Given the pink slip

The economic downturn hits Chico’s own, and it hurts

RÉSUMÉ ON THE READY Marc Robillard is even willing to compromise his style to land a new job. “I’d be more than happy to cut my hair. … I feel like I have to go the extra mile to impress people because of the way I look.”

RÉSUMÉ ON THE READY Marc Robillard is even willing to compromise his style to land a new job. “I’d be more than happy to cut my hair. … I feel like I have to go the extra mile to impress people because of the way I look.”

photo by Tom Angel

Where we work:

The companies that employ the greatest number of people in Chico include: Chico State University, Enloe Health System, Butte Community College, the Chico Unified School District, the city of Chico, Aero Union Corporation, Bi-Tech Software, Lifetouch National School Studios, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Smucker Quality Beverages, the Chico Enterprise-Record, Costco, Ed Wittmeier Auto Center, Blue Shield, Gottschalks, Home Depot, Koret of California, Lowes, Pacific Bell, PG&E, Raley’s, Safeway, Tri Counties Bank, United Health Care and WinCo.

Katy Thoma, the director of the Jesus Center, sees the effects of layoffs face to face. Her “business” mirrors the economy. When joblessness goes up, so does the number of people seeking sustenance at the nonprofit Chico soup kitchen.When Fleetwood Motor Homes moved its 17-year-old Chico operations south in February 2001, it left 345 workers jobless. About two months later, Thoma said, newly hungry families started showing up.

“We asked,” Thoma said, where these newcomers came from. Many had been laid off. “You can see their level of discomfort in being in need, and the issues of pride.”

The effects are not always that overt, but for families that have little in the way of a financial safety net, being laid off from one’s job can spell the end of the world as they know it.

The laid-off are part of a growing club of which nobody wants to be a member. The economy had been strong since the last slump, around 1992-93, and the state’s unemployment rate got as low as 4.9 percent in early 2000. In Butte County, it averaged 7 percent that year, a big change from the nearly 12-percent unemployment rate in the early 1990s. But in mid-2000, with Silicon Valley-type technology jobs blazing the way downward, the economy started taking a dive.

Welcome back to lean times. While it’s hard to gauge exactly how many jobs have been lost (because the rates rise and fall due to seasonal employment), it’s certain “the unemployment rate is going to be up,” said Brandy Daniel, an analyst at the local office of the state’s Economic Development Department (EDD).

Because the North Valley is removed from the travel hubs that depend on the tourism industry, “we’re not going to see as much fallout” economically from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Daniel said. “What we’re not immune to is the economy in general.”

In December 2001, the EDD recorded that, of a labor force of 89,100 people in Butte County, 6,400 job seekers—7.2 percent—were out of work. “We’ve had quite a significant number of layoffs in the last year,” said Daniel, who predicts unemployment will continue to rise even as new big-box retailers set up shop here and offset some of the layoffs.

In recent weeks, the Chico News & Review ran an ad asking people to contact the paper with their layoff stories, whether they’d been laid off or were a company’s bearer of bad news. (No one from the latter group took us up on that.)

The people we interviewed came from both big and small companies and earned a little or a lot by Chico standards. Some have advanced through the ranks sans college degree and are now finding that a diploma they never needed before is suddenly what stands between them and the lifestyle they have grown used to. (The average wage for, say, a retail salesperson in Chico is $7.69 an hour.) Some bounced back, quickly landing new jobs. Others held off on applying for unemployment benefits, which went up $100 a month at the start of 2002. The adage that people should keep three months’ pay socked away proved painfully laughable for many. Some are depressed, others hopeful.

One man, who ended up not wanting his name used, said, “Right now I have a real clean garage.”

Most know the date of their layoff by heart.

For Lance Orner, it was Jan. 4.

In the case of the company he worked for, the fallout from the terrorist attacks did seem to play a role. Alliant Medical Technologies, which makes software used in cancer treatment, was banking on the biggest trade show of the year, in November, when doctors place their orders. Of the 6,000 people registered for the San Francisco show, only 2,000 showed, Orner said. The company lost $500,000 last year and announced last month that it would cut its staff by 25 percent.

“Everyone had been seeing the writing on the wall,” he said. “I knew that I was on the [potential layoff] list.” He got a severance package plus extra money for agreeing not to sue.

Orner had been a software engineer there, making $65,000 a year. At age 30, he has a mortgage, a 22-month-old child and another baby due in May. That means his family can’t switch insurance carriers and will have to pay $800 a month to extend their health benefits. He filed for unemployment immediately.

