By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"It wasn't a very structured merger [MCI and WorldCom]," Woods says. "Their systems didn't talk to each other and neither did their engineers." It was his job, he says, to find out what infrastructure existed in the field. What he found was millions of wasted dollars being spent on new optical fiber networks, which were being laid next to dark fiber--piping placed in the ground but never connected. "There was so much turnover during the heyday of the telecom boom, engineers left projects before completing them," he says. "And [the projects] were hard to find because the tracking system was so chaotic."
It didn't surprise him when WorldCom filed for bankruptcy protection in July after racking up $46 billion in debt and allegedly concealing $7.2 billion in expenses. It also didn't concern him. Six months after he arrived at the service provider, its stock price plummeted and he was laid off again. This time he had no 401(k) savings, no stock options and nothing to break his fall. In June 2001, he found work as an engineer with Costa Southwest, a small Dallas-based telecom equipment distributor, but the bust had settled in and orders were drying up. The industry had overbuilt in anticipation of massive traffic that never arrived.
"How much excess bandwidth do we have?" repeats telecom business analyst Melanie Swann. "Let's just say enough to transmit billions of libraries of Congress all around the world every second."
By January 2002, Costa was out of business and Ted Woods was out of a job. Again. He flooded the Internet with his résumé, but no telecom jobs were to be had. He decided to take anything, just so he could support his family. Immediately he found two jobs: one at a Wal-Mart close to his Wylie home; the other as a stocker in a Garland liquor store. He doesn't remember much about either, though he does recall the mind-numbing depression that slowly crept over him, how unchallenged and uncertain he felt.
He shut down emotionally and stopped speaking with his wife altogether. The bank repossessed her Lexus, his Ford pickup and bass boat. He began selling off all their "toys" to pay bills, which piled up despite his efforts. The last toy he pawned was his laptop, but he kept its hard drive, the repository of his work history. With the computer gone, however, it felt as though he had no way to access his life.
Overwrought, he says he couldn't sleep at night, his mind racing from one anxious thought to the next. One day in July, all the repressed anger, frustration and shame came rushing forward in an uncontrollable gush of tears. Throughout the morning and well into the afternoon, he was inconsolable, his head throbbing, his heart pounding, his breakdown complete.
Since he had no health insurance, his wife rushed him to the emergency room at Parkland hospital; his blood pressure was perilously high at 240 over 190, his heart rate 160. After stabilizing him, doctors said he had suffered a major anxiety attack. He would need bed rest, medication and psychiatric help to get him through this crisis.
Richardson clinical psychologist Terry Parsons says his practice now includes an increasing number of former telecom workers. "The accumulation of loss from layoff after layoff can be overwhelming," he says. "Anxiety is just the way we scare ourselves. When someone gets laid off, they may be paralyzed by the fear there is no way to regain what they once had."
Many of Parsons' recent referrals have come from the Network of Community Ministries in Richardson, a nonprofit group that provides emergency assistance with food, medical bills and housing. "In late spring, volunteers were reminded that they were going to see a different kind of client," says the Reverend Kurt Friederich, network board chairman. "They might have a nice house, two car payments and they are suddenly laid off. With résumé in hand, they have stood in every job line they can, and now they have gotten notice that they are two months behind on the mortgage and Richardson is going to shut off the water. Never did they ever imagine themselves in this position."
After Woods was released from Parkland, he had no money left. Evicted from their apartment, his wife and son moved in with her parents in Denison. But their house was too small and the imposition too great, so he stayed in the nearby Texoma Inn. Living on bologna sandwiches, he found odd jobs raking leaves, cutting grass and painting houses. What little he made, he gave to his wife; he was told his application for government aid--food stamps, Section 8 housing, Medicaid--was premature because he made too much money during the preceding two years. In September, the day-labor jobs dried up, and he couldn't pay the weekly rent at the motel.
He was homeless, destitute and convinced he had little choice but to find a shelter.