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Qwest Collapse Hurts Employees

Oct 22, 2002 | Rocky Mountain News

Two years ago, retirement and full-time grandmotherhood were in Suzie Miller's sights.

She planned to enjoy the fruits of her 30 years of labor, traveling the country in an RV and puttering in the garden of the home she shares with her self-employed second husband.

Then her nest egg began to shrink along with the fortunes of her employer, Qwest Communications. The company's stock, which hit a high of about $65 in early 2000, began to fall.

At first, Qwest's share price went into a gentle slide. And the Denver company was only one among many caught in the dot-com collapse. Big telcos like Qwest had geared up quickly, going into debt to provide high-speed Internet access to new economy companies, companies that were now disappearing.

But recent revelations put the stock in a nose dive. The Securities and Exchange Commission has said it is investigating the company's accounting practices and Qwest itself has said it must restate earnings back to 1999.

Troubles at Qwest and similar woes at other telcos have erased 60 percent of Miller's 401(k) savings, meant to supplement her pension and see her through retirement.

Miller, 52, hit her career 30-year mark in January. By then, she knew she'd be working at least another five years to try and recoup some of her losses. Today, she's still employed as an assignment consultant at Qwest.

Like other Qwest investors, employees and former workers who saw their fortunes fall with those of the company and the industry, she's angry at the execs who led the company into trouble.

She's angry, but not bitter - and she's getting on with her life.

A telecom career Miller has been active in her union for as long as she has worked, and is now an executive vice president.

Her office at the Communications Workers of America Local 7777 reflects her priorities. Photos of her three grandchildren line the shelves, while union documents crowd the desk.

Miller won't say how much she's lost in her 401 (k). The fund holds a substantial amount of Qwest stock.

"It went from six figures to the low fives," is all she'll say.

Qwest's total 401(k) plan fell to $3.7 billion from $6 billion last year.

Despite her own losses, Miller says she's more worried about those who have lost their jobs or might lose them, and who don't have a safety net.

Qwest cut its work force from 65,000 to 55,000 in the past year. Nationally, more than 500,000 U.S. telecom workers have lost their jobs in the past two years.

While they're getting on with the business at hand, Miller and others are angry, mostly at former Chief Executive Joe Nacchio. They blame him for the collapse of a company that provides the livelihoods of so many hard-working employees.

They also greatly resent the riches Nacchio reaped when Qwest faltered. In addition to millions in salary and bonuses, Nacchio reportedly pocketed $230 million from the sale of company stock. He sold his shares during a time when many employees were barred from doing so under the terms of their 401(k) plan.

While Nacchio was getting richer, his arrogance came through in his dealings with Qwest workers, many say. In a now well-publicized incident shortly after the merger, Nacchio called US West workers "clowns."

Nacchio finally apologized this spring, shortly before resigning.

Not everyone who has lost retirement savings as Qwest's stock value has plummeted has fared as well as Miller. But many of those workers aren't eager to talk.


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