Out of work and weary

What it’s like to be unemployed for months on end

James Cox lost his job at CalFire last June and now lives at the Torres Shelter. He goes to the Butte Community Employment Center daily looking for work.

James Cox lost his job at CalFire last June and now lives at the Torres Shelter. He goes to the Butte Community Employment Center daily looking for work.

Photo By Kyle Delmer

Although it was Friday the 13th, Stephanie Bird thought it would be just another day at the office.

It wasn’t.

She had walked into Faucets Direct, an Internet plumbing-fixtures company based at the Chico airport that employs a couple hundred people. It was March 13, 2009, and Bird was ready to dive into her content editing and Web site development tasks in the marketing department. Instead, company managers led her into a room and told her she no longer had a job.

It was the first time she had ever been laid off from a position. “It was one of those things where you knew things like this were happening, because everybody was having cuts. But my supervisor had told me everything was fine.”

In shock, Bird left the place where she’d spent the better part of each week for two years. She received no severance package and wasn’t even allowed to collect her things (a co-worker brought them to her later that day). About 30 of her fellow employees “got the ax” that day as well.

Bird and her colleagues were victims of the recession.

If getting laid off from her job wasn’t bad enough, Bird, 38, was already coping with a few other major life stressors. “I had gotten divorced the year before, and I had put the house in my own name, so I was 100 percent responsible for the mortgage,” she explained.

She applied for a mortgage-relief program but was turned down, as unemployment insurance (U.I.) is not considered “steady” income.

Having survived 11 long months of unemployment, Bird, a tall, well-spoken woman with red hair and fair skin, is on her first extension of U.I. Newly passed legislation will provide her with U.I. until May. She’s had interviews, including a couple she felt really good about. But nothing has panned out.

Every day, she gets up and starts the same routine with the same diligence she once applied at the workplace: After grabbing a cup of coffee, she sits down in front of her computer and scans the new job postings on sites such as Craigslist and Monster.com. Many of them are for jobs that pay much less than what she formerly earned. She’s finding it hard even to find decent jobs to apply for. “It’s really disheartening,” she said.

As the winter months drag on with periodic gray fog and long, melancholy days of rain, unemployment dominates the lives of many Butte County residents. According to recent figures from Butte Community Employment Center (also known as One Stop) on Carmichael at the south end of Chico, the county’s unemployment rate is officially about 13.4 percent. But some economic-development professionals speculate it’s actually significantly higher than that because it doesn’t include people who have given up looking for work.

The worst recession in decades has meant that one in 10 Americans who can and want to work is out of a job. In California, the figure is even higher, at 12.4 percent. And in largely rural Butte County, which is so dependent on government employment, it’s even worse.

Although government talking heads insist an economic recovery is well under way, many people locally find that hard to believe. They know from painful first-hand experience how tight the job market is in Butte County. They’ve been job-searching for six, eight, 10, 12 months—or longer.

Stephanie Bird has been honing her cooking skills and taking nutrition classes, trying to open up her employment options, since losing her job last March.

Photo By Kyle Delmer

Bird said this period of not having a job is unlike any other she’s had. “I’ve never had such a hard time,” she said.

Some positive developments are taking place locally. A recent seminar at Chico State had Glenda Humiston, USDA rural development director, seeking information about how to jump-start job creation in Butte County. Business owners, elected officials, local economic-development professionals and others showed up to throw out ideas for making jobs available for Butte County residents who need them.

Additionally, federal stimulus money has finally hit Butte County and is being used to develop employment. The Pathways out of Poverty program, implemented through Northern Rural Training and Employment Consortium (NorTEC), will soon be training people for green-industry jobs.

And there’s another window opening for job-seekers, reports Greg Findlay, director of the Private Industry Council, which runs employment services at One Stop. There are changes taking place through the Employment Development Department (EDD) that will allow people to receive CTB (California Training Benefits) when they are enrolled in approved vocational retraining programs.

But “talk” about job development and esoteric (to some) green industries does not translate into food on the table and the mortgage being paid right now. Bird has only a few months to secure another position before she has to resort to more drastic measures to make sure her bills and mortgage are paid.

She’s not the only one. There are legions of others.

James Cox, a 15-year Butte County resident, calls the Torres Shelter “home”—for now. Cox, 60, lost his job doing maintenance for CalFire last June, and he subsequently lost his housing in Magalia. “I’m just trying to get my feet back on the ground,” he said as he sat before a computer at One Stop, where he’s learned to conduct online searches for employment. “Everything was going good until I got laid off.”

Cox, a sincere man with a bushy beard and a polite manner, seeks labor positions, construction jobs, or forklift work—he’s a certified forklift operator. Or, as he added, “anything” that will get him back to work. He’s even willing to relocate.

“He has good qualifications and experience,” said Danielle Darbro, a resource specialist at One Stop who has assisted Cox, “but the economy’s been tough. He’s been looking for a long time.”

