Corporate Bankruptcy Hurts Employee’s Most

Seal of the United States bankruptcy court. Ch...

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This is a guest post from Hunter Montgomery. He writes for Financially Consumed on every-day personal finance issues. He is married to a Navy meteorologist, proud father of 3, a mad cyclist, and recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Family Financial Planning. Read his blog at

Bankruptcy has evolved from something that people and businesses were deeply ashamed of a few decades ago, to a seemingly acceptable path to restructuring; towards a more sustainable future. Bankruptcy is so common in corporate America that it is referred to by some as an acceptable and necessary business tool.

This bothers me on a number of levels, but mainly because corporate bankruptcies hurt the humble employee the most. The laws are supposedly designed to help the company stay in business, and continue to provide jobs. But at what cost to those employees?

When a company declares bankruptcy, they are essentially admitting to the world that they failed to compete. Their business model was flawed, they were poorly managed, and they simply did not organize their resources appropriately to meet their consumer needs.

Given this failure, it shocks me, that bankruptcy laws are designed to allow management to get together with their bankers. They essentially protect each other. Management is obsessed with holding on to power. The bankers are obsessed with avoiding a loss.

The bankruptcy produces a document called first-day-orders. This is a blueprint for guiding the organization towards future prosperity. But this is essentially drafted by the existing company management, and their bankers. Do you see any conflict of interest emerging here?

Bankers are given super-priority claims to the money they have loaned the company. Even before employee pension fund obligations. This is absurd. Surely if they loaned money to an enterprise that failed, they deserve to lose their money.

Management generally rewards itself with large bonuses, after declaring failure, paying off their bankers, shafting the employees, and finally re-emerging with a vastly smaller company. This is ridiculous.

The humble employee pays the highest price. Assuming there is even a job to return to after restructuring they have likely given up pay, working conditions, healthcare benefits, and pension benefits.

This is exactly what happened at United Airlines in 2002 after they filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protections. The CEO received bonuses, and was entitled to the full retirement package. The banker’s enjoyed super-priority claims over company assets to cover their loans. Meanwhile, the employees lost wages, working conditions, healthcare benefits, and a 30% reduction in pension benefits.

An adjustment like this would force a serious re-evaluation of retirement plans. For most people, it would require additional years in the workforce before retirement could even be considered a real possibility.

Employees of General Motors, which recently went through bankruptcy proceedings, also had to give up significant healthcare benefits, and life insurance benefits. Entering bankruptcy, it was the objective to reduce retiree obligations by two-thirds. That’s a massive cut.

The warning to all of us here is that we must do everything possible not to fall victim to corporate restructuring. Save all you can, outside of your expected pension plan, because you never know when poor management, or a terrible economy, will force your employer to file bankruptcy. Always plan for the worst possible outcome.

It’s a competitive world and it’s quite possible that the traditional American system of benefits is uncompetitive, and unsustainable in the global market place. The tragedy of adjusting to a more sustainable system is that the employee suffers the most.

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    1. It is truly shameful what companies and CEOs can get away with in today’s society. It is part of what makes many other cultures feel negatively toward capitalism.

    2. Unfortunately this is a reality for many people. I just finished reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad for the 7th time and he mentions that having a job can be just as risky as owning a business. It hurts to have someone else in control of whether you put food on the table or not. That’s why it’s good to always have a backup plan.


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