Coping Without Jobs--or Answers : Layoffs: They're as different as the positions they held, but many now share similar concerns.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A systems analyst reborn as Mr. Mom. A former janitor and single mother searching desperately for work. A onetime research analyst who cries in her sleep. A 69-year-old clerical worker who wonders how long she can pay her mortgage.

These people--Paul Sheridan, Lap Doan, Renee Schulte and Lena Gniadek--are but a few of the scores of employees recently laid off by Orange County, a government serving an area so affluent that its financial woes still seem almost unbelievable.

With the news that 1,040 other county workers will soon become the latest victims of Orange County's bankruptcy, those in the first round of layoffs suffered again, only too aware of the hardships their former colleagues will face.

"When I heard about the . . . new layoffs, I just started crying," said Diane Bouchard, a county property agent laid off in January. "I just can't bear to think of other people going through what I've gone through."

Those laid off between December and March have little in common except their former employer. They are white, black, Latino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Iranian. They include 25-year-olds whose county employment represented their first post-college jobs and workers past 60 who had hoped to hang on until retirement. They are custodians and clerks, analysts and planners, social workers and psychologists.

Their circumstances are as varied as the positions they lost. But in interviews in the past two weeks with more than 50 laid-off county employees, a picture emerges of the human toll exacted already by the county's extraordinary plunge into bankruptcy.

Weeks after their layoffs, many former county workers are struggling to meet house and credit card payments, enduring discouraging job hunts and facing constant worry: that they'll lose their homes, be unable to pay for medical care or snap once too often at their already bewildered children.

They now know the pain that thousands of private sector workers in Southern California have learned through hard years of recession--pain these government workers expected to avoid. With civil service jobs, the deal was supposed to be that you exchanged high salaries and, perhaps, some opportunities for job security.

But the deal has been broken, and the impact is spreading, slowly, certainly, throughout the county.

Baby-sitters and gardeners are being let go. Optional spending for movies, dry-cleaning, new clothes and cable TV have been cut by many laid-off workers, sometimes along with more critical expenditures such as doctor visits and child-support payments. And one 17-year-old daughter has been told that her dreams of college are on hold.

"She's absolutely devastated, and I can't blame her," said Bill Grey, a laid-off senior projects manager. "She's trying very hard to understand."

The layoff victims say they too are trying to understand.

How, several asked, could they be the ones laid off, often after years of good performance reviews? Why are they losing their jobs, when they had nothing to do with the county's financial collapse? And why, many ask, were their dismissals handled so coldly, so impersonally, after years of service?

Helena Clift, 66, a former clerk/typist for the Health Care Agency, still finds it painful to discuss her Jan. 24 layoff.

"The supervisor stood over me as I cleaned out my desk. She even said, 'Don't forget to give us the coffee club money!' " said Clift, who now hopes to supplement her unemployment checks by selling Easter hats and afghans she knits.

An eight-year county employee, Clift said she was told upon her dismissal "not to speak to anyone, just get out. It was like I was a criminal."

A few, like Gail B. Mowry, a personal services coordinator in the personnel department, said their layoffs were handled with compassion by superiors who notified them privately and stressed that the terminations had nothing to do with their performance.

Some wondered if there was any way for supervisors to handle such a thankless task well. Given the extent of the county's travails and the number of layoffs to be made, they said, their dismissals were accomplished as humanely as could be expected.

More common, however, were complaints of insensitive treatment. Computers were shut down--and passwords changed--before the employees who operated them knew what was happening. Plainclothes deputies stood nearby in case of trouble. And no one said, "I'm sorry."

The behavior of some bosses, these employees said, was demoralizing, dehumanizing, intimidating or, simply, cold.

"I just wish these people could walk in my shoes, just one time in their lives, and know what they did to me," said Gniadek, a former office specialist in the registrar of voters office. "Just one time."

If they did, they would feel the shock and anxiety of a 69-year-old woman who has lost her job and says she has no idea how she will make her monthly mortgage, let alone escape the burden of debt she has carried since her husband's death two years ago.

