When L. Matt Ketcham found work as a job counselor at the Alexandria office of the Virginia Employment Commission, he thought he was finally protected from the economic woes that forced him to quit his job as a real estate salesman 18 months ago.
"I thought I was set with a state counseling job," said Ketcham, 62. "I didn't think I'd ever have to look for work again. The worse things get in the job market, the more people would need us."
Ketcham was wrong. On New Year's Eve, the Virginia Employment Commission announced that it would dismiss 305 employes and close 15 of 41 local offices throughout Virginia by Jan. 31, including centers in Alexandria and Manassas, which will be consolidated at the Seven Corners office near Falls Church.
The action was prompted by a $4.1 million, or 12 percent cut, in federal aid to Virginia's employment programs. It will drastically trim employment services to tens of thousands of job seekers in Virginia where the unemployment rate rose from 5.4 percent in October to 6.1 percent in November--the highest state jobless rate since June 1980.
"People depend on the VEC in this community," said Patricia Theodore Toste, chief probation officer in Prince William County, whose agency often requires former convicts to visit the Manassas employment office. "Times are very tough right now and the county doesn't have any public transportation."
In populous Northern Virginia, where the unemployment rate is usually the lowest in the state, the rate rose from 3.7 percent in October to 4 percent in mid-November, leading some officials to predict a heavy crush on employment services when the Alexandria and Manassas job centers are closed.
"The labor market in this area has deteriorated rapidly," said Wesley W. Caison Jr., manager of the Alexandria VEC office. "We are seeing an increasing number of people laid off by the federal government, the construction industry and even in the service industries. There will be lines out of the door at Falls Church for sure. I expect we'll see hordes of people on Feb. 1."
"This whole thing just doesn't make any sense," said Ketcham, one of 11 people in the 29-member Alexandria office notified that because of his limited seniority he may be looking for another job. "I blame Reagan. He's given everybody the short end of the stick. I voted for him in the last election, but I won't vote for him again."
Job seekers at the Alexandria office, 728 S. Washington St., feared the impact of the closings.
"The closing is going to affect me quite a bit," said Wilford Starns, 53, of Alexandria. "I don't have any transportation to get out to Seven Corners."
The Alexandria office served more than 10,000 people last year and made 2,660 job placements, said Caison. The Manassas office saw about 5,000 people and placed about 1,000 in jobs, said office manager Rick Slusher.
The cutbacks come as Northern Virginia employment centers were helping fill 360 positions at the new Peidmont Airlines reservation office in Reston and another 660 jobs at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Crystal City.
Most of the interviewing for the Hyatt Regency jobs has taken place, said Doug Forseth, general manager of the hotel. But he still questioned the closing of the Alexandria and Manassas offices. "With a rising unemployment rate," he said, "the closing of those offices seems the wrong place to make cuts."