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A few days after the company bankruptcy, as he lay on the couch with drainage tubes sticking out of his body from a recent surgery, Bill Peterson placed a phone call to Enron HR. He gave his wife and Mindee the thumbs-down. Unlike others, his 401(k) had not been decimated when Enron stock took a nosedive. (They had invested through his wife's work.) Nonetheless, his job was gone. For severance, Enron handed out $4,500.
Employees like Bill had the remaining part of December 2001 to stay with the company health care plan, among other benefits, and then transfer to continued coverage under COBRA, the federal government's Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which guarantees terminated employees their company's group insurance for a period of 18 months. The problem is that COBRA makes the laid-off employee pay the premium, plus the premium portion their employer chipped in, on top of an administrative fee.
"They knew right away they were going to have to start dumping stuff I mean, the health insurance was practically as much as the house payment," Mindee says of her parents. They canceled cell phones, Internet and satellite TV. They sold Bill's pickup truck. They put their Friendswood house of 15 years on the market. Mindee had moved in there when she was a girl.
"You just look at certain things and, you know, like a piece of tile's chipped -- yeah, that's the tile when I told Christopher -- that's my brother -- not to do this and he did that and that's what happened," she says, her purring Texas twang turning sad. "It's like, yeah, it's a blemish, but, hey, there's a story that goes with it. And the place on the counter that burned because Dad lit a candle and he didn't blow it out But that's part of the house. It's your stories. And then to think of somebody else, they don't understand the stories, all they see is a burned countertop and a chipped tile.
"That's part of my life there, too, you know, and you gotta leave it behind. But, I mean, people move every day, though, you know, and you have to trade off, and it is just stuff." She says it but seems unconvinced.
"It just all goes back in the box. Kinda like Monopoly. You know, you play this little game, buy all these things, but when the game's over, you just pack it all up, put it back in the box and put the box back on the shelf. And that's kind of like our stuff. You know? You don't ever get to keep it."
Amanda Dinh, an adorable eight-year-old Vietnamese-American, doesn't yet have all the words for how her mother's layoff affected her. She tucks her hands behind her back in a polite way when she speaks, answering in short, breathless, complete sentences. What did she love about Mommy's job? She loved going into work with her when she couldn't go to school; she loved the big building downtown and the company's summer camp that she attended.
Most of all, she loved that her mom seemed happy.
But when another company bought out Christine Dinh's online subdivision at Enron during the bankruptcy, and then that company laid her off just a few months later, Amanda and her 12-year-old brother, Christopher, noticed that Mom wasn't sleeping anymore.
"I barely got, I barely ate anything," Amanda says in almost a whisper. She was angry; she was sad; she just wasn't hungry anymore.
David Marks, author of Raising Stable Kids in an Unstable World, says these physical manifestations often indicate a burden that goes beyond words. "Especially younger kids," he says. "They're not going to come to you and say, 'Daddy, I'm worried about you being laid off.' "
He says a parent's job loss can be one of the most traumatic things a child can go through -- an ordeal amplified by how much stress they see in their parents and how much uncertainty has been thrust upon their routine.
"Younger children may in one sense feel a lot of stress because they don't understand the ramifications of the change -- they can feel the stress, they know that something is going on, they feel the instability, but they can't get a full understanding of it. And they can't really express it," he says. "If you think about divorces, how many kids feel that it was their fault that the parents got divorced? Well, this is kind of almost the same thing, especially for little kids. They don't understand that there are lots of external factors that are impinging on their lives and their parents' lives."
Enron has been called many things: audacious, invincible, ignominious and chastened. For these children of former employees, Enron stands as a wake-up call, a turning point, a moment of innocence lost.
"They're faced with the world," says Marks. "Maybe for the first time. The real world."
"In a way, I think for a while I kind of blamed Enron for Dad dying," says Mindee Peterson. "Even though that wasn't connected in any way, shape or form, but I felt like, you know, had you not laid him off, he wouldn't have been stressed out about his job, he wouldn't have been stressed out about paying for the insurance. The treatment options would've been different.
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