ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : For County Employees, No Holiday From Uncertainty About Layoffs

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A wave of uncertainty, fear and anger swept through many county offices two days before Christmas as anxious employees wondered if they would have jobs to come back to after the holidays.

As of late Friday, most of the 18,000 county employees did not know what to expect or how the dramatic budget cuts announced by the county the day before would affect them personally.

"It's the not knowing what is going to happen that is so upsetting," said 51-year-old Jim Dukette, who has worked for the county Community Services Agency for 24 years. "If people could find out specifics, then they could deal with it."

Most of the county's employees worked in stunned silence Friday, still reeling from news of nearly $30 million in cuts from the county budget. The action was taken Thursday, 2 1/2 weeks after the County Board of Supervisors was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Some workers were preparing for the worst.

An accountant in the auditor-controller's office said her children have offered to give up their Christmas presents. A seven-month employee still on the customary one-year probation, she has no illusions about holding on to the position.

"I asked point-blank and I was told it would be a good idea to look out for No. 1 and start sending out resumes," said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

The blow just before Christmas hit hard at home.

"My daughter said, 'Mom, I know you're thinking about taking the Christmas presents back, but let me look at them first,' " she said.

The news brought reminders of two years she spent searching for a job after being laid off from the slumping construction industry.

"I imagine I'll probably declare bankruptcy so I don't lose equity on my home," she said.

A clerk in the registrar of voters office said she had not even done any Christmas shopping because she is so worried about the financial crisis and about possibly losing her job.

"I got 14 years here. It's not fair, my grandchildren keep me going," said the woman, who began to cry. "I just worry about my house payments. It's not a happy time."

Stella Snell, 51, a Community Services Agency employee, has also experienced the pain and hardship of losing a job, something she feels almost certain is about to happen again.

"It would be so sad to wake up New Year's Day and not have a job," she said. "All my life I've been laid off and laid off. I feel like I may be out on the streets again."

In the Social Services Agency, workers flocked Friday morning to read an e-mail message sent by agency head Larry M. Leaman. The message told employees that the agency might be able to get by without making any layoffs, said Nikki Niznik, an eligibility worker and union leader.

"The stress level in the workplace is so high," she said.

If cuts have to be made, Dukette said, employees in the Community Services Agency said they want to have input "instead of just having them handed down from above."

"People want to participate in ideas such as job sharing and work furloughs," he said.

Despite the grim situation, a twisted humor prevailed in some circles.

"If they took all the money they spent on outside consultants and put it together, they could build a replica of Graceland--Graceland of the West Coast," said Greg White, an accountant and auditor who has worked for the county for more than three years.

Another suggested that the county take over Disneyland and use its proceeds to get back on track.

But underneath the jokes was a sense of betrayal.

"The general feeling is the Board of Supervisors should take a walk, and the (chief administrative officer) too," said an employee in the tax collector's office. "I think (former Treasurer Robert L.) Citron should take his $90,000 pension and give that back, to make up for what he lost."

A longtime General Services Agency employee said bitterly: "I've paid my dues into this system for 18 years and now they are going to say that it's worth nothing? I came to work today afraid that I might not have a job. I don't think that will be the case, but the day is not over yet."

Many employees steered their wrath toward the county supervisors, whom they hold responsible for the crisis.

"I think the board should resign immediately," said an employee. "I have no faith in them whatsoever."

Other employees said they felt no bitterness about the drastic cuts.

"I really feel sorry for the department heads. They're caring people, too. They're doing something that they have to do," said Joyce Harrell, a Human Resources office technician. "I've been here four years and I've acquired a lot of skills. I'm marketable. If I stay, it's a blessing. If I go, it's a blessing."

Joan Silverman, a 17-year Community Services Agency employee, described her co-workers as "numb," but extremely professional under trying conditions.

"We see a lot of clients who are having hardships and who have been laid off and need help finding a job," Silverman said. "So we need to stay positive, and this is a staff that is up to it. We don't know what's going to happen but we have a job to do."

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