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Orange County

O.C. Welfare Requests Up Sharply

Jobs: The sagging economy and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have hit assistance programs hard, officials say.

November 24, 2001|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Until September, Olga Diaz believed her days of earning barely enough money to feed her children finally might be over.

The 31-year-old mother of two had successfully trained under the CalWORKS welfare-to-work program to be a restaurant cashier, a job she held for two years and that enabled her to buy food and rent a $850-a-month, two-bedroom apartment in Garden Grove.

Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast, which sent the sagging economy into a nose dive.

The restaurant cut Diaz's hours, and she was back on welfare and back into job training.

This time, Diaz has turned in her cashier's uniform for a hard hat--and is learning to be a road surveyor for a job in public works. Diaz remains optimistic despite the setback, and she is hopeful that when she completes her training in December she will land a full-time job.

"I liked working with people when I had the cashier's job," Diaz said. "But I realize this new job training is something I have to do because I have to hold on to this for me and my kids."

The poor economy and the Sept. 11 attacks have hit Orange County's welfare programs with a one-two punch: graduates of the welfare-to-work program who had been placed in low-rung jobs at area restaurants and hotels were among the first to be laid off or have their hours reduced.

Applications for county welfare assistance--including CalWORKS, Medi-Cal and food stamps--have spiked, increasing an average of 10% in September compared with a year ago, according to Orange County social service officials.

"Our CalWORKS applications are rising and the very industries taking hits--tourism, hospitality, culinary and light manufacturing--are the places where we've been providing job training and placement," said Angelo Doti, Orange County's welfare director.

In October, there were 2,114 CalWORKS applications in the county, a significant jump from 1,781 the month before, he said.

The increased demand for assistance started before Sept. 11, however.

From July through September, a monthly average of 1,926 people applied to CalWORKS--compared with an average of 1,607 during the same months last year.

But the terrorist attacks proved to be crippling blow to an already ailing economy. The unprecedented stoppage of all airport traffic had a devastating effect on the airline industry and hotels, restaurants, resorts and other businesses that depend on tourists and business travelers.

At least one in three unionized hotel workers--or about 100,000 employees nationwide have lost their jobs since Sept. 11, and many more are working fewer hours than usual, according to national union officials.

Anaheim's resort industry has been hit hard, forcing job cuts affecting maids, busboys and dishwashers, said Ada Torres, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 681 in Anaheim.

Of the union's 7,000 members, about 3% have lost their jobs. Hundreds more have kept their jobs but had their hours substantially reduced, Torres said.

So far, the union has agreed to continue providing insurance benefits to members who fall below the minimum 70 hours a month needed to stay eligible.

But, Torres said, "come late December and January, if there is no economic turnaround, we're in trouble."

This month, the union handed out Thanksgiving food baskets and has begun a Christmas holiday drive, accepting contributions of toys, food and money for its members.

As for Diaz, she is excited about her second round of welfare-to-work job training. The program offers a variety of classroom instruction, ranging from the use of surveying instruments to the need for safety gear.

It's part of a seven-week program at the One Stop center on Main Street in Garden Grove's Old Town, a job-training facility. The center is operated by the Orange County Workforce Investment Board, which runs four One Stop centers in the county.

"It's different but I'm learning a lot," she said, including how to describe and survey streets, curbs and gutters.

"Look at that street over there," she said one recent day, pointing to an intersection. "Now I can almost know the width of a street by just looking at it, and that's about 25 feet at the most."

She has always been an eager learner and classmates enjoy working with her, said Lilly Rodriguez, the job center's project coordinator. And it offers hope of a brighter future.

Diaz said she dropped out of high school after she became pregnant. She first lived with a boyfriend for eight years in southwest Los Angeles, and then with her parents.

She has taken a variety of jobs, including assembly work, binding books at a printing company and also as a keno runner for a Reno casino, she said.

As a working mother, she never had the time or energy to continue her education and earn a general equivalency diploma. Now she needed the help of CalWORKS.

"After September, they reduced my hours at the restaurant to only 24 hours a week. I wasn't earning enough," she said.

CalWORKS provides child-care help and transportation while she earns $8 an hour as a trainee at One Stop.

For several weeks, Diaz has risen before dawn to be at the Garden Grove public works yard by 6 a.m. The city partners with One Stop and allows its trainees to work with city employees. She has found the schedule comfortable for a mom with two girls, Jezebel, 5, and Ericka, 15.

"It's an early shift and I can be home at 2 p.m. at the latest and be there when my babies come home from school."

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