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On the Job-Hunting Road : Gil Banfill /'I’m not going back to $6 an hour again if I can help it.’

Times Staff Writer

When Xidex Corp. abruptly closed its Irvine computer disk plant Oct. 14, a state labor market analyst predicted that its 825 workers would soon find new jobs. After all, the analyst said, Orange County had one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, its economy was booming and other manufacturers were clamoring for skilled workers. Three months later, job placement and counseling agencies report that many former Xidex workers are still searching for comparable jobs. Several days after the plant closing, The Times asked former Xidex workers Gil Banfill and Kalina Nicolov if they would share their job hunting experiences. The Times accompanied them on job interviews, visits to the Employment Development Department and job counseling sessions. Here are their stories.

For Gil Banfill, it had been a long, slow process winning the promotions that raised his wages at Xidex Corp. from $6 an hour to $10.96 and accumulating the years of service needed to receive 3 weeks of annual vacation.

After 5 years with Xidex, Banfill often earned as much as $700 a week with overtime. His wages were supplemented by the salary of his wife, Polly, a licensed vocational nurse.

With their combined income, the couple had hoped to move out of an old mobile home park in Santa Ana soon and relocate in a newer park in a safer neighborhood.

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And with retirement age approaching, Banfill, 53, had been encouraged by Xidex’s retirement plan. The company kicked in 50 cents for every $1 he contributed, up to 6% of his pay. Banfill had accumulated $11,000 in the fund.

But after Xidex shut down its Irvine plant with no warning in October, Banfill realized that his plans for a nicer home and a steady investment in a secure retirement would have to be postponed.

Today, after searching 3 months for a comparable job without success, his biggest concern is to hold on to what he has, to avoid a downhill slide into a lower standard of living.

Banfill has seen it happen before. In 1980, he went to work for Smith International, where he earned the best money of his life: $11.37 a hour.

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He was laid off by Smith during the economic downturn of 1982, and it took him 8 months to find another job. He and his wife moved to Seattle, thinking that jobs would be easier to come by there. They weren’t. Shipping the furniture to Seattle and back cost them $2,600.

And when Banfill finally moved back to Orange County and got a job at Xidex, he took almost a 50% pay cut.

“I’m not going back to $6 an hour again if I can help it,” he said as he started his latest job hunt this fall. “I need at least $8 or $9.”

Early in his job search, Banfill began to worry that his age and salary expectations will scare off potential employers. In jest, he wondered aloud if he should dye his silver hair.

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As lead inspector in the Xidex chemistry lab, Banfill made sure the computer memory disks were properly lubricated so they would last longer. He used balances to weigh empty aluminium pans and aluminum pans filled with lubricator that had been drained off one of the sampled disks.

Banfill doubts if any other company would hire him to do the same thing, since he believes that Xidex was the only maker of computer hard disks in Orange County.

After the plant closing, Xidex was flooded with calls from other Orange County companies looking for workers. Many of the job openings were for $5-an-hour production workers. (Xidex factory workers earned between $6 to $12 an hour.) The rest were reserved for typists, engineers, senior accounting clerks, computer programmers and purchasing managers, all requiring greater technical skill or education than Banfill possesses.

As his accent suggests, Banfill was raised in Worcester, Mass. The fifth of 14 children, he ended his education after his sophomore year in high school to help support his family. He married for the first time at 19.

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From his favorite rocker in the living room of his mobile home, Banfill can see the memorabilia of his life. There are pictures of the eight children that he and his wife share from their former marriages and their 11 grandchildren. There are also his and her bowling trophies and antiques inherited from his wife’s mother.

The Banfills take pride in living within their means. At Christmas, they don’t buy individual presents for each other. Together, they buy something for the house. One year it was a VCR, on which Banfill likes to record the television Westerns on which he dotes. Another year it was the double tape deck on which his wife records gospel songs.

This Christmas, the Banfills bought nothing for themselves, although they purchased some smaller presents for the grandchildren. Polly made fudge for the rest of the family.

Banfill spends more hours in the mobile home now than when he was working. He tidies up the place and tends to the roses by the front door and reads the Bible and religious books piled on the ottoman to try to take his mind off his troubles.

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‘Learn to Take It’

“I just learn to take it,” he said, reflecting on his unemployment. “You have to be patient. There is a lot in there on patience,” he said, pointing to a Bible. “Especially in Psalms and Proverbs.”

