CALIFORNIA
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Rosy jobs numbers blind us to the bleak reality of the 'real economy'

Once again, the employment numbers in California look pretty good.

And once again, those numbers are deceiving.

All you have to do is look at the case of Martin Saldana.

In February, I watched Saldana walk out of the Boeing C-17 plant in Long Beach for the last time. Demand for the military transport plane had dried up after 25 years of production, and a workforce of thousands had dwindled to a few hundred following one wave of layoffs after another.

Saldana, then 51, got choked up the day he walked away.

The Air Force veteran with a love of aeronautics had been on the job for 29 years, working in various capacities on the assembly line. He'd had it good in his union job, making close to $40 an hour with benefits, and he knew it would be tough to match that deal anywhere else.

"I've been fortunate for the last 29 years," he said at the time, "and now I'm going to get a taste of the real economy."

Ten months later, it's an even fouler taste than he'd imagined.

Saldana's priority was to stay in aeronautics or go to work for a railroad company. He'd always had a passion for trains. But air and space jobs in Southern California have evolved from blue-collar assembly work to more technical positions in rockets, satellites and drones. And as for the railroad, Saldana had already missed the cut on five job applications before he even left Boeing.

"Status: Not qualified," said one blunt rejection letter he shared with me.

Saldana didn't panic in the early stages of life after Boeing. He'd cleared about $13,000 in severance pay and believed he'd land something solid, even if it came with a pay cut.

A couple of halfway decent prospects came up, but Saldana has shared custody of two kids, and the hours would have run him into scheduling conflicts.

Before long, the picture dimmed. Saldana was strong and able, but he began to fear that his age and even his Boeing salary were working against him. A new employer might balk, fearing that Saldana would bolt as soon as he found something closer to what he used to make.

He saw a lot of emails containing the words "we regret to inform you."

"A lot of this is done online. You don't talk to a live person. You're really lucky to get a phone interview," said Saldana.

"I would say I've been to like 40 job fairs … not to mention the countless workshops I've been to."

He thinks he got close at Gulfstream, but then came the bad news.

He was in the hunt at Northrop Grumman, but that didn't work out.

When nothing clicked, he signed up for unemployment, but that eventually ran out.

Along the way, Saldana said he did more shopping at 99 Cent Only stores and fell behind in his child support payments, and now he's worried about whether he can make his December mortgage payment.

"It belittles me because that's not how I was brought up," said Saldana, whose father worked at StarKist tuna and helped his son with the down payment on the Carson house he lives in.

If he sold the house, Saldana says, "my parents would roll over in their graves. I'm better than that, but I'm doing my best. I'm trying to keep my head above water, but it's like standing in the pool and the water is right up to my chin."

Finally, though, someone threw Saldana a lifeline.

Early last month, a temp agency lined him up with a job in aerospace. It pays only about one-third what he made at Boeing, with no benefits, but Saldana jumped at it.

He now sandblasts aircraft landing gear parts at a plant in Torrance, from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. six days a week, with no guarantees from one week to the next. But at least it's work, he says, and he's hoping the adage is true about needing to have one job in order to find another.

"I was in the middle class. Upper middle class, I would say, and now I've fallen into I guess the upper lower class," he said.

And he's not alone, of course.

Saldana stays in touch with other former C-17 employees, and most of them who've found work are making far less than they used to.

Ron Magee, a Saldana colleague I wrote about in January, had 34 years at Boeing when he was laid off. He told me he still hasn't found a job, he's now on disability with multiple health issues, and he was forced to sell the house he intended to retire in.

When you see news that unemployment in California has dipped to 5.8%, said Chris Hoene of the California Budget & Policy Center, it's not as rosy as it sounds.

"There are more and more sectors in which people are being paid less than they were before … or they're having to work several jobs," said Hoene.

The Times reported this month that by one federal benchmark, California's poverty rate of 23.4% is tops in the nation, taking the high cost of housing into account. And since 2006, median wages declined 6.2% in the state while wages increased 4.8% for the top 10%.

Hoene said temp agencies, which take a cut when they find a job for a client, represent a trend from full-time work to part-time work that benefits everyone but the employee. Some people, like Saldana, end up tapping unemployment and Medi-Cal and applying for food stamps.

"One way to think about it is that the corporate sector is shifting the responsibility for taking care of its workers to the public sector," said Hoene.

Saldana still has some prospects in play. There's another railroad job he heard about, and he's looking beyond planes and trains to anything that gets him back on top of his bills.

One day soon he'll go back to where he used to work for 29 years, to where he always felt camaraderie and the fullest sense of the pride that comes with being able to provide for family. The few remaining Boeing workers are putting the finishing touches on the last C-17, and when it flies away, Saldana intends to bear witness to the end of an era.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

@LATstevelopez

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on November 22, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "`THE REAL ECONOMY' - Behind the rosy jobs data - California's unemployment numbers do look good, but for displaced workers like Martin Saldana, they are deceiving" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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