, and a host of other things. The last was a form asking how Jerry wanted to take his severance pay - one week per year of service (naturally, though, service time for this year didn't count) - in a lump sum, or should they mail his paycheck to him twice a month as before? Jerry checked the "twice a month" box and signed, again without reading the thing very carefully. You sure didn't get a lot of time to go over all this, he thought.

Finally, the stack was completed. Helen took the copies of the signed forms, and the other notes and checklists, put them back in the manila folder, and handed it back to Jerry.

"So, what now?" he asked.

"You need to pack up your things from your office. There should be boxes there for you to use." Ruthlessly efficient, Jerry thought, and everything planned down to the smallest detail. "You've got my number, so call me if you have any questions, now or later."

"That's allowed?" he asked, a bit more sarcastically then he meant.

"Yes. I'm sorry, Jerry."

He got up, opened the door, and stepped out into the hall. There was the usual low-pitched hum of activity rising from the floor full of cubicles. Yet already, Jerry felt himself divorced from all of it. They had all abruptly become "them"; Jerry felt like he should be wearing a bell and calling out, "Unclean!" as he slowly walked down the hallway. His legs felt leaden; even though it was only one floor up, just the thought of the stairs seemed exhausting, so he took the elevator back upstairs.

Jerry's supervisor, Bob Hammond, was waiting outside Jerry's office when are got back.

"You knew?" Jerry asked.

"I was told there would be cuts, but I didn't know who until this morning," Bob replied, not fully meeting Jerry's eyes. "I'm sorry, Jerry. I wish there was something I could do."

"Thanks. So why are you here now?"

"I have to stay with you and 'supervise' while you pack up your things." He looked embarrassed.

"Oh come on, really? That's so infantile."

"I know, Jerry; it's pretty stupid. But it's the rule; I have to do it. Sorry. Oh, by the way, the boxes are over by the copy machine."

"Going to come with me and make sure I don't make ten thousand copies of my ass and toss them all around the campus?"

Bob smiled for the first time. "No, but if you did, it would be an improvement on the god awful corporate artwork they've hung around here."

Jerry went off and returned with a couple of collapsible moving/storage boxes. He opened his desk drawers one by one and went through them, sorting the obviously personal items (like Jerry's supplies of Tylenol and Prevacid) from those things that were obviously company property. Bob was a good sort, and obviously felt pretty bad about what was happening. He did his best to be as minimally intrusive as he could, and didn't sweat over small stuff: when Jerry help up a couple of boxes of rubber bands and paper clips, Bob said simply, "Didn't see them," and smiled as Jerry put them in the box. A little bit of ten-cent larceny made both of them feel better.

After packing the boxes, Jerry sat down in front of his computer and spent the next couple of hours working through the stock options web site.(Even though all his options were technically worthless, if he could get the exercise orders in before noon, he would actually generate some capital losses that would be valuable the next time he filed his taxes.) He didn't pay attention to the usual stream of e-mails; everybody how wanted him would have to get in touch with Bob going forward. Jerry did call a couple of colleagues to let them know what was happening to him, but after the first couple of times, he decided to stop; the calls were awkward and uncomfortable for both sides. He did call a quick meeting of his team to break the news to them in person. People were shocked, but they all wished him well and promised to put together a farewell luncheon for Jerry at one of the local restaurants in the near future. He thanked them all one by one for their efforts over the years, and asked them to carry on the good work without him. Then it was back to the office, where Jerry had a sudden thought: should I call home?

"Bob, can I be alone for a couple of minutes? I'd like to call my wife."

"Well, I'm not supposed to leave you alone. That's what they told me, anyway." Bob looked around the office, now stripped bare and boxed up. "Tell you what," he said after a minute's reflection. "I'll go back to my office and remotely connect to your computer so I can watch it in case you try to 'pull something' while you're on the phone. That way I can say I kept eyes on it the whole time. Not that you'd try something stupid like that."

"Thanks," Jerry replied, and a minute later, a pop up window announced that Bob was remotely connected to Jerry's PC screen. Jerry pressed the speed dial button for his home. The phone rang four times, then the answering machine picked up. He wasn't expecting that, and didn't want his wife to find out that way, so he hung up without leaving a message. Some things you just had to tell your wife face to face. Jerry called Bob's office, and told him his call home was finished.

Bob helped Jerry carry the boxes down the elevator and out to his car. It really was lucky that he got a space so close to the door today, Jerry thought. The irony of the situation amused him, and under the circumstances, that was quite remarkable.

"One last thing," Bob said as they shook hands at the car. "ID." Jerry detached the card from the lanyard around his neck and handed it over. "I don't suppose I can keep it as a souvenir?" he asked.

"Sorry, no. Thanks, Jerry, and good luck." They shook hands again, and Bob turned and went back into the building. That afternoon, Jerry joined a small but steady stream of his fellow workers as they ended their careers at DollarCorp, loaded boxes of personal effects into their cars, and drove out the gate. They would not be back tomorrow.

Jerry turned down the on-ramp of Interstate 80, merging into the broader stream of traffic, which quickly slowed and halted. The traffic report on the radio said there was a multi-car collision about five miles further down the road, and that the police were trying to clear a place for a Medivac helicopter to land. There were no other exits between here and there, and Jerry knew that all he could do now was to sit and wait. He did not know what would happen next, and Jerry always found that annoying.

Posted Jan 31, 2008 at 18:42 UTC, 3534 words,  [/richPermalink

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