With murmurs of shock and betrayal, more than 400 displaced Merry-Go-Round workers waited yesterday in an unemployment line that snaked on for hours, their thoughts wandering painfully to children, mortgages, the uncertainty of it all under the chandeliers of the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood.
It was a place more appropriate for happy occasions. But there was little else to do for employees thrown out of work after Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc. announced less than a week ago that it was going out of business.
Even before many had accepted what had just happened to the Joppa-based fashion retailer, they were signing up for unemployment and -- in the same place, at the same time -- talking with prospective employers, from Nash Finch to Pier One Imports, at a job fair sponsored by the Harford County Office of Economic Development and the Bel Air Job Service.
Many could think only of their loss.
"Terrible. Sad. Sick. Panicked," said 41-year-old Kathy Campbell, mother of 2-month-old Regina and 8-year-old Jennifer and a former employee of the year.
"I put in 13 years with the company. I just got back from maternity leave, worked a week, then I was laid off. Possibly no severance package. I was optimistic to the end. I didn't think the company would go this far down. I have so many bills that unemployment won't take care of it.
"Hopefully, I won't lose my house; hopefully, I'll be able to put food on the table for my kids."
For many, the moment stung even more because of the name hanging over the entrance of the ballroom -- "CRYSTAL" -- as they passed through to sign up for unemployment. Richard P. Crystal is Merry-Go-Round's chief executive officer.
"I thought it was appropriate," a former employee said. "We got our final going-over in the Crystal room."
The company made no promises about employee benefits and severance in an internal memo Feb. 2, stating only that those issues "may require discussions with the company's lenders and other creditor representatives and may require approval by the bankruptcy court."
More than 200 employees took that cue yesterday, signing a petition calling for their severance and incentive payments in an appeal to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge E. Stephen Derby.
Scores of employees vowed to show up at bankruptcy court today at 2 p.m. when Judge Derby is scheduled to hold a hearing over a disputed Merry-Go-Round lease.
"As noted in the petition, the employees were guaranteed payment of severance should their positions be terminated without cause," said petition leader Eric Kyser, former senior vice president/general manager of the Dejaiz division of Merry-Go-Round.
"The only communication we've had from the current office personnel is that they have no idea as to what the disposition of the payments may be. With this position, they've deferred to bankruptcy Judge E. Stephen Derby, and we're trying to make sure he knows there's real people and real lives affected by management's actions."
People such as 42-year-old Shelley Wiley who spent 22 1/2 years with Merry-Go-Round.
"I feel very hurt, very angry," Ms. Wiley said.
"We were lied to. We were the 'best of the best.' It was said to us in a meeting in November, and I thought we'd all be taken care of. People who left two months ago got their severance; right now, we don't know if were getting anything."