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Hard Times : Latino Community Struggles as Its State Jobless Rate Hits 12%


Things were going pretty well for Jimmy Chavez of East LA. He lived with his wife and two young sons in City Terrace. He was earning $12 an hour as a security guard, the same job he had held for six years. Then, in April, he was laid off.

That was the beginning of Chavez's ordeal. He soon lost his house and his car--and then his wife and children left him, in part because of the layoff. Unable to find a job and declared ineligible for unemployment assistance, he was forced to sleep on park benches and scrape by on whatever temporary menial work he could find.

"It hit me pretty hard," Chavez said with understatement at the East Los Angeles Employment Development Department, where he had come to resolve his status as unemployed. "I lost my job and then everything started to hit me at once. I hit rock bottom."

The clean-cut, articulate Chavez would appear to be a marketable job candidate. He graduated from Garfield High in 1985 and studied accounting for a year at North Valley Occupational Center. But everywhere he applies, he said, he hears the same thing: "There's a freeze out there...we're not hiring...We're not accepting any applications at all."

Richard Macias has been hearing a similar message. Macias, 52, had worked 28 years as an electrical design engineer for Rockwell when he was given his dismissal notice in August 1990. Despite his professional experience, he has not worked a day since.

These days he checks job listings at the West Covina EDD's Networking Experience Unlimited, a job referral service for professionals. "I send resumes out and I get letters back saying, 'I'm sorry, you don't have the qualifications,"' said Macias, who worked on the electrical systems of the Apollo projects from 1962 until 1970. "I sent people to the moon, okay?"

Macias and Chavez are just two more drops in a growing sea of unemployed--9.8% of the Los Angeles county work force in June, the highest rate in nine years. The hard times have cut a wide swath through the work force, hitting white- and blue-collar workers alike.

The June jobless figures dealt a blow to President Bush and Administration officials, who had tried to assure the nation that the economy was on the road to recovery.

The economic downturn has hit the Latino community hard. June unemployment figures showed that 12% of California's Latinos were out of work, compared to nearly 9% overall in the state. In 1990, one of every four Latino families in the state was already living in poverty, the highest rate of any ethnic group, according to the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

"We gauge the economy by the length of the line here," said EDD service center manager Sandy Gutierrez, nodding toward the overflowing queue of applicants seeking unemployment insurance, job referrals and employment counseling at the East Los Angeles center. On most days the line stretches into the parking lot--and, Gutierrez said, 98% of those clients are Latino, judging by surname.

The department's employment services division, which maintains a database of available jobs and job seekers, processed 1,627 new applicants in May alone. It found work for 219 of them, and received 170 new job orders that month.

The lines in the EDD center have grown steadily longer in the last year as 11 Eastside industrial plants closed their doors, laying off almost 2,500 workers. Observers say this is no temporary trend, but rather represents a fundamental shift in the city's industrial makeup.

Joe Tijerina, principal of the East Los Angeles Occupational Center vocational school, attributed the plant closures to heavy taxation by government and stringent air pollution standards. EDD officials also mentioned increasing traffic congestion and spiraling workers' compensation claims.

David Hayes-Bautista, until recently the director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, blamed the plant closures on a "triple whammy" of defense spending cuts, fluctuations in construction and the national recession.

"The chickens are coming home to roost," Hayes-Bautista said of the trend away from investment in manufacturing. "Those jobs that have traditionally provided entree into the middle class for blue-collar workers simply aren't going to be there."

The spate of lay-offs, along with the loss of jobs in the recent riots, has given an ironic new twist to the so-called "trickle-down" theory: Economic hardship is now being passed down the line. "As other people with more skills lose their jobs they're welcoming lower-paying jobs, and that has a Domino effect," the EDD's Gutierrez said.

One source at the EDD, who asked not to be identified, said desperate applicants are snapping up work that pays 50% less than their previous jobs. And the dim prospects aren't limited just to certain sectors of the economy.

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