Like many small businessmen, Hwan "Ray" Oh soared on the bubble of Orange County's go-go economy.
A Korean immigrant who found his first job in California scrubbing toilets, Oh built a business as a successful contractor, deploying up to ten crews a day to paint, drywall and carpet offices from Anaheim to Irvine.
At its peak, his Garden Grove firm, Quality Construction & Development, raked in as much as $300,000 in monthly revenue. "I never had to beg for jobs," he recalls.
These days, Oh can be found in line outside John Wayne Airport. At age 58, he is driving a Yellow Cab, hoping for enough fares to support his wife and college-age daughters.
"It is so embarrassing," he says. "I thought I had the American dream."
The Great Recession, which took down Oh's company and the 30 men who worked for him, drove Orange County's jobless rate up to 9.9 percent by 2010. Today, local unemployment has dipped to 6.5 percent--a notch below the national level of 7.3 percent.
But statistics can be misleading. The unemployment rate only counts working-age adults who say they are actively seeking jobs. And many, given the sluggish pace of the recovery and uncounted rejections, have simply given up looking.
Sluggish job market
While some baby boomers have retired early, the age bulge doesn't explain the steep drop in the nation's labor force participation, to 63.2 percent in August, the lowest in 35 years.
What does explain it: companies are not hiring back workers as fast as they did after earlier recessions. Orange County has about 94,000 fewer payroll jobs than it did in July 2006 when it reached 1.52 million.
The other day, Oh drove past a Home Depot, and noticed one of his former full-time laborers, a skilled tradesman, standing outside, hoping to pick up a day's work. "That hurt me a lot," Oh says. "He worked for me for 13 years."
Oh's situation isn't unusual. A salient characteristic of the recovery: many of the new jobs have come in low-paying industries. Better-paying manufacturing employment remains far below pre-recession levels, while restaurant, retail, home health care and tourism-related jobs--such as taxi driver--account for a growing slice of the economy. Many new positions are part-time.
According to the California Budget Project, the earnings of the state's high wage workers -- at the 80th percentile of earnings-- have returned to their 2006 level. The inflation-adjusted pay for the bottom fifth of workers has declined 6 percent since 2006.
As for the construction business, housing is starting to rebound, "but commercial--not so much," Oh said. "Bigger companies may be doing better, but small ones still have a hard time."
Boom to bust
Oh is wiry, with short silver hair and a military posture that echoes his long-ago stint in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division. He dresses like the businessman he once was, with a tie and a collared shirt. And, despite his heavily-accented English, engages volubly with customers.
Looking back, Oh explains, the recession hit him at the worst time. Beginning in 2008, "Business parks started getting vacancies," he recalls. "Tenants moved out and no one moved in, so no need for improvement. I started going around to property managers, but jobs went down, down."
When his contracting business was thriving, he invested the profits in seeding three other companies: a dental lab, which he eventually sold; a satellite subscription firm for Korean TV, which lost money after an associate cheated him; and an ice-making machine venture, which went belly-up.
"I don't drink; I don't gamble; I work so hard," he says, shaking his head. "But I never saved money. My wife was so mad at me."
Oh was forced to give up his Fountain Valley home, and moved with his family into a rental. InOctober 2010, he shut down his company. "I lost everything," he says. "I felt like suicide."
He takes off his glasses, and wipes his eyes. "Honestly, it's O.K.," he adds quickly. "I don't have to worry about payroll and taxes any more."
After closing his business, Oh didn't apply for unemployment assistance. "I have never gotten any benefits from the government," he says. "It's my personality. I still have in my mind, wherever I go, I can survive."
In search of prosperity
It is a conviction forged from years of hardship.
Fleeing a difficult family situation in Korea, Oh arrived in Los Angeles at 25, with $800 in his pocket, no English, and no contacts. He took a taxi to Koreatown where a sympathetic storekeeper took him in until he found a janitorial job at the Capitol Records building in Hollywood.
Oh then worked nights at an Inglewood liquor store, where he had to confront shoplifters. "They would say, 'I'm going to get you,'" he recalls. "It was scary."
He signed on at a sewing factory in downtown Los Angeles, where he recalls trying to hide from fellow workers the fact that he had nothing to eat during break.
Finally, Oh enlisted in the Army, but he still spoke little English. "The first year was the hardest in my life," he recalls. "I couldn't understand the military language. People would cuss me. I got mad very quick."
After the Army, he made his way west from Fort Campbell, Ky., landing a construction job with help from an Army officer who owned a Huntington Beach company. After a year as a laborer, he became operations manager.
At the same time, married with a baby, Oh took on two additional jobs. He worked construction all day, and then manned a Garden Grove liquor store until midnight. From there he headed toNorwalk to pick up Korean newspapers, which he delivered until 3 a.m.
"I only got three hours of sleep a night," he recalls. "But after four years, I saved $200,000 to start my own business."
For a decade, "All the way was good," he says. He became a U.S. citizen.
When the recession hit, Oh thought it would be over soon. He tried consulting, but there were no takers.
One day, he noticed a taxi driver at a gas station and asked him how much money he made. The man told him $2,000 to $3,000 a month. "I thought I could make twice as much if I worked twice as hard," Oh said.
When he told his wife he was going to drive a cab, "She cried," he says. "My younger daughter--she was about 17-- said, 'Dad, please don't park the taxi outside.' I'd park a quarter of a mile away and walk home."
Renting the taxi costs $800 a week--a rate that led some local drivers to stage a recent one-day strike. "You have to make $1000 a week just to pay the lease and the gas," Oh says. "If you only work eight hours a day, you're dead."
He hands out little yellow business cards to riders in hopes of building a regular clientele. Still, he says, "I'm up at six-thirty and I get home at midnight. Seven days a week. Otherwise, I can't pay my rent--$2,200 a month. With two daughters in college, it is hard."
His eldest, 24, is applying to a university after several years at Orange Coast College. His younger one, now 20, is at OCC, and hopes to go to law school.
For now, Oh says he feels uncertain about the future.
"I'm trying to forget about the economy," he says. "I try to close my mouth and do the work. I say, 'Every situation makes me stronger.' But I'm an unlucky guy."
Original headline: A job struggle after the recession
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