Lena Gniadek, of Rancho Santa Margarita, said she had hoped that this year, when she became eligible for Social Security, she could pay off $5,000 in bills remaining from her husband's lengthy hospitalization. There is no chance of that now, she said.

"I won't be able to get by just on Social Security," she said, her voice breaking. "I have a house and a mortgage I can't pay on Social Security, plus these medical bills. . . . I don't want to be a burden to my family. I'll survive; what else can you do? But I get sad."

A few, such as Cheryl Barba, a former county staff analyst who went through another layoff years ago before being hired by the county, are philosophical--and already at work at often lower-paying, temporary jobs. Weary of the mounting tension in the office, Barba actually volunteered to be laid off. "I said, 'Let me be the first,' so I could get on with my life," she said.

Others make no effort to hide their bitterness, particularly toward members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, whom they blame for the county's financial debacle and for their own sudden unemployment.

The supervisors have been "arrogant and ignorant, which is business as usual for these people," said Charles Lus, a former project manager in facilities operations. "Instead of treating the county like a public trust, they've acted like spoiled little kids who have inherited the store from their parents."

Maria Mendoza, 65, the county's homeless-issues coordinator before she, too, was laid off, said she wondered if the supervisors had any idea of the degrading way she and others were treated and how it made them feel.

On the other hand, said Mendoza, who has been recognized statewide for her work with the homeless, "maybe they don't care."

Among the older layoff victims, several complained that the ax fell especially heavily on those approaching retirement age, even though most asserted that they worked as hard and were as capable as younger workers.

Samouen Chhay, 59, a translator and health-care educator for the Cambodian community, said younger, less senior people were kept and older ones let go for no apparent reason other than their age.

"I thought people who had been there for a shorter time would be asked to leave. But that wasn't the case," said Chhay, a 10-year county veteran who worries that her age will make it hard for her to find work. "They kept the young people. I felt punished for my age and not my performance."

Lawyers for the largest county labor association have said the average age of workers affected by the first round of layoffs was 47 and that they are trying to determine whether a pattern of discrimination is emerging.

In arbitration hearings ordered by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge overseeing the county's bankruptcy case, some laid-off workers have been reinstated. A handful of others have managed to find work elsewhere, although it is often lower paying, temporary or out of the area.

Jeff Henderson, 34, a county facilities projects manager for four years, last week left his wife and two young children behind in Orange County to take a three-month job in Portland. After another temporary job in Long Beach fell through, he had no choice, Henderson said.

Other former county workers expect to have an even tougher time. Several expressed concern that the work they did for the county may have no equivalent in the private sector. Others worried that prospective employers may see them as tainted merely because they worked for Orange County, a government that has become the butt of jokes on television talk shows.

A frustrated Al Williams, a former senior systems analyst, said business acquaintances have warned him that his job hunt will not be easy.

"They're all saying, 'You're going to have a hell of a time finding a job.' Businesses don't want anyone who had anything to do with Orange County," said Williams, 44.

For many, the single most difficult aspect of losing their jobs has been the loss of medical benefits. While they are eligible for 18 months of extended benefits under a federal program known as COBRA, many said the cost is prohibitive, especially for people who now have little or no income.

To make matters worse, several said the stress they are suffering has provoked new medical problems or exacerbated existing ones.

Tony Esparza, the county's principal technical systems specialist before his layoff, said that his blood pressure has shot up and that he has been unable to sleep--conditions his doctor says are related to his job loss. More significantly, Esparza said, his wife suffers from chronic medical problems, including a disabling form of rheumatism, that will make it difficult for the family to obtain new insurance.

For his family, said Esparza, 51, signing up for the COBRA plan would amount to $483 a month, which he cannot afford.

Others say their anxieties have crept into their dreams. Renee Schulte, a 44-year-old former research analyst, has found it hard to sleep since her layoff. And when she does, the worries apparently don't stop; she is weeping in her sleep, a loved one has told her.

