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California unemployment rate reaches 11.2%

The state lost lost 62,100 jobs in March, half the number from February. The number of people who have been out of work for nearly a year has doubled in 12 months, to 211,000.

April 18, 2009|Marc Lifsher and Ronald D. White

SACRAMENTO AND LOS ANGELES — Unemployment in California shot to 11.2% in March, the highest level since the state began keeping records. What's more, the number of people out of work for almost a year rose by 9.4%, and has now doubled in the last 12 months.

Carpenter Luiz Vasquez knows the frustration all too well. In the last year, he said, he worked only two weeks.

"I go through town, and I do not hear the sound of work," said Vasquez, 40, who is seeking help through a Chrysalis job center in Santa Monica. "I do not hear a single hammer strike."

The state's economy has been particularly hard on construction workers like Vasquez. The downturn started in housing and has spread to retailing, international trade, finance and nearly every other sector.

An average of 211,000 Californians have been unemployed for more than 47 weeks over the last year, the state reported. These people now account for about 14% of California's approximately 1.5 million jobless.

The plight of the long-term unemployed such as Vasquez is characteristic of the deepening recession that has gripped the global economy and the Golden State since at least December 2007.

"This recession has features of a depression," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Santa Barbara. "We get these very long-time people being out of work. They sort of disappear to a never-never land."

California lost 62,100 jobs in March, state officials reported Friday. In all, 637,400 jobs have disappeared in the last year and a total of 727,700 since the economy peaked in July 2007.

Despite the gloom, last month's loss was much smaller than the 114,000 posted in February, said Howard Roth, chief economist at the California Department of Finance.

"We're losing jobs at a slower rate. That's sort of the first step" toward recovery, he said.

The state has been scrambling to assist the unemployed with mixed success. The California unemployment insurance fund is insolvent and being bailed out with billions of dollars in federal money. The Employment Development Department's obsolete computer system and telephone call centers are swamped with hundreds of thousands of claims.

On Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an emergency proclamation designed to speed the hiring of 150 staffers to help ease the logjam.

California's unemployment rate remains stubbornly above the nationwide rate of 8.5% for March. Unemployment in much of Southern California is even higher. Los Angeles County reported 11.4%, Riverside 13.2%, San Bernardino 12.5% and Ventura 9.6%. Even Orange County, which historically has low unemployment, reached 8.5% in March.

Economists expect unemployment rates to continue rising at least through the summer even if the state and national economies begin to turn around as a result of President Obama's stimulus program.

The aid from Washington includes more than $3 billion to provide the long-term unemployed with as much as 53 extra weeks of benefits or a total of up to 79 weeks of assistance. The federal funds also will pay for computer and phone upgrades and the hiring of new claims handlers.

The money threw an immediate lifeline to 76,000 jobless, whose benefits were scheduled to run out this month. By the end of the year, an estimated 394,000 would be eligible for the extra help.

But even with benefits, months and months of fruitlessly searching for a job takes its toll on a worker's sense of self worth and productivity, said Alex Gerwer, 53, of San Diego. The former strategic business planner said he had a worldwide network of contacts to tap in searching for a position like the one he lost in March 2008.

"My clinical and technical background should be very important, but it's almost like I can't give it away," he said. "That has been very frustrating."

Gerwer said he had "sent out well over 1,000 copies of my resume in a targeted and personalized fashion."

The dearth of jobs in all sectors of the economy, from Gerwer's high-tech consulting to Vasquez's low-tech drywall hanging is more severe in California than in most of the country because of the state's "greater exposure to the housing downturn and related job losses in construction and finance," said Stephen Levy, chief economist at the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.

In addition, California's population continues to grow, and that often worsens the job picture, he said. Many of these new Californians arrive in search of jobs and become "instantly unemployed" when they can't find work because employers are shedding jobs, not creating them, Levy said.

Writer Lawrence Kootinkoff, of West Los Angeles, who has been without a job since 2005, said he still looks for work nearly every day, when he's not caring for two young children.

"I wanted a job in news, but everyone I talked to was either laying people off or not hiring," said the 47-year-old former foreign correspondent. "I was over-qualified. I had too much experience. I was too expensive. If I was 20 years younger, I might have had a better shot."

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

ron.white@latimes.com

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