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Crash survivors: WaMu employees, five years after the crash, rebuild their lives anew

Crash survivors: WaMu employees, five years after the crash, rebuild their lives anew
BUSINESS JOURNAL | Marcus R. Donner FAST FORWARD: Eric Sorlien, who rose from teller to manager during his 15-plus years at WaMu, pulls a talking book from the stacks at the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, where he has a temporary position and where he recently relived WaMu’s demise by transcribing a book about the calamity into Braille. Sorlien also has used the time since WaMu’s shutdown to finish college.
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In 1991, University of Washington student Eric Sorlien was working as the assistant manager of a multiplex in downtown Seattle. Part of his job was to deposit the theater's receipts at a Pacific First Bank in the same building.

One of the bank employees suggested he apply for a job as a teller. Sorlien bought a dress shirt and tie and went in for an interview. He was then, as he is now, exceedingly likeable - the type to convey poise and competence.

The bank manager offered him the job on the spot, and set into motion his career at Washington Mutual, which two years later acquired Pacific First.
During Sorlien's more than 15 years at WaMu, he was assigned to several departments, starting as a teller and working his way up. He even briefly worked on the executive floor, handing CEO Kerry Killinger his morning cup of decaf.

And on Sept. 25, 2008, Sorlien was one of more than 40,000 people working for WaMu when it was seized, placed into receivership with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and sold to JPMorgan Chase for $1.9 billion.

Now 43, Sorlien has yet to land another permanent job, but he has used his post-WaMu time to complete the college education that the bank career had interrupted. He also has volunteered at such places as the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library, which recently offered him a temporary job. One of his first tasks there was to transcribe into Braille "The Lost Bank," a book about WaMu's demise.

"It was difficult to transcribe," Sorlien said, "because it was like reliving the layoffs again."

For Sorlien and his fellow WaMulians, the passage of five years has erased neither the memories, nor all the challenges. The end of WaMu suddenly created thousands of white-collar refugees in Washington. Many had to reinvent their careers during a crushing worldwide financial downturn. Some formed support groups. Some former executives helped raise money for an assistance fund, which has since been nearly depleted. Many workers kept in touch and remain friends to this day.

Tracking WaMulians at this five-year benchmark brings to light both the creative destruction that characterizes today's economy, and the personal resilience that's often required to survive in it.

Even many of those who quickly landed on their feet found the bank's demise a wrenching experience. Libby Catalinich, who worked in WaMu's communications department, found a job before the end came for WaMu. She was a few weeks into her new post as the director of corporate communications for REI when the news broke.

"My lasting impression of that day, sitting at my desk at REI, was wanting desperately to be with my former team," said Catalinich. "It was very hard, knowing they were going through the whole range of horrible emotions - knowing I was not there with them."

Those who stayed until the end found that having WaMu on their resumes was not always beneficial. Some left the state and even the country for jobs. Some used the event to pursue another passion entirely.

Iris Glaze

Iris Glaze, 63, who worked in WaMu's investor relations department, went almost two years without permanent employment, finally getting hired by a former vendor to WaMu, Broadridge Financial Solutions in Long Island, NY.

While her closest colleagues found jobs quickly, with reputable companies like Symetra Financial, Group Health and the Legg Mason investment firm, Glaze suspects her age was a deterrent for many prospective employers.

"I tried so hard, oh my goodness, I did a thousand different resumes," Glaze said. "I had every intention of staying with WaMu the rest of my life."
Like Sorlien, Glaze had been with WaMu a long time, 18 years, and worked her way up. She was hired, by dint of her personality, as an administrative assistant with no experience in the financial industry (she worked for a company that sold organic produce).

Sara Pearson

Sara Pearson worked for nine years in WaMu's market research department, a group of about 20 people at the time of the collapse. She stayed until the end, took the severance package (about one-half year of pay for her) and decided to take her time finding a job. Her husband ran his own graphic design business from their Lynnwood home. They had two young children, one not yet in grade school.

She invested her severance, collected unemployment, let the housekeeper go, tightened the family's budget, and spent more time being a mom - and a daughter. She spent time in Utah with her mother and stepfather, who recently had been injured in an accident and left a quadriplegic. Her time off, she said, was a blessing.

Within nine months, she was working again, for the University of Washington, as a market researcher. She took a considerable pay cut but works fewer hours.

"I cannot think of anyone who didn't find work," she said. "They might not have found exactly what they wanted, but we had very few horror stories. Some got great opportunities they wouldn't have pursued otherwise."

