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As Labor Day nears, workers are just thankful to have a job

September 06, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

Like people trapped in an abusive relationship, we've grown accustomed during this long recession to being at the mercy of our employers, yet at the same time being deeply grateful to be employed by them.

At least that was the sense I got chatting with several dozen working people at various locations around Los Angeles as Labor Day approached.

L.A. resident Edmond Simnegar, 24, works for a company that handles MRIs, X-rays and other medical images. He's been there for about a year and a half.

The company, Simnegar told me, doesn't pay him what he's worth, covers only half his medical insurance costs and offers no dental benefit or 401(k) plan.

"What can I do?" he asked. "I can't leave because of the economy. I'll take whatever they'll give me."

And like most people I spoke with, Simnegar is thankful to have a job at a time when so many others don't.

"I'm not making as much money as I'd like," said L.A. resident Jeremy Gruber, 22, who works for a sports consulting firm. "But I'm just glad to have something. All my buddies from college are unemployed."

Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a Sacramento think tank, says such sentiment has become typical among workers. In many cases, this is the worst downturn they've experienced in their lives.

"It's very scary," Ross said. "It really hits home when you realize that 1 out of every 9 or 10 people you pass on the sidewalk may not have a job."

In fact, the California Budget Project says in a new report that a smaller share of Californians is working today than at any point since the late 1970s.

Factoring in those who have given up looking for a job -- who aren't included in official unemployment numbers -- about 2 of every 5 adults were jobless as of July.

California's unemployment has more than doubled over the last two years, hitting a record 11.9% in July. On Friday, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the national unemployment rate hit a 26-year high of 9.7% in August.

The effect of such statistics touches everyone in the economic food chain.

Jonathan Hannaford, 40, says he's a disabled veteran and can't hold a regular job. He also says that after going through some "personal stuff," he decided "to find out what's really important in life."

The upshot is that he's homeless and spends his days rummaging through West L.A. garbage cans in search of recyclable bottles and cans.

In the past, Hannaford told me, he could pull down as much as $150 a week if he really hustled. These days, he's lucky to make half that amount.

"People are losing their jobs," Hannaford said ruefully as his fingers explored the depths of a trash bin outside a convenience store. "They stop buying stuff. That trickles down to everyone else."

Even people who have every reason to feel secure, or as secure as anyone can feel at such a time, express gratitude to be pulling down a steady paycheck.

Long Beach resident Jim Yonce, 55, has worked for 28 years as an elevator repairman.

"It's very specialized," he said. "The longer you work, the more on-the-job experience and knowledge you get."

And even though there isn't exactly a line of people outside his employer's office trying to get in on the ground floor (sorry) of the business, Yonce says he's mindful of how fortunate he is.

"I've got an ex-wife I'm paying for," he said. "I've already lost half my retirement. I'm glad to be working."

Similarly, Burbank resident Albert Akopyan, 57, has been driving a cab for a dozen years.

"I'm only making half as much as I was making a year ago," Akopyan said. "But at least I have a job."

What he doesn't have is health insurance.

"I don't get it from my company, and I don't make enough to buy insurance," Akopyan said. "I'm trying not to get sick."

This is one of the more troubling aspects of the recession. As more workers become accustomed to settling for less from employers, employers in turn are growing accustomed to handing out less in pay and benefits.

Premiums for employer-sponsored health coverage have more than doubled since 1999, and a growing number of workers now face annual deductibles of at least $1,000, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In other words, many employees are paying more for less coverage. And many others are trying to get by without any health insurance at all.

West Hollywood resident Jonathan Tam, 31, joined a small law firm about a year ago. Like just about everyone else I spoke with, he thanks his lucky stars to be working.

"A lot of my friends are having a tough time," Tam said.

But his firm doesn't offer a health plan.

Tam is trying to be upbeat. "I'm waiting on Obama," he said.

L.A. resident Burke Stout, 29, a clothing store manager, is also trying to remain optimistic, even though his employer recently eliminated the employee discount for purchases along with other perks that in a stronger economy were meant to keep workers from going elsewhere.

"One thing I've learned is that when it's good times, the company isn't your best friend," he said. "And when it's bad times, they're also not your best friend."

Maywood resident Damacio Salazar, 36, is a construction worker. He's watched his paycheck decline as his hours have dwindled.

"When I started with this company, we worked 13, 14 hours a day," Salazar said. "Now maybe it's eight."

He thought about that for a moment.

"At least I have a job," Salazar decided as he pulled away in his truck. "I feel lucky."

He, like so many of us, will take what he can get.

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David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays.

Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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latimes.com/lazarus/labor

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