YOU HAD TO CHUCKLE THIS past June when a great herd of J. C. Penney employees headed to Washington, D. C., for the Texas Festival, all gussied up in their cowboy boots and bolo ties. Weren’t these the very same people who had come here kicking and screaming in 1988, when J. C. Penney moved its head-quarters from Manhattan to Piano? You’d never know it today, thanks to the magic of the corporate relocation, which has become as much a part of our local folklore as barbecue, beans, and bravado.
Or so we like to think.
In truth, of course, relocations don’t always have happy endings. At least they didn’t for some employees of Caltex Petroleum Corporation. And if a lawsuit brought by a handful of those former employees is successful, it won’t be a happy ending for Caltex either.
IN A MEMO TO ITS 600 EMPLOY-ees on February 27, 1981, Caltex announced its decision to leave the skyscrapers of Madison Avenue for the canals of Las Colinas. A $14 billion company that refines, distributes, and markets petroleum products in 58 nations, Caltex decided its corporate future was in Texas.
Caltex wanted its skilled workers to go along, of course. So, in what was surely the Cadillac of all relocation packages, Caltex thought of everything to make Irving, Texas, seem like home. They offered employees and spouses two all-expense-paid, look-see trips to Texas. The company offered career workshops for spouses. Seminars on everything from selecting a building lot to choosing a school for the kids. But that wasn’t all. Caltex guaranteed the sale of the employees” homes in New York; offered $5, 000 interest-free, home-deposit loans for first-time home buyers; and then gave each employee a cash gift equaling 10 percent of his or her annual salary to help fill those homes with furniture. Since the automobile is an option in New York, Caltex gave $1, 000 in cash to each employee toward the purchase of a car and offered free driving lessons for the whole family. “There was nothing left to chance, ” says Carole Morizio, who had been with the company 23 years at the time of the move.
And if, despite all those perks and conveniences, any of the employees still wound up unhappy in the new land, Caltex would pay for them to move back, so long as they made that decision within 16 months of their arrival.
It was a dream package almost no one at Caltex could pass up. “Virtually the whole company came, including the mail boys, ” says Morizio. “Who relocates mail boys? It was an incredible thing. I mean, nobody could resist this. “
The exodus might not have been so popular, however, had the employees been privy to a memo that was circulated to Caltex executives in April 1982, just two months before employees were asked to give written commitments to move. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the relocation, the memo stated that falling oil prices were resulting in “difficult times” for the company, including cash flow problems that were expected to continue through 1982 and beyond. Companywide belt-tightening and cost controls were in order, the memo said, wherever possible.
Four months later, the employees moved. And, at least in the beginning, it was a dream come true-a fantasy in a land of margaritas and big sky and spanking-new, three-bed-room, all-American homes. “It was para-dise, ” says Carmen Aponte, 40, who put a contract down on a $79, 000 home in Bedford the first weekend she and her husband visited. “In New York, I could never have afforded a home. Never. Here, my kids could go outside. And we had two bathrooms. “
Morizio was just as excited. “My bath-room in New York was as big as the closet in my master bedroom down here, “says the 52-year-old. Morizio moved here with her husband, Frank, who left a nine-year job in a New York bank just months before his pension vested. “We made the decision to protect my pension because I had more time invested in my job, ” Morizio says.
Anita Lauria had to petition a New York court to get permission to come here-her ex-husband, the father of her two kids, protested the move. But a house had lured her, too. “When I went through my divorce. I lost my house, ” says the 42-year-old. “Coming here was a way to give a home to my children. “She took all her savings, $27, 000, and put the money down on a house in Bedford, right next door to Carmen Aponte.
Ernesto Dimaano and his wife, Brenda, had lived in an apartment in Queens. Even though Brenda enjoyed a wonderful job as an assistant comptroller with a large advertising company, the Dimaanos made the decision to move with the others. “She was making more money, but we thought that I would have a permanent job [as an accountant] with Caltex, ” says Ernie, now 52.
They all thought so, And they were all wrong.
In 1984 a number of employees took the re-relocation offer and returned to New York. In 1986 came lucrative offers of early retirement, effectively cutting the staff from 600 to 400. In 1988 the company announced to its employees that poor economic times mandated a restructuring that would downsize the headquarters operation by almost half, placing more responsibility on its operations in other countries. A “Volun-tary Separation Option Program” was announced; an involuntary program (i. e., pink slips) would follow. The employees were given three weeks to decide if they wanted to go voluntarily.
Many-including Aponte, Morizio, Di-maano, and Lauria-did not volunteer. When the three-week deadline resulted in only 100 or so resignations, they were pink-slipped along with about 96 others. But not before some were asked to stay on an additional six months to train the new Singapore employees who would be replacing them in their jobs in the expanded operations overseas. These new employees, according to Morizio and others, were much younger and willing to work for much lower wages. “As far as I’m concerned, they were simply trading the old, expensive American help for new, cheaper help in Singapore, where they were getting tax incentives in Singapore to move, ” Morizio says.
In early 1990, the four filed a lawsuit, charging Caltex with breach of contract, false inducement to move to Texas, and, with the exception of Aponte, age discrimination. They’re seeking back pay and damages, compensation for loss of future earnings, and punitive damages. Caltex has steadfastly maintained that it moved its employees to Texas in good faith and could not have foreseen the downturn in the oil business. Company officials, citing the pending litigation, declined to be interviewed but said in a prepared statement, “We think the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit. “
Today, Carole Morizio works for the government and makes less than half her former salary; her 62-year-old husband, unable to find a job in banking, delivers pizzas to help pay the mortgage. Anita Lauria struggles to raise her children, alone and on a much lower salary. “I still don’t sleep, ” she says. “I still don’t eat right. I take something to go to sleep. When you have financial problems, you have constant stress. ” Ernesto Dimaano hasn’t worked in two years. A quiet, soft-spoken man, he sends out one or two résumés each week but has never been called for an interview. “I play golf, ” he says. “It’s the only way I stay sane. “
For Carmen Aponte. the aftermath looks even worse. Shortly after moving to Texas, her husband, who had been a soft-drink salesman in New York, became discouraged because he couldn’t find a job here. On a visit to New York, he was offered his old job back, and he took it. He never returned. “I had to see psychologists, ” she recalls. “It was very bad. He stopped paying child support because he was very bitter about it. And I had to pay for the house myself. But I would rather do that than go back to the Bronx. I just wasn’t going to do that to my kids. “
When Aponte was fired, she quickly fell behind on her bills. Her mortgage company gave her 30 days to pay the $5, 000 she owed; to her surprise, she received $2, 700 in anonymous donations from Caltex employees who had not been let go. Though she managed to keep her house by selling her company stock, she still juggles bills to make ends meet.
And while this bunch won’t be seen taking any company glitz trips back East any time soon to show off their newly acquired heritage, there is one little parallel to the J. C. Penney story-one that, considering what has happened to these people since their move, is strangely heartwarming. “We all just love Texas, ” says Lauria. “We really do. “