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Focus on the Family's Move Limits Options for Its 700 Employees

Recession In San Gabriel Valley: A Special Report


For Tom Hess, a job relocation from Pomona to Colorado Springs, Colo., carries an opportunity to buy his first house and raise his family in a safer town with purer air, a slower pace and less congestion.

But for Bob Stalians, the relocation would have been a nightmare, trading a comfortable life with family and friends for cold weather and unfamiliar surroundings.

Hess and Stalians were faced with the same choice confronting 700 other employees at Focus on the Family in Pomona: move to Colorado Springs with the organization by October or lose their jobs.

Their dilemma is like that faced by others whose employers--beset by the economic downturn--are fleeing expensive California for places where the cost of operating is cheaper.

For many of those affected by corporate upheavals, it's a tough choice, made more difficult by a recession that has narrowed employment opportunities.

Paul Hetrick, vice president of Focus on the Family, which was founded by radio psychologist and author James Dobson to promote family values from a conservative Christian perspective, said the recession has not slowed the organization's growth.

Indeed, he said, tough times are just one more reason for people to turn to Focus for advice on coping with family problems.

But Hetrick said the recession has complicated the decision-making for employees, all of whom were offered a chance to move with the organization. Some employees who really don't want to leave Southern California may move anyway because of the difficulty of finding another job here, Hetrick said. Others who would like to live in Colorado cannot move because their spouses would lose jobs here that they could not match in Colorado.

Hetrick said the Colorado job market is so tight that a temporary snow removal position drew 140 applicants. When a hotel in Colorado Springs reopened last year, 2,000 people applied in just two days.

Focus has flown groups of employees to Colorado Springs to look at the area, has brought school and real estate experts from Colorado Springs to Pomona to talk to workers, and is soliciting new jobs for those who do not choose to move. The organization expects to retain about half of its employees, including most of its top managers.

Hetrick said Focus will save about $5 million a year in operating costs by moving to an area where salaries and taxes are lower. Employees who move will not take pay cuts, but their salaries will be frozen for up to three years while new employees are hired in Colorado at lower rates. The savings in health insurance premiums alone will amount to $1 million, Hetrick said. Another lure is a promised donation by a Colorado foundation of $4 million, contingent on relocation.

The move will be carried out in stages, with the first group leaving in August, another group in September and the remainder in October.

Stalians, 35, who has been purchasing manager for three years, said he knew as soon as the move was announced last June that he would not go to Colorado because of his ties to this area. Stalians has lived or worked in Pomona all of his life, and his wife's family has lived in the area since 1883. They have two sons, 5 and 3.

With nine parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in the area, Stalians said, family get-togethers are a major part of their lives.

Stalians, who bought a house in Rancho Cucamonga nine years ago, said that by moving to Colorado, "we could get a bigger house with more land, but I don't think that's worth saying goodby to the grandparents."

With college degrees in psychology and Christian education and job experience ranging from handyman to running a transit company with 250 employees, Stalians said he is confident about finding another job. He said he would like to stay with a religious organization, even though he could make more money in private industry.

"I don't have to make $60,000 or $50,000 a year. I can settle for less," he said. "I don't just want to be on a payroll. I want to feel like I'm contributing."

Stalians declined to disclose his salary at Focus, but said, "This is a nonprofit organization, and we pay accordingly."

Hess, 34, who came to Focus three years ago to edit Citizen, its public affairs magazine, said the comparatively low salaries of a ministry make it all but impossible for Focus employees like himself to enter the Southern California housing market, unless they are willing to commute long distances from places such as Victorville and Hemet.

Hess said his wife would rather stay home to raise their 3-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter than work to get money to buy a house.

"We don't have the savings, and we don't have anyone in the family to lend that 50-grand or whatever it takes to get into a home," he said. "So we were content to stay in apartments the rest of our lives here. Now that the organization is moving, we have a very clear opportunity to get into a home on one income. And that's just astounding to us."

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