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Worker on the Skids : Todd Shipyard Layoffs Point Up Plight of the Jobless Trying to Sustain a Way of Life

April 14, 1985|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

For five years, Paul Robbins worked as a laborer at Todd Shipyards Corp. in San Pedro. A shipfitter's helper, he earned $13.20 an hour, a wage that allowed him to afford a home in Lakewood and support his wife and two young daughters.

Now, however, Robbins' middle-class life style has all but disappeared. Laid off in August, and unable to find another job, he has watched his checking account dwindle to as low as $12, forcing him to rely on his mother-in-law to make his most recent house payment. The $166-a-week unemployment benefits he receives will end in several weeks.

"It's very frustrating," Robbins said, his eyes moist. "My self-respect is gone, and sometimes I'm not a very nice person to be around at home."

Robbins, a 34-year-old college graduate, is one of hundreds of former Todd workers laid off in recent months as the company's workload decreased.

While many, including Robbins, believed they would eventually be called back to work, their hopes were dashed two weeks ago when Todd failed to win a major Navy contract, prompting it to announce that it will lay off 1,200 more workers by January.

Starting Over

"The conclusion my wife and I have come to is that we have to start over, and we've decided to move to Maine," Robbins said. "We can't stay in California anymore because we just can't afford it. We've got to move to a state where it is cheaper to live."

"I'd rather stay here because this is where our home is and where my family is," said his 28-year-old wife, Colleen, who works part time as a nurse. "But his family is there, and it's a chance to maybe make a better life for ourselves and our children."

Paul Robbins' predicament may pale in comparison with other those of workers who have never earned as much as he did at the shipyard. Many of them, living from paycheck to paycheck, scramble each month not just to meet a house payment, but simply to come up with the rent.

But Robbins' plunge from middle-class has been painful, and it has been shared by other workers throughout the country who have been laid off in recent years from good-paying manufacturing jobs. At the same time, these workers have faced increasingly tough competition for new, lower-paying jobs in the service sector as the work force has continued to expand.

'A New Era'

"I gave up trying to find a job that pays that good because I know they don't exist," Robbins said. "This is a new era. I'm ready to take a job for $5, $6 or $7 an hour, and that would not even pay my mortgage bill.

"This is the high-tech computer age," Robbins added. "Any kind of factory worker is starting to get hit, and employers are going to start saying, 'You're going to work for $4 an hour, or you're not going to work at all.' It's the old supply-and-demand law. You've got all these workers who just need to eat, and the big national company says, 'Oh, we just lowered the wages.' "

The layoffs at Todd have come at a time when the strong national economy has spurred an increase in the civilian work force. The Labor Department recently reported that the number of jobs rose to 107.1 million in March, up 434,000 from February.

But nearly all the growth was recorded in the service sector, while the number of manufacturing jobs stayed at the same level as last summer, according to Harvey Hamel, a senior economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington. The number of manufacturing jobs, which pay an average hourly wage of $9.44, stands at 19.7 million, he said.

(In California, the number of manufacturing jobs in 1984 totaled 2 million, up from 1.9 million in 1983, according to the state Employment Development Department. Service jobs totaled 2.5 million in 1984, up from 2.3 million in the previous year.)

Hamel said that, nationally, the manufacturing sector has never recovered from the battering it took during the 1981-82 recession. Manufacturing lost 2.3 million jobs in the 16 months ending in November, 1982, and has regained only 1.6 million, he said.

Moreover, laborers such as Robbins face an additional problem in finding new jobs because of the expanding work force, Hamel said. "In the last six months or so unemployment has remained kind of flat," he said. "There is a continued increase in job creation, but as fast as they are created, there are many people coming into the work force who have not been there before."

"The problems many workers have is that the baby-boom generation has put this enormous bulge in the economy," said Barry Bluestone, an economist at Boston College. "People knocked out of work are competing with this bulge for the good jobs in the labor market."

Called 'Skidders'

Bluestone, former director of the Social Welfare Research Institute at Boston College, said a recent institute study focusing on 320 laid-off auto industry workers showed that those who had not been recalled to work and had taken new jobs outside the industry suffered a 30% drop in wages. Such workers are called "skidders" because of their drop down the occupational hierarchy, he said.

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