Pearson had worked for the UW previously, before she joined WaMu. As a state employee dependent on grants, she always had felt nervous about her job security. When WaMu hired her, she remembered telling someone, " 'I'll always have a job at WaMu. Banks don't go bankrupt.' I remember saying those words. It's so ironic when it actually happened."

Julie and Tristan LiaBraaten

Julie Reid and Tristan LiaBraaten met as employees at WaMu. She was an advertising manager; he was an analyst and slightly junior to her. They fell in love while at the bank, and got married. The couple had just had a baby when news of the bank's seizure broke. Julie was already on maternity leave. She opted to take the severance package and not return to work; Tristan chose to stay on during the transition.

The couple, like all employees who owned WaMu stock, saw their portfolios vaporize. Since they had put in only seven years of service between them, their severance was modest.

"It was about the most devastating thing that could happen to us at the time," Julie said.

For a while, anger and resentment was her primary reaction to the events, said Julie, who could barely bring herself to look at the bank tower when she drove by downtown Seattle.

Over the next four years, they worked various jobs they did not enjoy, living part of that time in California. Tristan spent one year without a job. Last year, they both landed jobs at T-Mobile USA, and are again working for the same company.

"Looking back on it, everything did work out for the best," Julie said. "I love my job now, and Tristan would say the same thing. We work with a lot of WaMu people (at T-Mobile). It feels like a lot of us are back together. It's a similar culture."

Eric Sorlien

When WaMu acquired Pacific First, the bank where Sorlien worked back in 1993, the two banks were of comparable size, with about 3,000 employees and $7 billion to $8 billion in assets. The purchase was seen as a big step for WaMu, a jump to the big leagues. (At its height, WaMu held assets of more than $300 billion.)

Sorlien was just happy to have kept his job as a teller through the merger. He moved a few blocks to a different branch. The only places he had ever worked in his adult life were the movie theater and the bank.

At WaMu, he accomplished more than he expected, moving quickly out from behind the teller window into a department called strategic staffing, which he described as an internal temp agency. If a department needed an extra person for a day, or a week, or months, it called strategic staffing. At first, Sorlien worked as an administrative assistant in the department, helping place employees in assignments. Then he asked if he could take one.

One of his first assignments was to fill in as an executive assistant. He worked for Liane Wilson (vice chairwoman who led the company's IT department), as well as Killinger. Sorlien moved on to assignments in loan servicing, account servicing, human resources, marketing, corporate communications, and eventually data security. He liked that so much he decided to apply for a permanent position. He got one on his second try, just as WaMu was preparing for the Y2K bug, the computer glitches that many feared would result from the turning of the calendar to Jan. 1, 2000.

For one year, he was put in charge of a team of more than 40 people who served as an internal help desk for employees with computer-access or password issues. He became invaluable to WaMu, as someone with experience in so many departments, deep institutional knowledge and facility with the company's technology.

Sorlien stayed on at the bank after the Sept. 25, 2008, seizure and purchase to help with WaMu's transition to Chase, earning a bonus for doing so. He also received severance pay amounting to about one year's salary, and applied for unemployment. He lived on Seattle's Beacon Hill and had no dependents to support.

Five years later, he has yet to find a permanent, full-time job. He went back to college and now has two-year degrees in information security and digital forensics from Edmonds Community College. He also finally earned his bachelor's degree (in humanities) from the UW, 25 years after he first enrolled there.

Were it not for the layoff, he said, he might never have finished the degree he started at the UW a quarter century ago.

"I got the experience, and then I went back for the schooling," said Sorlien. "I did it in reverse…They (prospective employers) will say, 'You worked on their system, not ours.' The thing working against me is that a lot of companies are looking for people with computer science degrees. I only have a two-year degree. There are a lot of certifications I don't have.

"All these years (in banking), I never had to hunt for a job," he added. "I worked hard and always got rewarded for it. Now, I have to tell people I did a good job, and ask to be rewarded."

At its peak, WaMu's alumni relief fund had a little more than $1 million in it. The money paid for tuition, vocational training and in some cases, groceries for the most needy former employees.

Most of the money has been spent, said Lynn Ryder, one of the fund's administrators. Every year, the group held a potluck to catch up and rally support for the fund. Last year's potluck, at the Museum of History and Industry, had such a low turnout, the group decided it would be the last.

Sorlien paid his tuition with his unemployment benefits, savings and a scholarship awarded by AmeriCorps. He knew about the WaMu relief fund but did not want to "take advantage of a limited resource."

"I felt," he said, "there were probably other people who needed it more."

SEATTLE@BIZJOURNALS.COM | 206.876.5437

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