While it’s been only a few weeks, Orner is confident he’ll find somewhere he can work as a software engineer, even if he has to commute to Sacramento for a while.

“The only request my wife had is, ‘I don’t want to move,'” said Orner, a third-generation Chicoan.

Two years ago, when Orner posted his résumé online, “within hours the phone would start ringing and it wouldn’t stop.” This time, it’s been three weeks, and he’s gotten one call. “There were more jobs than people” a few years ago, and now it’s the other way around, he said, and “in a place like Chico, that’s magnified.”

Janyce Silva had been working at Enloe Medical Center for five years. At age 55, she knew she was near the top of the pay scale for registered nurses, making $23 an hour.

She had heard that the nonprofit was moving toward having fewer of the more-expensive RNs, so she wasn’t too surprised when Enloe offered her and her peers a deal: bow out and get a healthy benefits package and the chance to keep working on a per-diem basis.

Silva got on three or four days a week at Enloe’s Children’s Center, at $18 an hour, but after a couple of years the center pared its RN staff, and Silva’s hours dwindled to about two days a month. She ended up going “from job to job with no stability.” She left a $13-an-hour job with Sutter Health right before the nonprofit pulled out of Chico. Then, she got part-time work with Butte County, but it was only temporary.

“Here I am pushing 60, and how am I going to apply for a job?” Silva said. Fortunately, she had nursing skills, and “I guess I interview well.” She’s now happy having landed a lesser-paying job doing home health care.

The whole experience has made Silva somewhat cynical. Even with her professional credentials in hand she felt undervalued. “I was saying, ‘What is wrong with me?’ Every time I turned around I was applying for another job,” she said. “I used to trust the world, and I don’t like to be cynical, but gosh—you’ve got to watch your back or you’ll get screwed.”

At the worst stretch, she was out of work for six months. “We had to get into our savings account, and when you’re retirement age, that’s not a good thing.”

Paul Gaffney loved his work as a senior technician at Spectra-Physics, which makes semiconductor-based lasers and laser optics in Oroville. He was paid $30 an hour to bring in “thin-film deposition equipment” used in telecommunication devices like DSL lines, make it work properly and then give support to the manufacturing division if there were any problems.

After having worked in the high-tech field since 1980, Gaffney—an easy-going sort who has a bit of a nest egg to tide him over—became a massage therapist, doing that in Sacramento for a while before, in mid-2000, he decided to get back into his former field.

“Spectra-Physics made me the best offer,” he said. “It was good money, even by Silicon Valley standards.”

But when the demand for the components went bust (people didn’t want DSL lines after all), so did Gaffney’s department. He was caught in the wave of layoffs in spring 2001—one of 140 shown the door. Another 50 people were let go in early December.

“At the time, I felt I was a key player, and I had made it through a lot of layoffs at other companies,” Gaffney said. “I thought this was going to be a secure place during a downturn.”

He didn’t get the chance to wait out the economy. The day before the layoff, “everyone knew something was going to happen,” he said. “You could look in the conference room and see them role-playing.”

Since he was one of those considered a “highly trained individual,” Gaffney was given two days of training in looking for a new job. Nine months later, his unemployment has run out, and, Gaffney said, “I’m still looking.” He’s 48.

“I’m certain I will have to relocate,” he said. “What is shaking me a little is simply the depths of this recession and how little hiring is going on.”

“These things happen,” he said.

While Gaffney is stoical about his untimely departure from Spectra-Physics, his former colleague Warren Leathers is not at all satisfied.

“I’m very bitter over it,” he said. “I hold a big grudge.”

MAKING DO Jacquie Winter and her son, 5-year-old Bray, are living with Winter’s parents while she gets on her feet. She is trying to see being laid off as a chance to go back to school and learn a new discipline.

photo by Tom Angel

Leathers’ layoff story starts on the other end of the country.

“They moved me all the way out here from the East Coast,” said Leathers: him, his wife, three teenagers and a pet parrot. Spectra-Physics had recruited him via a corporate “headhunter,” and, after the company flew him and his family out from Massachusetts to see Chico, marketing Butte County as a booming tech Mecca, he accepted a job making $22 an hour as a senior coding executive.

“I was just so focused on getting this job that I didn’t do my homework,” he said.

He had a one-year contract, and that’s about how long he lasted. When he was called into a meeting, he figured it was to talk about the new organizational setup. Instead, “it was like a group execution.”

