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California's unemployment rate shrinks - but so do the number of jobs

The rate falls slightly to 12.3% last month from 12.5% in October, but only because thousands of discouraged workers have left the labor force or even moved out of state.

December 19, 2009|By Alana Semuels
  • Juan Martinez, 61, who lost his job at a senior assistance center four months ago, in the room he rents in South Los Angeles. "The only thing I want is to have the opportunity for a job so I can live," he said in Spanish.
Juan Martinez, 61, who lost his job at a senior assistance center four months… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

California's employment misery continued in November, as employers sliced 10,200 more workers from their payrolls.

The statewide unemployment rate fell slightly to 12.3% last month from 12.5% in October, according to figures released Friday by the Employment Development Department, but only because thousands of discouraged workers have left the labor force or even moved out of state.

In some areas of California, including depressed urban neighborhoods in Los Angeles, 1 in 5 people in the labor force is out of work. The fallout from prolonged unemployment is pounding those regions as businesses close, homes tumble into foreclosure and frustration mounts.

In Los Angeles County, where unemployment fell to 12.4% in November from 12.7% in October, South Los Angeles areas such as Florence-Graham and Westmont and cities such as Compton are still posting unemployment rates over 20%.

Elsewhere in the state, some parts of Kings, Fresno and Imperial counties are experiencing unemployment rates that top 30%.

In South Los Angeles, many of the jobless were employed in construction, trade or manufacturing, which will recover slowly if they ever do, said Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University.

Even as jobs are created in healthcare, private education and technology, many blue-collar workers will lack the training and skills needed to qualify for these positions, he said.

"The prospects for people who do not have levels of skill and training is going to be extremely dim," Adibi said.

Desperation reigns in some areas of South Los Angeles, where the slightest prospect of employment can draw crowds. On a recent afternoon, dozens of people were lined up outside the offices of Providian Staffing on Florence Avenue, lured by a sign on the street that said "Free Jobs." They stood quietly, speaking to one another in Spanish and waiting for the line to move as tinny Christmas music played from a nearby store.

Several, such as 30-year-old Alfonso Duarte, said they had applied for dozens of jobs but had gotten no response. The former forklift operator, who has three children, was laid off a year ago. His car was impounded on Thanksgiving Day. He's separating from the mother of his children. And he barely has enough cash to pay for Christmas presents.

"I'll do anything, as long as it has my name on the paycheck," Duarte said.

The unemployment rate in this neighborhood, Florence-Graham, was 22.7% in November, according to the Employment Development Department. This historically African American area has been struggling economically for decades, said Manuel Pastor, director of the program for environmental and regional equity at USC.

"It's pretty clear that South L.A. has been hard-hit, but it's hard-hit on a landscape that was already hard-hit," Pastor said.

In the 1980s, a slew of the area's factories relocated to lower-cost states or overseas. That deindustrialization was accompanied by the rise of the crack trade. Many of the people now looking for work have been through the criminal justice system, Pastor said, making it even tougher for them to find employment.

Schools in the region often don't adequately position students for employment, he said. African Americans in the neighborhood have to battle discrimination in applying for work, as well as compete with newly arrived Latinos for scarce jobs. Areas such as Watts and Compton are now majority Latino, he said.

That can be a disadvantage to African Americans who aren't plugged into the tight networks many immigrants use to find employment, Pastor said. The national unemployment rate for African Americans in November was 15.6%, nearly double that of whites.

Although the city of Los Angeles has tried to create jobs in the region for African Americans, those efforts so far have borne little fruit, according to Dwayne Gathers, a consultant and former regional manager for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

"Unfortunately, in parts of South and Southeast L.A., we have a large number of poorly skilled and semiskilled labor that's somewhat mismatched with the type of jobs we want to bring into the area," Gathers said.

That means it could be a long slog for people like 49-year-old Larry Stewart, an African American who worked in shipping until he was laid off recently. He uses computers at the library to hunt for work online, so far without success.

"Everywhere you go," he said, "people are talking about not having a job."

All those vanishing paychecks are being felt around the neighborhood.

Sandra Escarzaja, a manager at a pawnshop named Jack's Jewelry, said more customers were hocking trinkets. At the Western Union store on Florence Avenue, workers are sending about half as much money to Mexico as they did a year ago, manager Brenda Colin said.

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