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Cisco layoffs lend charities a hand

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — About 80 of the 6,000 employees Cisco Systems laid off in April have found a good reason to hold their heads high at a time when many suddenly unemployed tech workers are having a tough time coping.

In lieu of severance, they agreed to work for a year at homeless shelters, food banks and other charities, earning just a third of their Cisco salaries but keeping their benefits and stock plans.

It doesn't cost the nonprofits anything, and the workers get an inside shot if Cisco starts hiring again.

"When I go to parties, I don't hang my head in shame. People are actually interested in what I'm doing," said Evan Miller, a database engineer installing a fund-raising database at Second Harvest Food Bank in San Jose. "It feels a lot like a good high-tech job."

Database engineer Tam Do, 45, is teaching the homeless computer and résumé-writing skills at a San Jose shelter through the Cisco Community Fellowship Program, a pilot project the company started this year.

"The reason I took this opportunity is . . . I got a lot of help from the government in the beginning," said Do, who came to the United States as a Vietnamese refugee in 1979. "So I think this is a good time for me to pay back the community."

National experts on nonprofits say Cisco is the first major company they know of to pay laid-off employees partial salaries while they work for charities.

"It certainly sets an example for other companies, and we hope others pick up on it," said Patricia Read, spokeswoman for Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C., organization that tracks nonprofit groups and trends in giving and volunteering.

Other corporations help non-profits through "loaned executive" programs at no cost to the agencies. In the Bay Area, Microsoft, IBM, Federal Express, and the city of San Jose all have loaned at least one employee at full salary to United Way and its member agencies for two months to one year, said Greg Larson, United Way of Silicon Valley president.

At Second Harvest, Miller will earn one-third of his former salary — about $34,000 — through next July. But Miller and his family get to keep Cisco's benefits, and his stocks will remain fully vested during that time.

When the year elapses, the employees will receive an additional two months of salary at the one-third rate and will be considered internal candidates for any jobs that become available, though there are no guarantees they will be rehired.

"This allows us to go in and bring a level of Internet usage to non-profits that (previously only) corporate America has enjoyed," said Mike Yutrzenka, who directs the Cisco fellowship program.

About 20 nonprofit groups in the Bay Area and elsewhere are now hosting several former Cisco employees each. About 40 percent are in northern California; the rest are scattered across the country, Yutrzenka said.

He said participants were chosen who had "a passion to benefit others in their own community and represent Cisco well."

The program also sought employees with a developed set of computer skills that could meet the needs of a particular nonprofit.

The day after accountant Sandra Hodgin, 26, was laid off, she went to Cisco's Career Action Center, which offers counseling and outplacement services.

She could have taken the severance package, which included 60-day notice pay and four months' salary — an amount equal to what the program's participants will earn working full-time at the nonprofits for the year.

Hodgin had to rent out her condo, move back in with her parents and take a second job on weekends to afford the program, which has her implementing a new online accounting database for InnVision, a group of shelters.

"I figured this was the perfect time for me to do something like this," she said, "since I'm not married, and I don't have any kids."

Many laid-off tech workers have had tough luck finding new jobs — a prospect these volunteers have put off, for a year at least.

"I haven't thought about what happens after this whole thing is over — not yet," Miller said. "It's a little early, and I'm enjoying myself a little too much." Besides, he said, "the economy could change quite a bit in the next 8-12 months."