It was three weeks before Christmas. His wife of 23 years stepped up her hours as a waitress at the Cozy Diner. They cancelled the premium cable channels and a cell phone and may give up one of their cars.

“Considering the sacrifices I had made, they should have found a place for me in the company,” he said. “There’s nothing else I can do out here, and I can’t afford to move back to the East Coast.”

After a lifetime of considering himself highly employable, his options now seem limited, “so, I’m looking at a career change.”

The final insult, Leathers said tightly, was, “I just went down to the welfare office to sign up for MediCal.” He’s diabetic, and rent won out over health insurance.

“It’s a different scene out here in Butte County,” he said. “It’s been a roller-coaster ride, and I got off on the last stop.”

Sean Richardson considers himself fortunate.

In mid-December 2001, he was laid off from his job of three years at United Health Care in Chico. He left with four weeks’ severance pay and letters of recommendation in hand and quickly landed another, better-paying job.

For the corporation, it was a simple business decision: Richardson was a senior telecommunications analyst, handling major call flow. The company decided to do that job from another of its locations, and that meant Richardson was out.

He had gotten a vague e-mail from corporate headquarters mentioning that there would be some “restructuring.” Then, he was called into a manager’s office and given the news.

At 32, and still a year short of a college degree, he had been making $35,420 a year at United Health Care. He liked it there and three months earlier had turned down a job offer elsewhere. When he got his layoff notice, he rushed to call and see if the position was still available. “I definitely got lucky,” he said.

Richardson will have to move his wife and two children—ages 3 and 12—to Rocklin, near Sacramento, for a similar job with Oracle. “There are not any other jobs in Chico,” he said, regretfully, since he and his family like it here.

He has no hard feelings toward his former employer but can’t help wondering why they didn’t try harder to keep him on, even in another position.

Graphic designer Stacie Baragiola knew that moving her family to Chico would mean a cut in pay, so she started looking for jobs early. “I certainly wasn’t going to move up here unless I could find a good-paying job,” she said.

When TFI Corp., which manufactures a material used for countertops, flew her up to interview for a design job in the marketing department, she decided to take it. “I was so excited,” said Baragiola, 31, whose husband soon took a factory position there. “I really put all my eggs in one basket.”

That was three years ago. The couple and their two children, now 6 and 8, came to Chico and bought a house. Recently, with Baragiola earning $33,500 a year—$16 an hour—and feeling “completely, 100 percent secure in my job,” they launched a remodeling project and bought a new car.

Fast-forward to July 2001, when Baragiola and her coworkers were told that the marketing department was being shut down. Baragiola can’t even pay toward her student loans—for the education that was supposed to buy her financial security—let alone credit cards. The children had to give up the city’s after-school program because it cost $100 a month each. “There is no gymnastics anymore,” she said. “It’s going to kill me signing them up for soccer at $75.”

The “brutal reality,” she said, came when she started looking for a new job, even in a different field. “Everyone wants to pay me $8 an hour, which I consider to be beer money for college students,” Baragiola said. “They say, ‘Well, a college student will do it for $7 an hour.'”

Finally, Jiffyprint management heard she was available and snatched her up, but for less than she had been making at TFI.

Baragiola said she’s trying to think positively but can’t help feeling resentful that she’s paid her dues and now she’s in this financial fix. “I didn’t go to college to make the same amount of money I could make flipping burgers,” she said. But, “everyone’s happy and healthy, and that’s all that matters.”

When Marc Robillard moved to Magalia with his girlfriend and their 8-year-old daughter, he soon found a job in the lumber industry, a field in which he had experience. He started working for Meek’s Lumber Co. in July 2000, making $8 an hour.

After his initial sticker shock at Chico wages, Robillard settled into his job. Then, on Oct. 26, 2001, Robillard said, he was called in and told, “I wasn’t the guy to take them to the next level.” (Most people employed by private companies serve “at will,” meaning they can be let go at any time.)

Since technically Robillard had not been laid off, the company normally wouldn’t have to pay toward his unemployment benefits. But when Robillard went to file, he got them—in part because his former employer wouldn’t give the state a reason why Robillard was gone, according to paperwork from the EDD, and then didn’t show up to the Jan. 9 appeal hearing the company had asked for.

Robillard has already cut back by giving up his cell phone and pager, consolidating bills, transferring credit card balances and asking for a deferral on a car loan. “We’re not living extravagantly, but we’re OK,” said Robillard, who prioritizes his daughter’s dance lessons over his long-distance phone desires.

