Numb's the word at telco
Qwest employees ambivalent; retirees group backs CEO
By Rachel Brand, Rocky Mountain News

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

On the eve of MCI's decision to accept or reject Qwest's buyout offer, once-dejected retirees allowed themselves to get excited about Qwest's future and to dream of a stock price recovery.

But it would take more than a merger to rev up some shell-shocked employees, who said they didn't care what happened with the deadline for a decision on Qwest's $8.9 billion takeover offer.

"We're very positive and hopeful," said Nelson Phelps, executive director of the Association of U S West Retirees, before MCI's board rejected Qwest's latest offer late Tuesday.

"We're supportive," he said.  "It's financially sound for the corporation to try to acquire MCI, and quite frankly, what's good for the business is good for retirees."

He added that any positive twitch in Qwest's stock price, currently hovering below $4, is welcome.  Many retirees bought near $50 and $60 in the telecom heyday.

"Anything that improves the stock is good," Phelps said.

In a change of heart, Phelps said recent events have given him confidence in the strategic vision of Qwest CEO Dick Notebaert.  He likened Notebaert to a bulldog with a bone.

"You're not going to get that bone away.  He's not going to stop trying to financially strengthen the corporation," Phelps said.

As recently as a year ago, Phelps castigated Notebaert for trimming retiree benefits.

Current employees, on the other hand, seemed impervious to the impending news Tuesday afternoon.

"We're numb," said a man who identified himself as a Qwest worker outside the company's 17th Street building.

No frisson of excitement courses through the building, he said, and the company has told workers nothing.

"Everything that's happened in the past couple of years . . . ," he said with a shrug.  "What else is new?"

Another worker said he thought MCI would prefer to be bought by Verizon because Qwest's heavy debt - $17 billion - makes it an unattractive partner.

Either way, "I don't care," he said.

A third worker likened Qwest's negotiating position to that of a person with a pockmarked credit report buying a car.

"It's kinda like, if you have bad credit, you have to pay more," he said.  The worker wondered if the sweetened deal made sense.  Should Qwest ultimately prevail as the buyer, he predicted his job was secure.

"The job losses would be on the MCI side," he said.

brandr@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-5269