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REGIONAL REPORT : State’s Long-Term Jobless Corps Grows 50% in Year : Recession: Thousands have exhausted their unemployment benefits and are still without a job.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The day after losing her job at a San Diego consulting firm, Diane Dixon walked into a state unemployment office for the very first time and was stunned to hear that she faced three or even four months without work.

“No way. Uh-uh. I didn’t believe that it would be that long,” said Dixon, a 40-year-old California native.

But almost eight months later, the former marketing director is still without a job--and, as of six weeks ago, without unemployment benefits.

“Like most Americans, I thought that, ‘Oh sure, anybody can find a job in six months,’ ” Dixon said. “That’s true--if you want to work at McDonald’s.”

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Dixon is one of a fast growing number of Californians who have exhausted their unemployment benefits before finding work in a recession-battered job market. The state’s corps of long-term unemployed jumped 50% over year-before levels to about 36,000 in July, the latest month for which figures are available from the state Employment Development Department.

In the Southland, long-term joblessness has hit all kinds of workers, from bank vice presidents to aerospace machinists to pipe welders, state officials and private employment specialists say. The diverse nature of the group speaks to fundamental economic and business changes--such as corporate mergers and the nation’s shift toward a service economy--that have robbed individuals of the jobs for which they were trained and educated.

The ranks of the long-term jobless are ballooning nationwide. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal Washington think tank, reported that the proportion of jobless workers whose unemployment benefits expired in July was the highest in at least 30 years.

Nationwide, about 318,000 people who wanted to work had run out of unemployment benefits, the center said. The figures do not include so-called “discouraged” workers, those who have given up the job search altogether.

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A typical Southern California middle manager may face nine to 14 months of unemployment before finding comparable work and pay in the Southland, said Mills M. Spangberg, president of ACS Management Group, a job-placement firm.

“That’s a desperate group of people,” said Spangberg. “There really is a huge surplus on the market.”

On a personal level, once workers run out of unemployment benefits, their chances of falling into poverty increases significantly--and quickly--while their self-esteem and ability to find work plummets, say labor analysts.

Bruce Garnier, a former facilities engineer for McDonnell Douglas, expected to find work in aerospace within a matter of weeks after losing his job in Long Beach last January. But after three months passed, the 59-year-old San Gabriel Valley resident--who had worked in aerospace for nearly 30 years--began applying for work outside his field, first as a school district electrician and later as a warehouse worker and truck driver.

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Garnier also decided to cut his asking salary to one-third--and then half--what he was accustomed to making. Still, the quiet-spoken man finds that many employers say they can hire younger people at lower wages.

“Oh, you made so much money,” job interviewers have told him, Garnier says. “Then you see the gleam in their eye. They know they can find somebody else cheaper--and that will stay, too.”

About three weeks after receiving his last $200 unemployment check, Garnier was preparing in late August to print up flyers promoting a home repair and maintenance outfit that he and a group of other unemployed workers were trying to organize.

“Nothing is coming in at all, and I’m trying to scrounge around for anything,” Garnier said.

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The plight of the long-jobless drew national attention recently when Congress and President Bush clashed on efforts to temporarily extend unemployment benefits beyond the current 26-week limit. Lawmakers--citing joblessness unleashed by the recession--pushed for lengthening benefits by four to 20 weeks, depending on a state’s unemployment rate.

Opponents argued that the economy’s recovery, while slow, eventually would create new jobs; the extension of benefits, they said, would force the federal government to violate its deficit-reduction program. Other critics noted that such temporary benefit increases have been further extended in the past, raising their projected cost.

“The history of these extensions is that they have never really ended” when they were supposed to, said J. Eldred Hill Jr., president of UBA Inc., a Washington firm that advises employers on unemployment benefits and workers compensation.

Bush, who asserted the Democrats were using the issue to win political points, ultimately signed the legislation into law. But he refused to fund the $5-billion measure.

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In the Southland, that means increasing desperation and despondency for many long-unemployed workers, who discover upon losing jobs that their skills have become outdated and employers more demanding.

At the state unemployment office in East Los Angeles, officials say clerk typists these days may be required to handle accounts payable and be familiar with the latest word-processing software.

