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Cubicle view of layoff limbo

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Posted: Sunday, April 1, 2007 8:24 am | Updated: 8:00 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Rumors flew, security guards pawed through lunch bags and people inside started crossing days off their calendars. That’s what Karen Davis’s office was like before it closed last year.

Davis, who worked at Office-Max’s corporate office in Shaker Heights, Ohio, from 1995 until 2006, offers a cubicle-side view of her time in corporate limbo at the company as it prepared to relocate to Naperville, Ill., after it was bought by Boise Cascade Corp.

During that time, the CEO resigned and the company acknowledged misstating its 2004 financial results. But Davis, now 50, was most worried about herself and her colleagues.

Her account follows:

Before OfficeMax, I had been a youth counselor and a GED instructor. I’d also been a trainer in the hospitality industry and a retail sales manager. I joined OfficeMax when they were looking for trainers to open their first call center in Mentor, Ohio. We ended up training roughly 300 people over a five-month period.

The company was going through so much change and growth, you never knew what was coming next. When I joined in 1995, it had about 500 stores. Between 1995 and 1998, we regularly opened 125 stores a year. The primary goal for the company’s founder, Michael Feuer, was to reach 1,000 stores.

By the time I left, I was manager of print and document solutions. I coordinated all the coupons for the department, I handled the DHL International account for the stores’ shipping centers, I helped open new stores and trained district management. For my last three years, a colleague and I coordinated annual sales conferences, arranging everything from flights and hotels to entertainment for 300-plus people.

When we were bought by Boise in 2003, people said, “They’re going to stay here. They wouldn’t ever move us. All the expertise is here.”

Then we got a new CEO in 2005. He had a team researching where the company should be located. We didn’t know what was happening and rumors flew. In April, the company said it was studying a move. In August, it announced its decision at an all-company meeting: The company was moving to Naperville, Ill.

That day, employees clustered around cubicles asking: When is the move? Should I stay to the end? Can I find another job at my age? How will I survive if I can’t? There wasn’t much we could do until we knew the details.

Fear colored our decisions and conversations. With no timeline, people started to panic, and that fed the rumor mill. There was a rumor that the company had to remodel the new headquarters. There was a rumor it had asbestos.

Few people went to the human resources representative who was available to talk about the move, because they thought it wouldn’t help and would create more tension with their supervisors. Some people didn’t think it was worth staying with the company and left.

A few of my co-workers were waiting to retire and tried to plan their retirements without knowing when their last day would be. When could they collect severance? What would happen if their boss terminated them before they could get it? When should they tell Social Security they were ready to collect? My friends had to contact the local Social Security office for help.

A few days after the official announcement, employees met with their department heads and were told whether they’d be offered a job in Naperville. Employees were told not to discuss their moving packages with their peers, but everybody did.

I had let my supervisor know I didn’t want to move, for family and financial reasons. As I expected, I wasn’t offered a moving package. I was offered a chance to stay until the end — whenever that came, perhaps in as long as a year.

The company offered incentives to stay. I got five months’ incentive, on top of two weeks’ severance pay for every year I was there for 11 months total pay. They paid me well to stay.

People who’d been offered a job at the new headquarters were given weekend trips there to see housing options. I heard mixed reviews. Many spent work days surfing the Web for information about schools, jobs and, most of all, real estate.

The consensus was that a comparable house near Chicago cost twice as much as a house near Cleveland and the moving package wasn’t enough to cover the difference.

Then there were questions about whether a husband or wife would be able to find a job there, how a move would affect parental visitation rights, etc.

People agonized, while their superiors pushed them for an early decision. It didn’t work. Only about 10 percent of the Cleveland workers transferred.

The next eight months were brutal. Some people had a bad attitude and did as little work as possible. It seemed like every week I would hear of someone leaving or giving notice. Often, key people vanished, people who knew what was needed to keep the company going and support the stores.

Our HR people were consumed by the move. They distributed termination letters and kept track of end dates and open positions. Because most of the HR department had already moved to Illinois, it was hard to get answers.

I wondered what was going to happen with my health benefits and 401(k). I was lucky because my husband was able to add me to his company’s health plan. Some employees were not so lucky and chose to keep our company plan as long as they could. I received conflicting information on my 401(k) and had to talk to my fund manager to make a decision.

During my last two months, access to the building was reduced to two entrances. Security officers searched bags, even lunch bags. I imagine they thought employees were stealing electronics, but we felt as if we were in a prison.

The cafeteria reduced its hours and work force. The credit union closed. The vending machines were restocked less frequently. Our department would drive to Starbucks as a group.

After months of waiting, our department got our 60-day notice from Human Resources. Then we had to train our successors. Many of us started crossing off the days on our calendars.

In the days after I left the company, my emotions ran the spectrum.

I was elated at the promise of an opportunity to do something new, but I’m still looking for work.

I made about $60,000 a year at OfficeMax, plus benefits. The job situation in Northern Ohio is tight. If you want a position around $35,000, you’re going to be OK. Anything higher than $35,000, you have to make some big connections, or sacrifice your life again.

At this point, it’s like I’m starting all over.

Asked about some of Davis’ contentions, OfficeMax issued a statement saying it made the move to “improve communications, collaboration and overall performance.”

The company said it hired relocation experts to calculate standard relocation packages, then created a relocation package “that significantly exceeded the standard package” and included “elements addressing the differences in housing costs between Cleveland and Chicago.”

“It is important to note that relocation costs are not the sole point of consideration for associates,” the company said. “Other vital factors included family ties to the area, children in school and spouse employment. Overall, the number of associates that relocated exceeded our expectations.”

As for searching lunch bags, the company said that OfficeMax’s Ohio offices were restricted to those with employee IDs. “Based on industry best practices in similar change scenarios, OfficeMax increased security presence during the consolidation to ensure the safety of all associates at the facility,” the company said.

“Throughout the entire transition process, OfficeMax remained dedicated to addressing concerns of its employees,” the company said. “OfficeMax’s Shaker Heights human resource department stayed fully staffed throughout the consolidation process and was among the last departments to transfer to the new facility in Naperville, Ill. This team dedicated its efforts to meeting the needs of local associates.”

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