Layoffs May Force County Workers Onto Welfare

Times County Bureau Chief

Sonya Washington, the single parent of a 6-year-old boy, administers welfare payments for Orange County. But next month she may wind up receiving the benefits rather than giving them out.

Silvia Rios, like Washington, works for the county Social Services Agency. And like Washington, she was told June 19 that as of July 16 she will be out of her job, which entails explaining medical benefits to welfare recipients. Rios continues to hope, however, that there will be other work for her somewhere in county government.

Dan Macpherson has a job similar to Washington's, working out of the Social Services Agency office in Garden Grove for $8.56 an hour. He got a pink slip, too.

"We were not going to get rich," Macpherson said Thursday. "But we thought we were going to be doing something for somebody, helping the homeless and people who need. Now we're going to be in the same situation."

Washington, Rios and Macpherson were among about 50 eligibility technicians laid off because, county officials said, the number of welfare applicants has dropped and state rules require trimming the work force when the workload ebbs.

Those 50 may be only the vanguard. Under a tentative budget approved Wednesday by the Board of Supervisors, more than 200 county employees are scheduled to be laid off unless the county's fiscal picture brightens considerably in the next month.

The latest projections show 92 more people being laid off from the Social Services Agency, which now has 1,790 workers; 68 from the Probation Department, which has 976 workers, and 28 from the Health Care Agency, which has 1,606 workers.

Officials of those agencies said it is too early to determine exactly who will be laid off if the budget goes through as planned.

The supervisors tentatively adopted a $1.7-billion budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 and will finalize it after budget hearings that start July 29.

Increased spending for new jails and a few other programs have combined with limits on the county's taxing and spending powers to produce the bleakest budget picture in years for the county.

Washington's personal budget is facing severe problems, too. Her car broke down weeks ago. Her rent goes up next month. Her son suffers from epilepsy. And after-school day care costs her $50 a week. She's making $8.56 an hour.

She and her son were receiving welfare benefits when she saw an ad for Social Services Agency openings nearly two years ago.

"I ran down that day and applied," the 26-year-old woman said. "I apply for anything and everything. I just wanted to work."

And work she did, first in the Medi-Cal program and then, since last month, for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a $129-million-a-year program that receives about 90% of its funding from state and federal money.

"I love it," she said of her job. "I want to get to somebody (in the agency) to let them know that that's one of the reasons I feel (the layoff) is such an injustice.

"There're so many people I work with that hate the job. And I love the job. And they're going to let me go. And my clients even like me. And so many (clients) hate their (case) workers."

Washington said supervisors at her agency told workers that the layoffs might be rescinded but that notice was needed in case they were not.

If the layoffs go through and she cannot find another job, she said, she will "apply for AFDC, with unemployment." In all, she said, she and her son are eligible for $498 a month in cash aid.

"Do you think you and a small child could live on $498 a month?" she asked.

Rios, 22, who makes a bit more than Washington because she is fluent in Spanish as well as English, was an eligibility technician like Washington and Macpherson until April. Then she switched to a medical assistance program, giving presentations to welfare recipients on various health programs for which they are eligible.

She "definitely" needs the money from her job, she said. "I'm getting married soon, so it's definitely needed. It's not a good time to get laid off."

She said her supervisor "is trying very hard to place me within the county. . . . I'm sure she will find something for me. I am worried, but then again I think something will be found for me within the agency itself."

Rios said colleagues who escaped last Friday's layoff notices are wondering what will happen to them if the agency has to make more cutbacks after the county budget hearings next month.

"There's a lot of talk about it," she said, but nobody will become very worried "until it really gets close to the date."

Workers being laid off said agency officials mentioned the possibility of transfers to clerical jobs, but those positions pay less.

The eligibility technicians receive eight weeks of training before starting work. If they wrongly certify too many welfare applicants who actually make too much money and are ineligible, the county loses some of its federal and state funds as a penalty.

Macpherson, 33, said his office has been "like a mausoleum" since the layoffs were announced.

"Those are our jobs," he said. "Where are we going to go? It seems so callous that they are just going to turn 51 people upside down and say, 'There you go.' "

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