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Laid-off workers: Where do they go from here? // Family lives on hope their luck will change

An occasional series about four Tampa Bay residents coping with life after losing their jobs.

U.S. corporations have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers in the past few years, and the trend shows no signs of slowing. But the numbers only tell part of the story.

They don't show the faces of the people confronting what psychologists say can be one of the most stressful events in their lives. They are the faces of your friends, relatives and neighbors. It could even be you.

This is the beginning of an occasional series of stories about four Tampa Bay people who have either lost their jobs or are about to due to layoffs. We will follow them as they search for new work and chronicle their struggles to keep the home fires burning without a paycheck.

Stories by TERESA BURNEY, Times Staff Writer

Hamburger has replaced veal in the Holton household. And dessert is often a handful of Skittles candy rather than the cake the Holtons used to enjoy from the supermarket bakery.

But still, every week, the family of five springs for six lottery tickets.

The 6 bucks buys them more than a remote chance at a big jackpot. For a few days, it also buys a little hope.

Just six matching numbers and it won't matter that Jim Holton lost his job a year ago, that their savings is gone and that his wife's bookkeeper's salary can't pay the mortgage.

But every week, so far, the Lotto balls have been merciless. And so has the job market.

Holton, 40, was laid off a year ago from his job as a senior engineer at Florida Power Corp. He had worked there full-time for 15 years.

It was all so unexpected. Just a few weeks before, a supervisor had told him there was nothing to worry about.

"I was always a hard worker for Florida Power," said Holton. "I always got everything that was expected of me done." And he had been rewarded for that work with steady promotions and raises.

But Holton discovered what so many workers are finding out the hard way: Layoffs these days have more to do with the corporate bottom line than with individuals' job performance.

Florida Power Corp. has trimmed its staff from more than 6,000 to 4,800 in the past four years, not because it is losing money, but to make the company leaner to face increasing competition.

Holton's layoff came with six months severance pay. He thought at first it might take three months to find a new job. But when the hunt began, so did an emotional rollercoaster ride.

Holton would hear about a new job opportunity and the family's excitement would build, like it does with each lottery ticket purchase. Then the bad news would arrive, just like the wrong numbers popping in the lottery chute every week.

There were high hopes last spring when a Philip Morris Co. division in North Carolina responded quickly to his resume. "Within a week I get a call, "Can you come up next week for an interview?' " he said.

"They get your hopes up when they want to fly you up there," said Holton's wife, Chris, 35.

The interview went well and Holton was pumped. The whole family was excited.

"Four nights in a row it took me 'til midnight to get to sleep," he said.

Then the word came. Somebody else had been chosen. Family morale plummeted once more.

"Then the fighting starts again and the kids get on your nerves again," Chris Holton said.

Jim Holton is willing to move. The trouble is that there is so much competition that an applicant has to be nearly a perfect fit to get hired, he said. He knows that when he does get a new job, he'll almost certainly make less than the nearly $70,000 a year Florida Power paid him.

But right now a paycheck, any paycheck, is what's important. Things are getting tighter financially. The severance pay is long gone and so is the family's savings.

"My salary doesn't pay our bills," Chris Holton said. "We are down to nothing now."

The monthly mortgage payment on their house overlooking Boca Ciega Bay is about $1,300. The house has been on the market for a year, but hasn't sold at an asking price of $149,500. The lot is leased, an arrangement Holton says makes it more affordable to live on the water.

Holton has taken an overnight job assembling toys at Toys 'R' Us to help pay for Christmas this year for the children, Cody, 9, Ashley, 7, and Brittany, 3.

He needs to work the nighttime hours so he can job hunt during the day without having to pay for child care. Meanwhile, Chris Holton is preparing to quit her job. She clears so little, after paying for child care and despite working 10-hour days, that it isn't worthwhile. She is looking for something more flexible.

"It just wasn't worth it," she said. "My family comes first."

She made the decision after Cody, an honor student, came home with some Cs on his report card. "He said it was because we are not here to help him," she said.

Despite the disappointments, the Holtons have discovered the value of good friends and neighbors. The girls haven't had to give up dance lessons because Holton does odd jobs for the teacher. And a dentist neighbor has been giving the family free dental work.

"We have made good friends here," Chris Holton said.

Jim Holton

Age: 40

Former job: Senior engineer for Florida Power

Prospects: Still looking.