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Thousands Apply for Jobs at the Plaza Mall : Economy: A 10% jobless rate in the county has meant lean times for residents looking for any work they can find.


WEST COVINA — In another testament to the Southland's high jobless rate, more than 5,000 people have applied for fewer than 400 openings at a department store and shops that will open next month in a West Covina mall.

Job-seekers have been flooding a small room tucked away on the second floor of the Plaza at West Covina where the applications are being taken. The mall is adding a 150,000-square-foot Robinsons-May department store and about 50 specialty shops. The grand opening is Oct. 7.

As the county unemployment rate hovers around 10%, everyone from teen-agers looking for their first jobs to retirees seeking part-time work are flocking to the applicant screening center at the mall.

The openings, mostly retail sales, stocking and management jobs, pay as little as the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour but average about $6 an hour.

"I've looked all summer. . . . I applied at McDonald's. But no one has got back to me," said Yvette Meneses, a 15-year-old Covina resident who was waiting for an interview Thursday.

A high school junior, she is looking for a part-time job in the evenings so she can help her mother pay bills and save money for college.

"It's tough," Yvette said. "Employers don't hire you unless you have experience, and how can you get experience unless they hire you?"

Lydia Cecilia Calderon, 37, said she has been looking for work since she was laid off more than a year ago from her eight-year job at a K mart in San Bernardino.

After applying at dozens of retailers in the San Gabriel Valley, she was finally feeling lucky at the mall's screening center. She was chosen for an interview with a Robinsons-May representative who was looking to fill a stocking and merchandise pricing position.

"It's harder to find work now that I'm older," she said. "I'm looking for any kind of job I can get."

Calderon has been living with her mother in Covina. Her husband, an airplane mechanic, is also looking for work because he will be laid off this month from Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino.

Staffed by employees of the state Employment Development Department, the applicant screening center has been overwhelmed by job-seekers since it opened Aug. 2, said Sue Schlagel, assistant manager of the department's regional office in West Covina.

"On our first day we had 195 applicants . . . we didn't even have time to get the furniture moved in that morning before we had to start screening applicants," Schlagel said. "We certainly didn't expect this kind of turnout."

Applicants who pass the first screening hurdle are referred to Robinsons-May for formal interviews. About 10 other new stores, which are trying to fill an additional 170 openings, have also asked the employment department to screen applicants.

The Plaza is anchored by a Broadway, Bullocks and J.C. Penney and will have about 185 stores after the expansion.

Eventually, employment department officials say, more than 500 full- and part-time employees will be hired for the new stores. The screening center is scheduled to stay open through October.

Schlagel said that, of the more than 1,000 applicants that the screening center has referred to Robinsons-May, about 100 have been hired.

"There's no doubt it's an employers' market out there right now," Schlagel said. "Some of these people are being called back for second and third interviews."

The mall has advertised its need for workers in local newspapers and on a banner outside of the Plaza.

Rhome Reyes, 31, came to the mall's applicant screening center last week in hopes of getting an interview with Robinsons-May, where he would like to work in a computer-related job paying $11 or $12 an hour.

He has a job now at a computer services firm in downtown Los Angeles. But his company is cutting back, he said, and rumors are circulating that some employees will be asked to work part time rather than full time.

"I could probably get by for a while just working part time," said Reyes, who lives in Azusa. "But I've gotten used to making so much more."

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