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Coping Without Jobs--or Answers : Layoffs: They're as different as the positions they held, but many now share similar concerns.


A systems analyst reborn as Mr. Mom. A former janitor and single mother searching desperately for work. A onetime research analyst who cries in her sleep. A 69-year-old clerical worker who wonders how long she can pay her mortgage.

These people--Paul Sheridan, Lap Doan, Renee Schulte and Lena Gniadek--are but a few of the scores of employees recently laid off by Orange County, a government serving an area so affluent that its financial woes still seem almost unbelievable.

With the news that 1,040 other county workers will soon become the latest victims of Orange County's bankruptcy, those in the first round of layoffs suffered again, only too aware of the hardships their former colleagues will face.

"When I heard about the . . . new layoffs, I just started crying," said Diane Bouchard, a county property agent laid off in January. "I just can't bear to think of other people going through what I've gone through."

Those laid off between December and March have little in common except their former employer. They are white, black, Latino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Iranian. They include 25-year-olds whose county employment represented their first post-college jobs and workers past 60 who had hoped to hang on until retirement. They are custodians and clerks, analysts and planners, social workers and psychologists.

Their circumstances are as varied as the positions they lost. But in interviews in the past two weeks with more than 50 laid-off county employees, a picture emerges of the human toll exacted already by the county's extraordinary plunge into bankruptcy.

Weeks after their layoffs, many former county workers are struggling to meet house and credit card payments, enduring discouraging job hunts and facing constant worry: that they'll lose their homes, be unable to pay for medical care or snap once too often at their already bewildered children.

They now know the pain that thousands of private sector workers in Southern California have learned through hard years of recession--pain these government workers expected to avoid. With civil service jobs, the deal was supposed to be that you exchanged high salaries and, perhaps, some opportunities for job security.

But the deal has been broken, and the impact is spreading, slowly, certainly, throughout the county.

Baby-sitters and gardeners are being let go. Optional spending for movies, dry-cleaning, new clothes and cable TV have been cut by many laid-off workers, sometimes along with more critical expenditures such as doctor visits and child-support payments. And one 17-year-old daughter has been told that her dreams of college are on hold.

"She's absolutely devastated, and I can't blame her," said Bill Grey, a laid-off senior projects manager. "She's trying very hard to understand."

The layoff victims say they too are trying to understand.

How, several asked, could they be the ones laid off, often after years of good performance reviews? Why are they losing their jobs, when they had nothing to do with the county's financial collapse? And why, many ask, were their dismissals handled so coldly, so impersonally, after years of service?

Helena Clift, 66, a former clerk/typist for the Health Care Agency, still finds it painful to discuss her Jan. 24 layoff.

"The supervisor stood over me as I cleaned out my desk. She even said, 'Don't forget to give us the coffee club money!' " said Clift, who now hopes to supplement her unemployment checks by selling Easter hats and afghans she knits.

An eight-year county employee, Clift said she was told upon her dismissal "not to speak to anyone, just get out. It was like I was a criminal."

A few, like Gail B. Mowry, a personal services coordinator in the personnel department, said their layoffs were handled with compassion by superiors who notified them privately and stressed that the terminations had nothing to do with their performance.

Some wondered if there was any way for supervisors to handle such a thankless task well. Given the extent of the county's travails and the number of layoffs to be made, they said, their dismissals were accomplished as humanely as could be expected.

More common, however, were complaints of insensitive treatment. Computers were shut down--and passwords changed--before the employees who operated them knew what was happening. Plainclothes deputies stood nearby in case of trouble. And no one said, "I'm sorry."

The behavior of some bosses, these employees said, was demoralizing, dehumanizing, intimidating or, simply, cold.

"I just wish these people could walk in my shoes, just one time in their lives, and know what they did to me," said Gniadek, a former office specialist in the registrar of voters office. "Just one time."

If they did, they would feel the shock and anxiety of a 69-year-old woman who has lost her job and says she has no idea how she will make her monthly mortgage, let alone escape the burden of debt she has carried since her husband's death two years ago.

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