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Those Rehired Work Through Their Fears

March 19, 1995|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Gloria Sharpless, 60, weeks of sleeplessness, a roiling stomach and anxiety over shattered retirement dreams gave way to cautious peace of mind when she got her county job back in February.

She had been laid off in the early days of the bankruptcy crisis, then reinstated after labor officials fought it.

But her relief was short-lived. When county officials announced two weeks ago that 1,040 more workers would soon have to go, she confronted her boss in the General Services Agency and learned that she will surely be among them.

"I told myself that I'm not going to be as emotionally drained as the first time around," said Sharpless, a secretary with 13 years with the county and whose husband is retired on a small pension. "I was hurt before, and I'm angry now."

The battle between the county and its 18,000 employees dates to the early days of the bankruptcy, when the Board of Supervisors suspended labor agreements that protect senior workers from layoffs. The result: 170 employees lost their jobs in January, and labor leaders headed to court to contest the action.

After lengthy hearings, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John E. Ryan ordered the county to do everything possible to honor the agreements and give longtime workers such as Sharpless their jobs back.

The county agreed to send 27 employees back to work. Six others have been reinstated after winning arbitration hearings.

The process has been even more wrenching for county worker Terry McCaffery.

Twice since January, McCaffery has been laid off from her position as an office specialist at the registrar of voters office. Twice she's been brought back, the second time after agreeing to a demotion and a pay cut.

Now, McCaffery says, she's grateful to have a job but finds it hard not to worry about when the next cut will come, the one she fears might send her out the door for the last time.

"It's very, very stressful for all of us who are left," said McCaffery, who has nearly eight years' tenure with the county. "It's terrible at work right now."

Whenever one employee is reinstated, another who survived the initial layoffs risks losing his job. County officials say they are unsure how many workers have been "bumped" as the result of senior workers taking their jobs back. Workers say that, while the continuing process may have made matters more equitable, it has also spread the trauma through additional households.

McCaffery's layoff saga began Jan. 4, when she was among about a dozen employees given two weeks' notice.

"The first time, it was very painful," she said. "I really couldn't discuss it with anyone. I was totally embarrassed and couldn't handle it and just walked out."

Uncomfortable at the idea of returning to the office, she took two weeks' sick leave. On Jan. 20, she got a call from her supervisor asking her to return to work the following Monday. The next day, she was laid off again.

On Feb. 10, McCaffery's supervisor called once more, offering to take her back if she agreed to a demotion, from office specialist to office assistant, and a drop in pay.

McCaffery hesitated. "I asked her if I could think about it, and she said she had to know by Tuesday. I got off the phone and said, 'Who in the heck am I kidding? I need a job.' "

The employees who returned to work joined their co-workers on less than even footing. They lost wages and benefits that would have built up if they had stayed on the payroll, and they were forced to pick up the tab for their own medical insurance.

They also returned with wounded pride.

"It was really, really trying that first day, just putting one foot in front of the other," Sharpless recalled. "I felt like I was the one who was selected to go, and now they're forced to take me back."

Times staff writer Rebecca Trounson contributed to this report.

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