With his extensive background working seasonally for the U.S. Forest Service, Cox wouldn’t mind getting back into forestry. But because that isn’t likely (due to the downturn in timber harvesting), he’s considering attending college to study computers. He’s learned computer skills from his friends and the personnel at One Stop, and he thinks he might have an aptitude for them.

He’s signed up with Labor Ready (day jobs), but during the winter months jobs are few and far between. A couple of interviews materialized for him, but no job offers ensued. He thought about signing up for Experience Works, a program for people over 50, but then he learned he couldn’t collect U.I. if he was in it. “It’s very frustrating and time-consuming, very disappointing,” he said.

What keeps him going? “Faith, hope,” he replied. His biggest wish, he said, is “getting a job and paying my bills. I’m determined. When you give up, you lose the battle. I’m not going to allow myself to do that.”

Bird, a Chico native, said, “I owe a debt of gratitude to my boyfriend for being very supportive. He’s never asked, ‘Why don’t you have a job by now? Why aren’t you working?’ ”

Her boyfriend was unemployed for nine months in 2008, so he intimately understands what Bird is grappling with. Bird was working during his unemployment. “I listened to his stresses,” she said. When the tables turned, she realized, “Gosh, I’m living with the right person! He’s always understood.”

Danielle Darbro helps a client at the Butte Community Employment Center (also known as One Stop).

Photo By Kyle Delmer

Her parents, who live in Chico, have psychologically supported her as well, and her mother even helps her with the cost of online courses in nutrition so she can explore a long-held passion that might lead to a new employment opportunity. Because she’s had to deal with personal food allergies, she would like to help others in that predicament.

She’s done more cooking since being laid off from her job, and that has led to experimentation with different foods and culinary techniques. She’s created a “no-’mato tomato sauce” for those who, like her, can’t tolerate tomatoes. Sustainability is another passion of hers, and she wouldn’t mind finding a job in a related cause or industry.

When Bird speaks about nutrition and sustainability, she lights up; it’s clear these topics excite her, and it’s easy to visualize her making a career change.

But for now she is trying to get a job in what she knows: copywriting, editing, photography, Web site content development, creative marketing, and promotion. With top-notch communication and marketing skills and a depth of experience, Bird has a lot to offer.

But so do a lot of other people who hungrily seek new employment in Butte County (and beyond) each day. Bird entertains a dream of creating a job for herself in nutrition where she could put her skills to work for herself. “To this point, I’ve used them to help other businesses. [Eventually,] I hope to use them for myself and what I want to promote.”

Danielle Darbro has a warm and pleasant way that sets people at ease. She’s articulate, obviously bright and motivated, so it’s easy to see why the unemployed like having her on their side.

She’s worked at One Stop for about five years, and in that time the unemployment rate in Butte County has tripled. “It’s been intense—much busier—but also, we’ve had people coming in who have never had to apply for services.”

On any given day at One Stop, which served about 50,000 people last year (and which will serve closer to 60,000 in 2010), anywhere from 50 to 100 people come through the doors looking for a job or for help with looking for a job. The center offers classes and workshops to help people with their résumés and interview skills, and Darbro never has an idle moment.

“It [the labor market] is more competitive now than it was before,” she said. “I find that to be the toughest thing for folks.” She said she sees people with great qualifications and respectable educations, but there just aren’t enough jobs.

“One interesting thing about the times right now,” she said, “is we’re seeing people who have not had to look for a job for a long time. Some people say, ‘Wow, I haven’t had to look for a job since 1985!’ ”

Darbro and the other resource specialists at One Stop help clients form a job-search strategy, which includes conducting online searches. “Working online is really new for some people,” she said. One of the services One Stop offers is a skills lab where people can get their computer skills up to speed. “Even a truck-driving job requires computer skills now.”

She said people aged 50 and older especially have some “big challenges” with computer use. As an example, she talked about a man who had come in recently who had worked in construction all his life and who had to learn how to navigate the Internet. “I see people who want to change fields. A lot of people, when they are first laid off from a position, think they’ll just get a job in that same field or industry, but they have to adjust to the job market as it is now.”

A resource specialist can help them diversify their skills and see what kind of transferable skills they have. “I try to catch them when they’re first applying for U.I.,” she said, “and get them into some kind of retraining.” She said often people have superb skills that can be adapted to other areas. She noted there are emerging industries that may offer job opportunities to some people: new technologies, environment-friendly endeavors, and environmentally conscious construction companies.

“People are kind of like the deer in the headlights at first,” Darbro said. “They haven’t had to do this [look for work] in a long time. They say, ‘Where do I start?’ ”

Lisa Holeman was laid off last summer after 15 years working at Butte College.

