Originally created 11/24/03

State job cuts hurting families at holiday time



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- When state government workers lose their jobs, the bureaucrats call it a "reduction-in-force," or RIF. But it's a little more personal when it happens to you.

Then, it's the $500 problem with the throttle on your '95 Saturn, the one with 100,000 miles on it. It's giving up long-distance service on your home phone. It's hoping the state check for your three foster sons comes Monday so you can pay the mortgage and still have health insurance.

It's also macaroni and cheese - lots of macaroni and cheese.

Eugenia Beach, 44, has dealt with all those things since she lost her job Oct. 1 at the Department of Social Services. As a former administrator in the Family Independence program, she had helped unemployed people find work.

Now Beach is experiencing firsthand the sense of panic that sets in when income goes away and the expenses of daily living do not. "Life doesn't stop coming at you because you're in an upheaval losing your job," she said.

Beach found herself among the more than 1,100 state workers who have lost permanent full-time jobs since the beginning of 2001, according to the State Budget and Control Board.

Hundreds of other temporary workers also have been dismissed, but no statewide figures are available on those jobs.

The 8.4 percent decline in the state's permanent work force left Beach searching for new work in an economy where the government is hemorrhaging jobs.

Beach got the bad news from her friend and boss, Leigh Bolick.

"She just looked at me and she said, 'It's not good news,' " Beach recalled. " 'You're getting a termination letter.' And I felt bad for her right upfront. What a hard job - she had to go around telling people."

Bolick hugged Beach but didn't linger. Later, she and the three employees she had fired that day went to lunch. "The people up here, we are family," Bolick said.

In Richland County, 14 of the top 20 employers are government entities, the movement of government workers into the ranks of the unemployed makes finding work tougher in some respects, said Sam McClary, a labor market analyst with the Employment Security Commission.

McClary said he would advise someone newly unemployed to go to one of the state's one-stop employment centers, find out what businesses are hiring, and seek out any training that might be needed for those jobs.

"It's been tough all around," he said. "Even in the normal business sectors, it's been very tough. I think it's going to start picking up some, but it's been slow."

Beach, who as a DSS administrator helped write advice programs for people seeking work, mostly has followed the suggestions she used to dispense. She leaned on friends, family and members of her church.

A friend at Midlands Technical College helped Beach line up a part-time job teaching freshman seminars about college life. That has kept her from having to apply for unemployment or food stamps. She hopes her other efforts will pay off soon in the form of a full-time job.

"What the curriculums always say is, you can't just pick up the paper once a week and look at the classifieds," she said. "The majority of the leads I've had here have come from the people I've networked with."

Beach still speaks of DSS in terms of "we," and wonders about the impact further budget cuts would have on the agency and the people it serves. She has seen workers doing two or more jobs at once, supervisors taking on caseloads, and a dwindling staff handling more pressing needs. "We are past the point where there are enough people to do the job responsibly," she said.

Beach said she has seen from both sides that the social safety net, including the Family Independence program, "has gaping holes in it."

Beach has resisted seeking public assistance of any kind so far partly, she admits, out of pride. She has taken the cutback approach.

"We're not going to the movies, we're not renting videos," she said. "It just doesn't seem as important to me now. I'm looking to pare down."

The holidays will be different, too.

Normally, Beach said, her parents from Walterboro and cousins from Georgia make her one-story Victorian bungalow in a downtown Columbia neighborhood a central gathering place for Thanksgiving. This week, she will go to her parents' house instead.

"We just decided that was more than I can handle right now," Beach said.

Christmas looms after that. Beach has weighed the possibility of showing up at Families Helping Families or some other charity gift drive to make the holiday happy for her three boys, Bret, 19, Jonathan, 17, and Jon, 11. She hopes to avoid that because she believes others have more pressing needs, but she hasn't decided for sure.

"In spite of how bad things are, I just feel really fortunate, and even though it's a cliche I feel really, really blessed to have this network of friends who are helping me," she said. "I think without it I'd be in bed with the covers over my head."