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The End of Their Rope

Their ranks growing, the Southland's unemployed struggle to fend off the wolf at the door.

November 16, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Miguel Mata is jobless for the second time in a year. When the 33-year-old father of three lost his job as banquet server at a hotel near LAX, he suddenly couldn't pay the $575 rent or buy food. He lost his health insurance and managed to survive with the help of food stamps, union aid and the generosity of friends. "I looked everywhere, did everything--but business was bad and no one was hiring," says the tall, burly Mata, who is proud that he has always been able to support his family comfortably.

Finally he was hired by a fast-food restaurant at the American Airlines terminal. His health insurance was reinstated, the loans and bills were being paid and the Matas were starting to catch up.

But on Sept. 11, that restaurant closed and he was jobless again. The health insurance is gone, and Mata is looking for work. He can't borrow from family or friends this time because "most of them worked at the airport and have also lost their jobs. No one has money now," says the Inglewood resident.

In a region as economically diverse as Southern California, the widening ranks of the unemployed are easily camouflaged. The roads are still packed with shiny SUVs, the malls still draw bargain hunters and there is no sudden surge of homeless people on the streets.

Some well-heeled residents believe the downturn is exaggerated. "I see no signs of it in my neighborhood. Everyone on my street is still gainfully employed," says Sandra Rubin of Simi Valley, an investment brokerage employee.

Sadly, the unemployed remain faceless, their individual tales of suffering and perseverance lost in the statistics: California's unemployment rose to a three-year high of 5.7% in October. L.A. County's rate was higher, at 5.9%. The job losses occurred mostly in manufacturing, travel-related industries, film production and other services.

Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the economy had been sputtering, but the slowdown in California mostly affected better-off, middle-income workers in high-tech. Now the unemployment ranks are swelling with workers from a variety of fields.

One respected L.A. publicist, who does not want her name used, said, "I've had my company since 1985, and never before have I worried where the next month's money will come from. But I feel that way now."

At Jerry's Deli in Beverly Hills, manager Warren Pepper says he's confronted daily by job seekers who are "not your usual unemployed actors looking for work. They're professional types, like from the record companies or investment firms. Not what I'd expect to hire as hosts or cashiers. They say they'll take anything to pay the bills and tide them over until things get back to normal again."

For many who have lost their jobs, the terrorist attacks blurred the line between survivable downturn and disaster.

Until September, Celia Talavera and her husband "were doing OK," supporting their four children and paying the $1,780 mortgage on their Inglewood home. Then she lost her job as a housekeeper at Loew's hotel in Santa Monica, and her husband was laid off from an LAX courier company.

Pulling an overdue mortgage payment notice from her purse the other day, she held back tears as she explained that she earned $300 in September and $100 in October, and her husband has been unable to get work. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union has helped her family survive so far, she says, but she is increasingly depressed.

"There's no way we can pay for food, clothing, utilities, let alone Christmas for the kids," she says.

Christmas also looks bleak for Carmen Carmichael's two children, ages 11 and 4. The single mother recently lost her job as an administrative assistant at AT&T Broadband because of cutbacks. Now she's a regular visitor at the South Bay One Stop employment center, where she uses the phones, faxes and printers to "blanket the city with job applications. My unemployment just covers the rent, and even that is about to run out. I can't imagine what will happen if I don't find work soon."

*

Marquetta Bush knows what could happen. She was laid off in February after five years as a programmer at a medical software firm near her hometown of Niagara Falls, New York. When that company's business went bad, she says she looked at her options, saw a big high-tech industry in California and decided to move West.

She's been looking for work since June 7, when she was laid off from an Irvine software company where she thought her new job was secure. "I should have another job by now," she says, furious that she hasn't even been hired for the low-level data entry jobs she's applied for out of desperation. "They have too many applicants to even acknowledge my resume," she said recently, as she searched the Internet job listings at the Santa Monica Employee Development Department.

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