Photo By Kyle Delmer

Giving encouragement is a big part of the job for her and her fellow resource specialists, as well as just helping people to identify the skills they have to offer. “Most people don’t realize how talented and skilled they are. Helping people see what they have to offer helps them to have more confidence.”

A work day at One Stop is never quiet. Darbro and her co-workers routinely see people who are in crisis in one form or another. Many people can’t pay their mortgage, are experiencing foreclosure, have lost cars, or do not have money for food or gas. Some of their clients, such as Cox, are homeless and have to find housing at the Torres Shelter (which now accommodates families, since the recession has brought more of them) or the Jesus Center.

The “other side” of the One Stop building offers social services such as Medi-Cal and CalWorks, and the lines for applying for these programs are usually long and filled with people whose grim or anxious expressions indicate just how hard it is to be without a job or even a home.

Darbro said she and her co-workers are hopeful the economy won’t stay in its present state forever. “There are employers who are hiring. In the news, you only hear the worst of it. There’s federal stimulus money that’s coming through. I would just like to encourage job seekers that there is a position for them, and they do have the skills. We like to help people have hope.”

For her Christmas card this year, Lisa Holeman used a photo of herself and her dog, Hank, sitting glumly next to a sign reading “Will work for kibble.” Holeman was laid off last July from Butte College, where officials had decided to cut the budget by cutting programs.

Holeman, a personable woman who exudes positive energy in spite of being out of work, holds a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation from Chico State. She had worked for 15 years as an instructor for a program called Education for Senior Citizens, teaching classes focused on physical education and psychological well-being at retirement and care facilities such as Sierra Sunrise.

Hank, whom she trained to be a pet-therapy dog, accompanied her most of the time and brought pleasure to many older folks. Hank even received a bone-shaped award for volunteering for 10 years at the Peg Taylor Center. “He was on the news and in the E-R,” Holeman said of her affable mutt.

Recalling the day she learned she would be laid off, Holeman said she didn’t just receive a letter. “They [her department] were very considerate in that they did call.” She said a part of her wasn’t totally shocked because “the times were rough,” but another part of her was panicked. “I thought: How am I going to pay my bills?”

Holeman said she experienced a “real sense of loss and grief” that included all the stages of grief. “I’d been 15 years with some of them [the senior citizens], and they were like family.” She loved her job, she said, and she felt loved and appreciated. “I felt I was contributing and making a positive difference in people’s lives.”

Since last summer, she’s been looking at the help-wanted ads and conducting online searches for jobs. “Looking at the ads is really depressing,” she said. Fortunately, Holeman has had a business on the side for years, As You Like It Weddings, so besides her U.I. she has a little income from that—but not enough. “It’s slowed down from what I was doing 10 years ago.”

She said she’s hoping word of mouth will help her secure new employment—that worked for her in the past when she had returned from teaching in Japan. “I just spread the word that I was looking—to the mailman, my mechanic, everyone,” she said. “I think that what it takes [to get a job] is not so much pounding the pavement, but creativity and being open to thinking outside the box and possibly manifesting some kind of work I may never have imagined.”

Like Holeman, Bird is striving to remain positive. “I used to look at myself as this unemployed person … but I no longer think of myself as just that. I’m doing something positive, I’m taking classes, and I am learning so I can be able to do something positive for myself and others.”

She looks at her friend, Chicoan Sara Campbell, who was laid off after 10 years at Tile City and has gone on to create beautiful tile mosaics and is now hanging—and selling—her work in art shows and galleries. She knows that she, too, can find that proverbial silver lining in the gray clouds.

She’s had to get rid of her cable television service, and she doesn’t go out very often these days—she can’t afford it. She still has her two dogs and three cats, and her parents have said they will help her with her mortgage if she doesn’t land a job before her final U.I. extension runs out. She feels fortunate to have a supportive boyfriend and parents. “I feel really grateful every day,” she said. She realizes not everyone has so much support in their lives.

It isn’t easy, though. Bird was “kind of bitter” about the layoff at first. “Chico is a small town,” she said, and she often runs into former co-workers, and it hurts to see them. Because she’s been through so much change in the past few years, she said it’s hard to say her unemployment has affected her more than the other life stressors she’s experienced.

She’s doing her best to see her unemployment as an opportunity. “I almost want to thank them [her former employer] for it,” she said, because she realizes she could still be writing about home-improvement parts, such as faucets and toilets. She thinks a career change could be good for her and speculates that maybe she will have “one foot in what I was doing and one foot in nutrition and holistic health.”

As for Holeman, she said she tries “just to trust—that something is going to evolve, and I will find a niche [in which to work].” She would love to continue to work with senior citizens—“I love that population”—but she’s open to all other possibilities.

“I feel pretty positive about it [the future],” she said. “When one door closes, another one opens. I think this is a really good opportunity for me to be present in the moment. It’s when I think of the future that I get wiggy.”