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A room full of workers, and very little work

February 01, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

I'm in a room you don't ever want to have to visit, a claustrophobic space on Sherman Way in Van Nuys.

You come to an office like this -- Los Angeles has 17 of them -- after getting a tap on the shoulder, a pink slip and a box for your belongings. They call it an employment office, because calling it what it really is -- an unemployment office -- might be more than its visitors could handle.

It's Wednesday afternoon and every one of the 23 computers is in use, 46 tired eyeballs scanning job listings.

Now it's Thursday morning. Same place, another full house.

Four people are waiting in line to use one of the telephones with a direct link to the state Employment Development Department, where you can file for unemployment benefits. But the callers have the look of torture victims, because they're on hold for as long as an hour. The state unemployment rate is 9.3%, closer to 10% in Los Angeles, and the lines are jammed in Sacramento.

"When we get to the office at 8 in the morning," says Van Nuys office manager Cindy Swaisgood, "there's a line at the door."

The customers are from all over the San Fernando Valley and beyond, filing into this storefront office called WorkSource, a government-funded placement and training center. The traffic is up at least 30%, says a manager named Marcos Serpas, who is still getting used to the daily surge of hard luck.

Here comes Johnny Leon, 41, an electrician who got scaled back to three days a week in October and then was sacked this month.

Here's Bill Bliss, 54, laid off last June after 26 years as an information technician with Rocketdyne, and still unemployed despite nearly daily visits to the job center and an estimated 200 applications.

Here's Mary Butchkavitz, 57, laid off from a thrift shop, of all places, and giving it her all as she takes a computerized typing test to see if she's qualified for an office job somewhere.

"The schoolhouse stood in a lonely but rather pleasant situation," Butchkavitz types, with the speed meter clocking her at 47 words per minute as she taps out the story of Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Fast enough to land a job?

She's been unemployed since 2007.

As I wander a room full of people who appear diligent and capable -- and desperate, as well -- it's hard not to imagine myself among them.

I feel for the first time in my life that most of us are one piece of bad news away from the abyss. As I write this, another round of layoffs is being announced by my employer, and a cloud that never moves too far away has darkened another day.

I'm no economist, but it strikes me that this recession is a painful but necessary adjustment in an economy that was too big on borrowing and buying, and too weak on saving and manufacturing. One of the managers at WorkSource, Sandra Rosete, backs me up.

"People wanted something they couldn't afford," she says, including 3,500-square-foot houses, colossal vehicles, flat-screens the size of billboards and cellphones that did everything but tuck their children into bed. And credit card companies and irresponsible lenders were all too happy to feed the frenzy, she adds.

The best bet now, Rosete advises, is to shoot for something in education or healthcare, both fields still relatively strong.

"Looking for a job is an eight-hour job," she says. It's not uncommon for hundreds of people to apply for a single job listing at WorkSource.

None of this is very reassuring to Leon, the electrician, who's got one slow finger wandering the computer keyboard. He never figured he'd need typing skills to look for work installing circuit breakers, but he's determined.

"If you don't look, the job's not going to come knocking at your door," he says.

With help from Serpas, he fills out an electronic resume, saying he has "over 10 yrs exp in all electrical fields."

Once he gets into the system, he finds a job listing that asks for a "company-oriented attitude" and two years of trade school. Leon's got the attitude, but not the trade school credentials. He's just enrolled in a two-year course, and hopes to work part time while going to school.

"I'll do anything but fast food," he says.

"In-N-Out pays pretty good," says Serpas.

Kris Jergenson tells me he just got whacked by Target and hopes to find another retail job. Lydia Verlinsky says she's done virtually every kind of job and will take just about anything. Beatrice Castro says she was one of three people laid off at a small consulting firm, and the executive assistant is now one month and 100 job applications into her search for a second chance.

I ask a woman seated at a computer what her story is, and she says:

"Do you have any tissue?"

A 66-year-old man tells me he worked at slightly above minimum wage for a curtain company that relocated to China and Mexico for cheaper labor. A balding man in blue work clothes pauses at an information rack and picks up a flier for "FREE Foreclosure Counseling."

Serpas shows me a 2-inch-thick clump of registration cards from the most recent walk-ins. The cards list the last job they held.

Construction. Sales. Animal hospital receptionist. Wal-Mart clerk. Waiter. Telemarketer. Managing director. Sales manager at Nissan. Warehouseman. Cook. Marketing coordinator. Archaeologist. Cable contractor. Information technology administrator. Cashier.

Valentine Ruiz, 52, got laid off two months ago from his job as a logistics coordinator. Since then, he's spent so much time in this office looking for work and helping a growing stream of clients figure out the job-search system that he came up with a terrific idea.

"I applied for a job here," he says, telling me he's waiting to hear.

Now there's a man who knows a growth industry when he sees one.

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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