“I’ve been playing Mr. Mom lately,” Robillard said.

But he’s also been slicking back his long hair, covering up his tattoos, taking out his piercings and suiting up for job interviews. The market’s a lot tighter than when he first moved up here, Robillard’s noticed.

“The jobs are out there,” he said. “It just seems like a lot of them want a degree or someone clean cut.”

Robillard checks daily with the EDD, and newspaper want ads. “At this point I’m not giving up,” he said. “And I’m muddling over whether I’m going to go back to school. … I’ve got the drive to pretty much pick up anything at this point.” He used to own his own music production company.

He’s hoping to hold out for a job that pays more than he was making.

"[I must be] worth more than $8 to somebody,” he mused. “I just feel bad that I’m not helping to provide as much as I could.”

Debbie Busch and John Clark each came to town for coveted jobs at Chico State.

Busch was hired four years ago to teach linguistics after a national search that advertised an assistant-professor position in the English Department. She had been on a leave of absence from a tenured position at a community college in Pennsylvania. Hers was a one-year contract that ended up being renewed over the next two years. Clark was recruited in August 1999 from a community college in Maryland, where he was teaching.

Busch, 49, was making $45,000 for her full-time job, while Clark, 39, was working three-quarter time and earning $36,000.

OFF WORK Paul Gaffney has no hard feelings toward former employer Spectra-Physics. But he was taken aback when he was laid off in spring 2001—he was so confident that his $30-an-hour job was secure.

photo by Tom Angel

Then, a year and a half ago, the university decided to open up both their jobs to a national, affirmative-action search. Busch and Clark both applied for their respective positions but didn’t get hired. Each got a short letter informing them of that fact.

Their credentials were solid—Busch had gone to the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania and is a dissertation short of a doctorate; Clark got through Georgetown—and their evaluations had been favorable. Busch had just been named to the board of the group California Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages.

Because they weren’t tenured, the university could pretty much do with them as it pleased. “Boom: no job,” Clark summarized. They went on unemployment.

“It took me down,” Clark said. “I thought I had a shot at a tenured position, and I didn’t even get hired for a part-time position.” It was too late in the academic year to find another job, and college professors aren’t exactly going to go work at Taco Bell. Clark’s wife got a job as a nurse’s aide, while he pieced together a class at Butte College and one in a different department at Chico State.

Busch sought financial help from her husband (from whom she is separated), nearly maxed out her credit cards, and found a place for her son to stay so he could finish high school in Chico. “I applied for 50 jobs at least,” Busch said. “I was the runner-up for every single damn one.” She settled on a job outside of her field at Stanford.

Last year, Clark landed a temporary, part-time position at Sacramento State University, to which he commutes twice a week. He and his wife have three children, and although Sac State is treating him well, if he had his druthers he’d take Chico. It’s like the economic-development community touting the highly trained, docile, underpaid Chico work force to lure businesses, Clark said: “When you love a place, you’re willing to put up with it.”

Because Busch and Clark were represented by a union, the California Faculty Association, they at least had some recourse. Because the selection committee didn’t review their current job records, as required under the union contract, they can and are pursuing grievances.

Stronger, though, Clark feels, is the argument that “there’s some kind of moral commitment to people who were doing well who were already in place. It seems like they’re not even interested in retention.” He wasn’t given a reason why he lost out on the job (for Busch, it was her not-quite-Ph.D. status), but one thing that makes him feel better is “the fact that it happened to both of us.”

“You think, ‘Oh, I must be an idiot. What did I do wrong? I must be a loser,'” he reflected.

Busch said, “I was miserable all last year. I’ve always been employed with … a good job and benefits.”

For some, being laid off brings true the sometimes-hard-to-accept adage that when one door closes, another opens. Jacquie Winter has decided to go back to college to study business administration or a similar track and eventually work with nonprofits.

The lack of a degree is holding her back, decided Winter, who was let go Oct. 15 from Odyssey Performance Enhancement Network, a Chico company that hosts team-building exercises for businesses and schools, after almost four years doing bookkeeping and other office work.

“Being close to the books, I kind of saw the writing on the wall,” said Winter, who praised the company and respects the decision to let her go. The worst part was spending her last two weeks on the job training her replacement.

Winter, 38, and her 5-year-old son live with her parents to save money. “I didn’t cut back on the holidays—I let loose on my credit cards,” she admitted. She also took some money out of her 401(k) retirement fund—money she was saving for a house—to pay for classes through Chico State’s open enrollment program. “Obviously, this is not going to be cheap,” she said. “But I’m trying to make this a positive thing, [knowing] I will make more money later.”

