COLUMBUS, OH—Employees at Take 5 Media said the smaller-than-usual stack of brackets printed out Wednesday for this year's NCAA basketball tournament served as a stark reminder of just how many workers have been laid off from the design firm over the past year.
"I saw that thin pile of brackets at reception and that's when it really hit me how much we've downsized," said project coordinator Daryl Kedzie, who then began listing off names of former colleagues who have lost their jobs since the recession. "Let's see, Steve's gone—he was a huge Kansas fan. Then there was Tim, who always picked Duke, which we constantly gave him the business about. And by we, I mean me and Erin, who was let go last November and didn't really watch college basketball that much but enjoyed being in the pool. And Henry, of course, who went to Ohio State and was laid off just before Christmas. Man, we would have heard from Henry a lot this year. Huge Buckeyes fan."
"Henry was a good guy," Kedzie added. "I wonder how his wife and two kids are doing. Actually, it would be three by now. Tami was pregnant."
Office manager Amy Erickson told reporters she made the decision to print only 35 brackets, a number she called "generous" considering that the company now employs only 20 full-time staffers, some of whom said they "just weren't into doing it this year, anyway." The number of brackets, she said, was 20 fewer than last year, and 70 fewer than in 2008—the year the economy nearly collapsed and the unemployment rate began its steady increase.
Saying the flimsy pile of paper was a sad contrast to years past when she would have to print out extra copies to accommodate the firm's growing workforce, Erickson confirmed there was a time when the pool had so many participants she had to reload the paper tray in the middle of the print job.
This year, however, the printing was complete in less than 30 seconds.
"It's right near my office, so I can hear when Amy is printing off the brackets," production designer Kelly Ambrose said. "When the printer stopped so abruptly, I thought there was a paper jam or something. But then I walked out onto the main office floor, saw all the empty cubicles, and was like, 'Oh, yeah, everyone's pretty much gone.'"
"Greg, Amanda, that asshole Tim who always picked Duke. Everyone," she added.
According to Erickson, she took the brackets from the printer straight to Bill Dutton's office, because Dutton has coordinated the office pool for the past eight years. Erickson, however, had forgotten that Dutton had been laid off two weeks ago.
The office manager said she then remembered that Peter Grimaldi, who hangs up an NCAA Tournament banner each year, wears a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt on game days, and is known as a very hard worker focused solely on getting his kids through college, would have loved to have been in charge of the pool had he not been fired in February.
Craig Phillips, another potential coordinator for the office pool and the winner of 2008's contest, suffered an emotional breakdown when he was let go just four days after management had assured him his job was safe.
"I volunteered to do it because only 12 people are participating, so it shouldn't take up too much time," said web developer Brian Lethem, adding that the group of 40 part-time freelancers the company now uses probably wouldn't have been interested anyway. "Actually, it might only be 11 now, because Janet was just called into the board room."
"You know what?" Lethem continued. "I better quit talking to you, because if they see me not working, who knows what will happen. Things have been really weird around here."
Office sources later confirmed that the pool is currently worth $65, nearly $700 less than in 2001, when the unemployment rate was 4 percent and when pool winner Tim Jordan, who was laid off last October after 15 years of service and given what he called a "sick fucking joke of a severance package," once again successfully picked Duke to win the tournament.