“It’s hard to find somebody with all these skills,” said Gregoria Diaz, an EDD representative.

After more than 20 years, Vivian Ford of La Puente found that her particular computer skills were no longer in demand. She had used a computer to draw up blueprints of electronic circuits, an often fast-paced job that paid well and allowed her a degree of creativity.

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But 16 months ago, she was laid off by Beckman Instruments in Brea.

After finding little or no work in electronics, Ford, 50, tried to sell her skills to engineering firms. But she lacked the experience and training to use the latest design software, and nobody wanted to train her.

Now living off her savings and assistance from relatives, Ford has expanded her search beyond drafting. Although she had made $26.50 an hour in her last job, Ford recently was willing to drive across the city to West Los Angeles to apply for work as a $7-an-hour car-rental reservations agent.

She was turned down.

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“I was dependable, reliable. I did good work,” said Ford, who is trying to teach herself new skills on her brother’s home computer. “You ask yourself, ‘I am healthy. I am energetic. Why can’t I get a job?’ ”

The loss of unemployment benefits worsens an already tight financial situation for the long-term jobless.

Many have complained that weekly unemployment checks--which range from $40 to $210 in California--are too small to begin with. In most states, benefits amount to only half of a typical working wage, according to Isaac Shapiro, senior research analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Still, Shapiro, citing a government study, said that workers who remain jobless three months after their benefits expire are twice as likely to fall into poverty as those still receiving unemployment checks.

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“As long as they are receiving unemployment benefits, they are still able to keep themselves and their families out of poverty,” he said.

The expiration of her unemployment benefits next month will force Bernice Romo of East Los Angeles to make a difficult decision. She could quit a job training program--where she is learning to use a computer for office work--to find a low-paying job to support her family. Or she could stick out the training in hopes of landing a higher-paying position later on.

“That’s going to put me on the spot,” said Romo, a former customer service representative for a Bell Gardens uniform rental firm. “We have three children, and on my husband’s wage (alone) it will be hard.”

Before starting the training program in July, the only jobs Romo could find paid $5 an hour for clerical work--half of what she was making in her last position.

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“There was a lot of competition, and there is really nothing there,” said Romo. “It’s kind of hard to work yourself down from $10 an hour to $5.”

The stigma attached to unemployment also grows when workers pass the six-month mark without finding a job, employment specialists say. Employers become much more wary of those who have been out of a job so long, said Rudy J. Morales, an official with the state unemployment office.

Owen McKay, a former sales and marketing manager from Santa Ana who has been jobless for more than a year, was stunned to hear the comment of one personnel clerk at a prospective employer.

“She said, ‘We certainly do not hire anyone who is unemployed,’ ” recalled McKay. “It wouldn’t have mattered if I was the most qualified, because they would not have hired me anyway.”

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Dixon, the laid-off San Diego consultant, is annoyed by those who think she wasted her six months on unemployment. “Nobody is hanging out at the pool at 800-bucks-a-month,” she said.

On Sundays each week, Dixon revs up her job search from her University Heights home, which she now shares with three boarders to cut expenses. She spends the day combing the classifieds, circling promising ads.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, she calls up prospective employers and follows up earlier leads. The rest of the week, Dixon, an officer in an EDD-sponsored job club for unemployed professionals and skilled workers, uses the group’s computer to draft and print resumes when they are needed and keeps up previous contacts.

Dixon has turned down jobs. Most of the rejects have been commission-only sales posts or positions that pay $8 an hour--work that falls well below the expectations of a former marketing director with 20 years of experience and a salary in the past above $50,000.

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“In some cases, the people you are interviewing with have less experience than you do,” said Dixon. “It’s uncomfortable for them. It makes their job security seem a little precarious.”

That discomfort extends to relations with friends and relatives. “It’s awkward for them,” said Dixon. “They are safe and secure, and it’s a little hard to explain to them my situation. It’s hard not to feel a little resentment.”

With no permanent job lined up, Dixon has put her public speaking and marketing skills to work by leading workshops on a topic close to home--how to choose the right career.


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