Apodaca: Will layoffs keep council awake at night?

In my long career as a journalist — much of it spent as a business reporter — I covered many stories involving job losses.

These stories inevitably contained lots of figures: the number of employees cut, percentage of workforce terminated, expected savings from payroll reductions.

The requisite press releases were always filled with euphemisms. Workers weren't fired; they were laid off. Companies didn't shrink; they downsized. Cutbacks were never the result of mistakes made; they were a response to competitive pressures.

But in the office cubicles and factory floors of the many businesses I visited, the truth could always be seen in the faces of the workers themselves.

It's not jobs that are cut. It's people.

So when the human cost of Costa Mesa's decision to ax nearly half the city's jobs became tragically apparent with the suicide of one of the pink-slipped workers last week, I was immediately transported back to those earlier times.

I remembered the fear, anger and feelings of betrayal among those whose livelihoods had been cast aside. I recall the bitterness of employees who believed that they had worked hard and done everything asked of them, only to find themselves out on the street because of choices made by others.

I recalled the autoworkers who begged me to hear them out after their factory closed. They had made numerous concessions to their employer, and in turn had received what they thought was a promise to keep them on despite the lure of cheaper operations elsewhere. Their despair seeped like oil through the empty carcass of the once-thriving factory that had represented their piece of the American dream.

I wonder if members of the Costa Mesa City Council had steeled themselves for such a reaction from the employees whose jobs they targeted for elimination in six months.

Council members said the cuts were necessitated by a budget shortfall and ballooning pension costs — problems shared by municipalities across the country. The city hopes to save money by outsourcing work to other government agencies and private contractors.

Costa Mesa's scorched-earth approach has received national attention. It has been praised as bold and innovative in some quarters, vilified as heartless and ineffectual in others.

Either way, it seems fair that the council should consider the following questions:

Was every other option thoroughly vetted before the decision was made to fire 200 people?

Are you certain that you can achieve the needed savings through outsourcing? I can assure you that contracting with outside agencies and companies isn't the panacea you might think, and you might end up costing the city more than it bargained for.

Are you truly prepared for the long-term fallout from this move?

In considering this, let me turn again to my experience as a business reporter. Many years ago, I interviewed a group of former chief executives. These one-time captains of industry had represented the elite of Orange County business. They were smart, successful and fabulously wealthy.

I wanted to write about these executives because, at the time, they had decided to put their money and managerial expertise to use helping local entrepreneurs get off the ground. They figured they could do some good and turn a profit at the same time.

But at one point during the interview, the conversation grew introspective when I asked what lessons these business giants had learned that they could confer upon others.

They all admitted to bungling the job at some point, and it was these errors that haunted them still. The biggest failures— the ones that kept them awake at night — were those that resulted in mass layoffs.

At the time, I was a little stunned to hear such candor. I was well accustomed to executives placing the blame for layoffs anywhere besides at their own feet. But it seemed that their retirement from active management had freed them at last to voice their darkest doubts.

One of the executives pointed to a financial tailspin at his former company that led to the layoff of several hundred workers. When that happened, he said, "You've got no one else to blame but yourself."

In these days of rampant municipal budget crises, we often hear talk of the need for government to operate more like business. The implication is that political leaders could learn something about efficiency and fiscal responsibility from the private sector.

But there is another lesson to be learned from the business world: It's not easy to look into employees' eyes and tell them they're no longer needed.

The decision to lay off workers is one that should be made with the utmost care and consideration, and only after all other options have been weighed and reweighed. And even then, the responsibilities of those who hold others' lives in their hands should not end.

Which leaves me with one final question for the Costa Mesa City Council: Will you do everything in your power to help the city workers who ultimately lose their jobs?

Your answer could keep those agonizing second thoughts at bay during the long nights ahead.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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