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E-mail keeps laid-off workers in the loop

May 3, 2001

Few things in life are worse than getting laid off.

On the other hand, getting axed by a company that's headed for bankruptcy is, at the very least, galvanizing.

Faster than you can say "bounced paycheck," former employees organize e-mail lists to share job leads, tips for navigating unemployment and getting their 401K money back.

The ties that bound them during 60- to 80-hour workweeks aren't easily slipped, even after their firms go bust.

The result is a proliferation of informal alumni groups that, in some cases, may endure longer than the companies that brought them together.

No one chooses to join these clubs. Yet once formed, they aren't easily disbanded.

Their memberships are diverse, but their missions are similar.

Bottom line: Forget grudges. Get on with it.

Gallows humor is in. Griping is out.

Principles that ruled in their workplaces--move fast, be creative--operate post-employment.

Take Elizabeth Meyers, a former Web content strategist at the Chicago brand-building group of now-bankrupt Internet consultancy MarchFirst Inc.

She belongs to an e-mail list started by the group's former production director, Stephen Strong, who was laid off in January.

Some 200 former employees contribute information. The 30-year-old Strong collects job leads from recruiters at m1-alumni-getajob@yahoo and distributes the messages.

His e-mails keep alums ahead of the curve.

Want to know which unemployment offices have the shortest lines? Try Evanston, one alum suggests.

Equally important, members pool intelligence about their former employer.

Strong's list was alerted one week before MarchFirst's recent mass mailing telling former employees that their health insurance benefits would end April 30. There was no provision for employees to extend coverage by picking up the cost themselves.

"Everyone started panicking," Strong says.

Meyers, 34, got angry. Then she channeled her fury into action, organizing a meeting with an insurance broker. Some 40 people showed up. Those who wanted coverage walked out with it.

Another alum, Misa Chappell, 32, missed her self-defined role as the group's "catalyst for culture." Attached to the human-resource department, her duties included everything from writing an office newsletter to arranging workplace art shows.

Strong suggested she continue producing her newsletter about interesting happenings, cultural and social.

Chappell had been writing it since she, Strong, and others worked together at Four Points Digital, an interactive marketing boutique that was acquired by MarchFirst's predecessor.

Now Chappell distributes a biweekly version to alumni.

The topics? How to get by when you're unemployed.

Of course, not everybody finds support. My Phuong Le, 25, is on her own after her second layoff in as many years.

Last April, she took the lead in organizing 180 employees who were laid off from Inc. The Rolling Meadows firm had declared Chapter 11 after operating only seven months.

Her whimsical Web site--USNotWorking-- became a virtual hub for former workers to share information.

Le's spirits were high when she quickly landed a job last year at MarchFirst and started working on her master's in computer science at DePaul University.

But when MarchFirst dismissed her without severance a few weeks ago, Le no longer had a support network because she had been working solo at MarchFirst's clients' offices.

This time, Le says, "I'm just really disgusted."

Her plan? "I'm re-evaluating."

Meyers is toying with the idea of doing something related to social policy. Chappell, too, is drawn by the non-profit world.

Strong will stay in the digital world.

And he has one clear goal for his alumni group: "We don't need the get-a-job list anymore. We keep the list for reunions."

by Barbara Rose, Copyright © Chikago Tribune


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