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Quake Creates Jobs for Unemployed Construction Workers : Labor: Analysts say that whatever gains are made in the crafts sector need to be balanced against lost retail positions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five weeks of unemployment, and for electrician Sam Romeo it was shaping up to be another long day at home--one spent making pork sausage instead of money.

Then nature brought home the bacon.

For Romeo and thousands of other unemployed workers, the Northridge earthquake was an instant jolt out of the boredom and worry that dog the unemployed.

Nobody likes to crow over a disaster, but in the first two weeks alone, the 60-year-old electrician earned almost $5,000 working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week helping repair Canoga Park’s Rocketdyne plant, where tens of thousands of downed light fixtures and twisted electrical lines have thrust Romeo from the sidelines into the spotlight.

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Not bad for a guy who was taking home $230 a week in unemployment benefits before the quake crunched homes and factories like a runaway roller coaster.

“As soon as it hit, I knew there was going to be a lot of work,” said Romeo, a green-eyed, barrel-chested man with gray hair. “I’m happy because the more hours I work, the better my pension will be. I might even buy a new truck.”

But it is still too early to tell just how big a boon the quake will turn out to be for the more than 25,000 construction workers who were unemployed beforehand, officials said. And whatever gains those workers make will have to be measured against the loss of thousands of retail jobs, officials and economists said.

As of Feb. 19, the latest date for which figures were available, 25,750 people had lost their jobs or a portion of their wages because of earthquake-related damage to businesses, said Suzanne Schroeder, spokeswoman for the state Employment Development Department.

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Most of the lost jobs were in the retail sector, including shopping centers and restaurants, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County, a private, nonprofit agency affiliated with county government.

The overall job picture in Los Angeles County for the month of January will not be known until March 5. Even then, officials will not be able to analyze the true impact of the disaster on the construction industry because many workers were hired in February, said Jay Horowitz, an analyst with the state Employment Development Department.

“Employment has got to jump up by the thousands for construction workers,” Horowitz said. “Of course, what’s good for them won’t help the others who have lost their jobs.”

About 2,500 construction workers such as Romeo who were unemployed before the quake are now working overtime to repair quake damage, said Ron Kennedy, executive secretary of the Building Trades Assn.

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But that still leaves unemployed about 23,000 of the association’s 85,000 Los Angeles County members and countless others who are not unionized.

“Unfortunately, out of someone’s bad luck or ill fate, something good has come,” Kennedy said. “But our industry, whether you’re in a union or not, has been in dire straits for years.”

The county’s unemployment rate dipped to 8.9% in December, down nearly a percentage point from the year before, said Jay Horowitz, an analyst with the state Employment Development Department. But despite the upturn, the construction trades continued to suffer, with about 4,300 fewer jobs last year than the 104,200 in 1992, a drop of 4%, Horowitz said.

Nonetheless, Romeo is counting on having work for months to come. The contractor who hired him after the quake, Regal Electrical Construction Co. of Oxnard, has entered bids for several post-earthquake jobs, said co-owner Kevin Harrington.

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Regal, which has done work for Rocketdyne in the past, was called by the firm almost immediately after the quake.

“We went out the first day and snapped up two contractors,” said Rocketdyne spokesman Paul Sewell. “We understand that other people who didn’t move as fast as we did have had problems” finding skilled labor.

Sewell declined to say how much the damage will cost the company, which manufactures space shuttle engines. But the losses are clearly in the millions, judging by the mess that greeted Romeo and the other Regal workers when they first arrived. There was no significant structural damage, but more than 23,000 light fixtures were dashed to the cement floor.

The main factory, which takes up almost as much space as 17 football fields, was particularly hard hit.

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Romeo tackled the mess with zeal. Construction work is sporadic by nature, but unlike some of his colleagues, Romeo says he has never managed to enjoy the slow periods. In past years, he used to tromp down to the union hall in North Hills every day at 8 a.m. when jobs are dispatched.

“I just love being back on the job,” said Romeo, who belongs to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “I don’t like to lounge. If you got a hobby, it’s OK. But how much of that can you do? Like my father used to say, he was from southern Italy, you got to be like a whale in the ocean. You gotta keep moving or you’ll die.”


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