Gayle Clanton, a former data entry technician with the registrar's office, maintained her calm for weeks after losing her job. She was more fortunate than many, she said at the time; her husband, a handyman, was able to pick up extra work. Besides, her family had always been frugal.

But Clanton's composure was shattered March 8, when her husband suffered a major heart attack, in part because of the extra hours and worry about the family's finances, she believes. He is recuperating but will be unable to work for the foreseeable future.

"I'm no longer sure what we'll do; we no longer have a plan," Clanton said.

The job loss has thrust a number of former county employees into new roles. For instance, several laid-off fathers, unable to find immediate work, are taking primary responsibility for their children.

Jeff Yaugher, 31, a onetime warehouse worker, is juggling his job search and his 3-year-old daughter, Jessica. And Paul Sheridan, 51, a senior systems planning analyst, is doing the same--and enduring pointed questions from his four children about the "crazy concoctions" he cooks for dinner.

Sheridan has other worries too. Even before the layoff, the family lived paycheck to paycheck. Now, after several months of late payments, the family's Pomona home is on the brink of foreclosure, he said.

Spurred by constant worry, Sheridan has redoubled his job search, taking 4-year-old Patrick along to interviews and to perform the daily task of mailing more resumes. But so far, no bites.

"It's been a roller coaster," Sheridan said. "Sometimes you're with your family and don't have all the patience you once had. You're snapping at the kids because you're anxious inside. I look back and say, 'Why did I just snap at the kids? Why was I not listening to my wife?' "

Along with their more personal anxieties, several former county workers said they worry about the status of projects they handled or people they served.

Wilma Ruth Perry was the county's only clinical social worker making home visits to mothers with high-risk infants. The county's field nurses will try to cover her job as well as their own, she said. But realistically, how can they, she asks.

Mendoza said she was distressed about the homeless people she has tried to help since 1991.

"It's not that I'm a martyr or anything; it's just the situation is more complicated than one person losing their job," she said. "The real loss here hasn't even been seen yet."

Lap Doan's worries are closer to home. Even before she was laid off, Doan, 51, was supporting three teen-agers on a custodian's pay of $7.21 an hour. A Vietnamese immigrant who speaks little English, Doan worked at night, conscious that her children are at vulnerable ages and feeling a need to watch over them.

Now she is cutting expenses wherever possible, she said, putting off buying new beds for the children and considering a move to Texas, where the cost of living is lower and the family has relatives. And she is struggling, endlessly, to find a job.

"If I fail, my children will fail," she said.

Still, there are a lucky few who have found opportunity in the layoffs, using their sudden freedom from their county jobs to pursue professional or personal changes.

Ray Hansink, 42, a clinical psychologist, says it made him think about building a private practice a little earlier than he expected.

Laura Dennison, 49, a former administrative manager in the county's personnel department, said the layoff and consequent belt-tightening have forced some positive changes in her family's lifestyle. The Dennisons, she said, spend more time now doing things that don't cost much, including spending time with friends instead of going out.

Besides, she added, "the extra sleep . . . well, it's wonderful, really."

Psychologist Alison Nathan said she, too, looks forward to building up an already busy private practice. And she offered words of encouragement to other layoff victims.

"Looking back, two weeks after I was let go, I can say it was a blessing in disguise," said Nathan, an 11-year county employee. "I hope that those other people who are in worse shape or have fewer options will be able to look back in a year or two . . . and also say the same thing.

"I hope they move on to better things too."

This article was reported by Times staff writers Lee Romney, Ching-Ching Ni, Tina Nguyen and Rebecca Trounson, with correspondent Geoff Boucher. It was written by Trounson.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

FIFTY FACES OF THE FINANCIAL COLLAPSE

A portfolio of personal stories from people caught in the path of the Orange County bankruptcy through no fault of their own. Their pain, their prospects.

A TIMES ORANGE COUNTY SPECIAL REPORT, PAGES A18-21

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°