When he was working, Banfill awoke at 4:30 a.m. to be on the job by 5:45 a.m. Now he sleeps until 7 a.m., when he dresses in a sports shirt and slacks to make the rounds of personnel offices.

Banfill gets most of his job leads from newspaper want ads. He sets out with a list of companies and their addresses. In many cases, he knows nothing about them other than that they are hiring. He also brings along a road map.

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He realizes that he would be better off if he knew someone with the authority to hire. He got his job at Xidex in large part because the firm’s head of personnel had previously worked at Smith Tool and knew him.

At American Zettler in Irvine, the receptionist seemed to be waiting for him. “Are you by any chance from Xidex?” she asked. After Banfill filled out an application, he was gratified to hear that the personnel director of the electronics firm wanted to talk with him.

But the personnel director had hoped that Banfill was someone else, a Xidex quality control engineer that he wanted to hire. He said he didn’t have a job for Banfill and referred him to another company that had a government contract to provide on-the-job training.

After filling out government eligibility forms and an on-the-job training application, Banfill waited expectantly by the telephone the next day without hearing any word. He would wait weeks more without learning the fate of his application.

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Eyes Lit Up

At Allergan Inc., an eye-care products firm in Irvine, his eyes lit up as he walked through the beautifully appointed building, past the large cafeteria with canvas paintings and tall windows, past the employee gymnasium and into the personnel office.

He was handed a clipboard with 27 pages of job openings. But most were for scientists, engineers and managers. He found only two openings for which he was qualified. He filled out an application. For many days, the memory of that place would buoy his hopes.

At Ricoh Electronics Inc., prospective employees were directed by arrows through a door off the parking lot and through a hallway to a room crowded with job applicants seated at long tables and filling out forms.

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A production supervisor walking through the room said there was a lot of turnover among hourly workers at the company because of the low wages. Later, Banfill rejected Ricoh’s offer of a late-night inspector’s job at $6 an hour.

After his first 15 job applications, Banfill had spoken to only three personnel officers. Most companies let him fill out an application. Others said not to bother because they had no openings. One Saturday, at a job fair at McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach, he waited an hour and a half for an interview. The interviewer “didn’t look like he was even interested,” Banfill said, because the company wanted someone with aircraft experience.

Everywhere Banfill was told that his timing was bad. Many companies would not be hiring until after the election; then after Thanksgiving; then after the first of the year.

Just before Thanksgiving, his wife was told that she had to take some of her accumulated vacation time. So the two drove to visit her sister in Sacramento for the holiday.

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When they returned home, Banfill went directly to his answering machine. Maybe one of the companies wanted him.

There was a message from a daughter in Massachusetts and a plea for old clothes from the Childrens Hospital of Orange County. There were no job offers.

He then checked the mailbox. There was a letter from Allergan saying the company had no job for him but would keep his application on file.

There was also a letter from the state Employment Development Department asking him to come in for a routine interview about his employment prospects. Banfill was hopeful that he might get some knowledgeable help.

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But his hopes were dashed again when he arrived at the department’s office. “I thought that surely they would find me something,” he said, “but they had nothing.”

He looked at the listings on the bulletin board. There were jobs for typists and waitresses. He put his hand up in the air as if balancing a tray, and laughed as he pictured himself in a waitress job.

An agency official tried to help. She plowed fruitlessly through a thick book of job openings but couldn’t even find Banfill’s job category listed.

No Job Leads

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Later that week, Banfill was contacted by the Employment Development Department and told about a new program the agency was starting for former Xidex workers who live in Santa Ana to help them find jobs or free occupational training. He scheduled another interview at the agency the following week. Once again he went to the department office in Santa Ana and once again he was told the department had no job leads for him.

Banfill also heard from the managers of his mobile home park that in January his rent would increase to $285 a month from $220.

As the new year approached, Banfill grew hopeful that companies that had been distracted by the holidays would get down to the business of hiring new personnel. But that expectation also was blasted by reality. The dawn of 1989 brought newspaper listings of many jobs for which Banfill was qualified but at a salary far below what he could afford to take.

By the end of last week, Banfill still was unemployed. So was his his former supervisor, who called to ask how he was doing.

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