Laid off from a bank during the early-1990s recession, Pasadena real estate appraiser James Lyons latched on to a state government job and held on tight.
His post with the Office of Emergency Services provided a steady paycheck, good medical benefits, the prospect of a tidy pension and the knowledge that government payrolls generally move in only one direction -- up.
"The most attractive thing was the job security," said Lyons, 54, who earns $49,000 a year providing disaster assistance to homeowners and businesses. "You're more insulated from the boom and bust."
No longer. Lyons is slated for layoff this month, part of a decline in government payrolls that has public servants making a rare appearance in the unemployment line.
Figures from the state Employment Development Department show that California's government sector has shed nearly 28,000 federal, state and local agency jobs since January, a 1.1% drop that was three times faster than that of the overall labor market.
Proponents of smaller government say it's high time that these workers take their lumps along with the rest of California, where more than 1 million people are unemployed.
But in the short run, analysts say, the cutbacks in government hiring triggered by the state's $38-billion budget gap will be one more drag -- and a potentially big one at that -- on California's struggling economy.
Love it or hate it, the public sector is a huge economic engine in the Golden State, employing more than one in six California workers in jobs that tend to pay much better than average wages.
Government employees in California average $950 a week, compared with $753 for workers across all industries.
The loss of more good-paying jobs will hamper California's income and spending growth, which have suffered disproportionately from the meltdown in Silicon Valley.
Take Mike Ibold. Recently laid off from his job as a librarian with the state Office of Administrative Law, he has deferred his dream of homeownership. The 57-year-old says he'll sit tight in his Sacramento apartment and keep a lid on spending.
Such consumer restraint will ripple through the economy, to restaurants, shops and even thrift stores.
In San Francisco, where as many as 350 city workers might lose their jobs and the rest have agreed to $80 million in salary cuts, Goodwill Industries already has seen a noticeable drop in traffic at the retail outlet near City Hall.
"Many of the government workers that used to shop there aren't coming around anymore," said Mary Edington, president of Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties. "We've held 50%-off sales and $2 promotion days, but people are watching their pennies."
Eroding Job Protections
Historically, government employment has been one of California's most dependable employment sectors, typically growing more slowly than the private sector in boom times but rarely shrinking, in part because services such as education, health care and public safety keep expanding along with the population.
Civil service unions also have proved adept at preserving jobs for their members.
That stability has been evident in the last couple of years, when government was among the few sources of job creation in the state, helping to prop up the labor market after steep declines in high technology and manufacturing. Most of that growth came at the local level, particularly in public education.
Now the emphasis has shifted to firing, not hiring, as communities struggle to plug their budget holes.
Other states are grappling with similar problems. But the public-sector slowdown will hit California harder because it is slightly more dependent on government employment than the nation as a whole and its budget gap is by far the country's largest, said Mark Zandi, chief economist with research firm Economy.com. He estimates that cuts in government jobs and programs will trim as much as $6 billion from California's economic output this year and $13 billion next year, slowing the state's recovery.
States such as California "rely on government to be a source of stability when times are tough," Zandi said. They "can't look to government this time around."
California's government job cuts have been minuscule compared with the losses in the private sector, which shed nearly 300,000 positions at the depths of the downturn in 2001 and 2002.
And so far, officials have trimmed payrolls mostly through attrition, early retirements, hiring freezes and the elimination of vacant positions.
But with a new fiscal year just begun and California's budget picture looking bleak, agencies are sharpening the layoff ax.
Most of the pain will be felt by local governments, which account for 70% of public-sector employment in California. Schoolteachers have gotten pink slips in San Diego. County doctors are getting their walking papers in Los Angeles. City auto mechanic jobs are on the chopping block in Oakland.
Shock and Disbelief