September 17, 2003 11:00 pm
Grateful for a job: Jim Smith flours chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken.  (The Observer/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH).
Grateful for a job: Jim Smith flours chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken. (The Observer/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH).

By Dan Jones

For the Observer

Like his name suggests, Jim Smith appears as routine a middle-aged man as any average Joe.

He is a hard worker, loves the outdoors and has grown-up children.

Unfortunately, his name is just as common as his story. According to the US Department of Labor, the state of Oregon ranked highest in the continental US for its unemployment rate in July. With 8.1 percent of the state jobless, the statistics are only an example of Oregon's struggling economy in 2003.

But after finally landing a job at a fast food restaurant, the 43-year-old Smith is grateful to be earning a minimum-wage pay check.

Today is typical. Business is hot and Smith has chicken to flour and cook. As the kitchen buzzes, he tries not to let memories of the past color his actions.

The man takes reassurance in knowing he has some source of income, and works hard for it. He always gives the same response when asked how he is doing : "Just fine."

Before drifting to La Grande, Smith lived in Ukiah, and was employed by the U.S. Forest Service.

"It was my favorite occupation. I was working outside, building fences, making log and rock weirs for fishery rehabilitation and planting trees," he said.

Smith worked for the Forest Service for 10 years before resigning. The divorced father was not making enough money to take care of his family year-round because his occupation was seasonal. In the winter, living expenses were exceeding his budget.

At the time, he did not even have a place to call home.

The after-effects were painful.

"The feeling is like no one really wants you," Smith said.

Making do, Smith stayed where he could. Some nights it was with his kids or at friends' homes.

With misfortune on his shoulders and few stones left unturned, he set out in search of employment.

Smith was turned down several times because he was unable to be contacted by phone. He bounced around Oregon, and after working in Baker City temporarily, stumbled upon La Grande.

"I was traveling from town to town, unemployment office to unemployment office, business to business," he said.

"You go in and get an application. But you can only put in so many at a place before having to try somewhere else. You can't wait around. It was frustrating."

Smith stayed determined, and the fruits of his labor eventually paid off. He was hired at the La Grande Kentucky Fried Chicken where he has worked for several weeks. Life is becoming easier now that he has a steady income.

"It puts money in my pocket and fuel in my car. I can pay some of my bills, and it helps make me feel like more of a productive citizen," he said.

But some things haven't changed. As night descends, Smith can often be found sleeping in his vehicle.

"I look at it as camping," he said with an optimistic smile.

Some animosity resides in Smith after his experiences with Oregon's unemployment offices. The root of his resentment also stems from the deficit in employment opportunities for his age group.

"There are so many people who want work. The market is kind of full and it seems like a lot of employers want younger people who sometimes are not as qualified," Smith said.

After experiencing unemployment, Smith wants anyone who was once in his position to keep hope.

"Don't give up. You just have to ride out the storm." he said.