Her unemployment will run out soon, and she’s still looking for work. “I look in the paper every single day,” said Winter, who was making $14 an hour. “To go back to $9 an hour is a little disheartening.”

One thing she knows: “I want to stay in Chico. People say, ‘Come to Sacramento. There’s all kinds of jobs.'” But, “since Sept. 11, a lot of people are rethinking about the bottom line, literally what they can take and what they can’t take.”

Bruce Brothers was vacationing when he heard the news. He got a call on his cell phone Aug. 1, 2001, letting him know that he was among five being laid off from Bi-Tech Software, Inc., in Chico, which produces people-managing software for schools and governments.

He had been on disability for several weeks for a bad back but was planning to return to his job of six years working on UNIX servers, mainly taking care of payroll for school districts. He felt personally targeted and wondered if just didn’t fit in, or maybe, because he was 42 and earning $41,000 a year, the recently bought-out company thought it could get someone to do his job more cheaply.

“They told me they had reorganized and no longer needed me,” he said.

So far, his family has gotten by on his disability payments and by cashing out their retirement plans, paying hefty penalties in the process. His wife is also out of work and looking.

Besides Bi-Tech and Chico State, there are only a couple of other employers in Chico with positions matching Brothers’ training, but he won’t leave town for a job. “I’ll dig ditches, whatever it takes,” said Brothers, whose children are 10, 12 and 20. “I’m here because of the family values.”

In that vein, Brothers has found encouragement from above: “I cannot envision my way out of this, and I can’t put together a plan,” he said. “I get on my knees and give it up to God. … In the Bible, it says you have to provide for your family. I’m making the efforts and I’m doing the work, but I’m asking Him to point the way.”

Amaera BayLaurel chose conscience over cash early on. Still, she couldn’t help but feel unappreciated when, in October 2001, funding went dry and she was let go from her job as executive director of the Chico Peace and Justice Center.

“I was absolutely emotional for a while,” she said. There was even some denial. “I knew our funding was bad, but I also knew that we could fund-raise that money,” she said. “I felt disposable, in a way.”

The timing—a month after the terrorist attacks—was particularly ironic for a perpetuator of peace.

“I had built up some expectations,” said BayLaurel, who is still finishing up some projects, like a mural for the center and a community garden. “I’m slowly letting it go.”

She wasn’t getting paid through the roof: $8 a hour for a 20-hour week, and she actually put in more than that. BayLaurel had also been working for 2nd District Supervisor Jane Dolan’s re-election campaign. An artist with a degree in interdisciplinary art and performance, she has had chances to take higher-paying jobs and turned them down.

“I certainly get by on what I’m getting by on,” said BayLaurel, who considers cars and CDs to be in the category of luxury. “I call it voluntary simplicity.”

At 25, BayLaurel realizes she’s idealistic. She likes things to be interesting and rewarding. “I need a healthy recognition that I am not the work,” she concluded.

Then, added BayLaurel, who recently went to a “cash flow workshop": “I want health care. I want retirement. I want to be able to buy land. … Money is going to give me choice.”

Dan Ripke, who directs the Center for Economic Development for Chico State’s Research Foundation, agrees that what’s happening in Butte County is just a reflection of what’s going on in the nationwide economy. But, when people get laid off here, they don’t have as many options as they would in a less-rural area—especially if they don’t have computer skills.

Despite the relocation of a few large businesses to the area, “it is true that there aren’t a lot of high-tech companies right now,” he said. “If people are laid off, there aren’t a lot of opportunities at this point.”

He said the term for what’s long gone on in Chico is “underemployment": People take jobs paying much less than their training would merit, in return for the quality of life offered here. “It’s the price that we pay for the three and one-half minute commute to get to work.”

“There isn’t enough competition for the labor,” Ripke said—a simple case of supply exceeding demand. And employers, being savvy businesspeople, pay what the market will bear.

So, folks who spent the last decade or two clawing their way to the top—or even the middle—are finding they’ve slid down several rungs.

"[People] have this mental image of how much you’re worth an hour, and you don’t want to get less than that,” Ripke said. “A lot of your self-esteem is tied to the fact that you’re contributing, you’re able to support yourself.”

Silva, the registered nurse, said: "If you do wait long enough, things are going to work out. … We’re gradually getting back on our feet again. Unless you’ve done it, it’s really, really hard to imagine."