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Economic Distress : Unemployment: No job. No money. No hope. Thousands are paying a heavy emotional price as the recession tightens its grip.

RECESSION IN SOUTHEAST: A SPECIAL REPORT. Next Sunday: FEW FIRST JOBS--College graduates are facing one of the toughest job markets in years. Only the cream of the academic crop is likely to be hired, and this year's graduates often encounter fierce competition from older, more experienced workers who have lost their jobs.

May 26, 1991|TINA GRIEGO and FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In front of her mother and 8-year-old son, she jokes about her futile search for work. But at night, long after her family has fallen asleep, Pat Fatemeh is still awake, sitting outside staring at the sky.

"I think, 'Oh, God, it's really bad. I'm the head of the household. What am I going to do if I can't feed my son?' "

Fatemeh, an aerospace engineer with 10 years of experience, was laid off from Douglas Aircraft Co. more than four months ago. She has contacted hundreds of companies looking for work. Most never respond. Since the December day she was laid off, she has lost 37 pounds, dropping in dress size from 7 to 3. She drinks 10 cups of coffee a day, and has chronic headaches. And always, her mind is churning, playing out scenarios in which she and her family are hungry and homeless.

Thousands of Southeast-area residents who have been laid off are paying a heavy emotional price as the recession tightens its grip, reducing to a trickle the supply of jobs. Many wrongly blame themselves, convinced that if they had been smarter or harder working or nicer to the boss they would still be employed today.

"If a person is out of work, is not bringing bread to the table, it really has an enormous psychological impact," said Dr. David Friedland, a Los Angeles industrial psychologist. "Self-worth suffers. As time passes and they don't find work, it reflects even more the feeling that no one wants you."

It was not the layoff that drove P.K. to a nervous breakdown, it was the fear of one. "They started laying off people right and left," he said, too embarrassed to reveal his full name. "We didn't know who was going to go next. I couldn't handle it. I had a fever. I couldn't walk. Who can work when it's not clear whether you are going to have a job tomorrow?"

Unable to sleep at night, P.K. began calling in sick. On days he felt well enough to get out of bed, he often arrived at work late. In January, after four months of sporadic appearances at work and a plummeting job performance, he was notified that he would be laid off. P.K., an anxious-looking electronics engineer with trembling hands and dark rings under his eyes, still is not sure whether his collapse prompted the layoff or whether he would have lost his job anyway.

At times like these, people drink more, smoke more, fight more and sleep less. The newly unemployed describe a sense of worthlessness, of waking up in the morning with nowhere to go. Couples argue. Children sense their parents' fears, said Marianne McManus, a Los Angeles psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders.

"Family fights about money increase. Kids are scared. They think they are going to be homeless," McManus said. "All spending is suspect. 'You shouldn't have bought pork chops, you should have bought hamburger.' The daughter can't have a dress to go to the prom. The tooth fairy doesn't visit. It is all very upsetting to the family that has to endure it."

Happily married for 11 years, Shari Vigo, a beautician from Long Beach, says the recession has driven a wedge between her and her husband. Vigo has watched her business decline a staggering 60% since last fall. Her husband, an electronics distributor in Orange County, was laid off in December, rehired, then laid off again in March. They have no savings, and in addition to mortgage payments and credit card bills, the couple also pay child support to Dana Vigo's former wife. They fight constantly about money.

"He gets frustrated and disgusted," Shari Vigo said from her Seal Beach salon on another slow Friday afternoon. "He's used to being prosperous, doing well, playing golf. We are not used to scrimping. He's mad all the time. He doesn't laugh or smile. He's crabby or grouchy, and I react to it."

The Vigos have stopped going out for dinner, and there are no more steaks for supper. Instead, they eat chicken and turkey-and-pasta combinations. They no longer need two baskets when grocery shopping because they only buy what they are going to eat within the next two days. Pricey fruits and vegetables are passed by until they go on sale, Shari Vigo said. They no longer entertain, buy new clothes or take weekend jaunts.

"We found ourselves digging in a jar for pennies," she said. "We used to make $75,000 a year. This is ridiculous. My husband and I have had serious conversations about separation or divorce. If we break up, it will be because of this recession."

Counselors say that being laid off is a traumatic experience for most people. But for some, it can be a blessing once the initial shock has passed. Although some workers may fall to the fires of the recession, others rise from the ashes. People who never liked their jobs have reason to start over. In midlife, nose-to-the-grindstone types are taking up new careers, indulging secret wishes to work outdoors, get off the freeway, escape the rat race.

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