`Enron factor' dogs ex-employees of energy firm in search for work

Many say jobs scarce and suspicion plentiful

March 03, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HOUSTON - It has come to this for Laura Chapa: After sending out more than 300 resumes since losing her job at Enron three months ago, she had gotten exactly two interviews and no jobs. Then she got a tip from her daughter, Bernadette, who works in a jobs program for college students that needed more people.

So Chapa, 40, who had been a software tester at Enron, drove to an interview Thursday. She was one of 12 applicants for four positions. She wore a black business suit; the other candidates wore jeans. If she is accepted, the one-way trip from her suburban home will be 47 miles.

It would bring no benefits, no vacation, no sick days and half her salary at Enron. She would be required to enroll in a local college. But she is praying she gets it.

"It's a job, how's that?" Chapa said.

Slow, painful search

For most of the 4,000 former workers who were laid off at Enron's headquarters in Houston when the company filed for bankruptcy in December, the search for new jobs has been slow, painful and frustrating. Part of the problem is the slack local job market, which absorbed 20,000 layoffs last year. But many former Enron employees also say they believe that company's now-infamous tilted "E" logo, once a symbol of excellence but now synonymous with corporate corruption, has become a scarlet letter on their resumes.

Precise figures on the employment status of former Enron workers are not available. Some have found jobs; others are starting businesses. But the overwhelming majority are still believed to be jobless, most of them low- and middle-level employees who saw their retirement accounts decimated and are now struggling to pay their bills. Some have sent hundreds of resumes without getting an interview. Others say that, during interviews, they have been quizzed about their ethics or chastised about Enron's corporate culture.

"You really can't find a job," said Gwen Gray, 42, who spent three years at Enron working as a senior human resources assistant and has already lost one clerical job because of her ties to the company. "I've been sending out resumes like crazy."

The frustration boiled over Monday during a town hall meeting of about 320 former Enron workers with the company's acting chief executive, Stephen F. Cooper. The audience peppered Cooper with questions, including one man who rose to describe how Enron had not only left many of them penniless but had also unfairly stigmatized them in the eyes of other employers. The crowd gave him a raucous cheer of support.

A day earlier, a help-wanted advertisement in The Houston Chronicle seemed to smack of blacklisting. The Houston unit of a financial printing and information management business, Bowne & Co., was inviting applicants for legal clerking positions to attend two job fairs, with specific exemptions. "No current or former employees of Enron, Arthur Andersen or the U.S. government will be considered," the notice stated.

But a Bowne senior vice president, Joseph O. Miles, said the jobs involved working on a temporary, confidential assignment with Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm embroiled in the Enron scandal. He said that the caveat was necessary to avoid a possible conflict of interest, but that former Enron workers were eligible for other positions. "We deeply regret any misunderstanding regarding that job fair," he said.

Local headhunters say that they have been inundated with Enron resumes and that, in general, finding a new job often takes several months or longer, particularly for higher-level positions. One new nonprofit organization, the Resource Alliance Group of Houston, has been formed to help former Enron workers start new businesses. Kathie Nordt, a headhunter who specializes in Internet technology, said that most former Enron people have been well received but acknowledged that the corporation itself was resented by some other companies in town.

"There are a lot of people who were offended by the arrogance of Enron in the business world," Nordt said. Asked about a possible backlash against former workers, she said, "There may be a little bit of that."

Negatives for employers

As one former Enron employee who lives outside Texas put it, "The word Enron raises all kinds of negative things an employer might balk at." The former employee, who asked not to be named, is now a finalist for a job that would involve interaction with the news media as well as with elected officials. He had no connection with or knowledge of the Enron scandal, but he said he could not escape it.

"They've told me directly that the one thing that I'll have to address about my background is the Enron factor," he said. "Either be prepared to defend it or at least understand that it is a factor that works against me."

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