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Calif. storms deliver huge blow to businesses

Southern California's third rainiest season on record has delivered a huge blow to businesses.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Running a car wash in Southern California is normally a sure thing for a businessman. But in this very abnormal rainy season, Nathan Helo is glad he also owns a liquor store to fall back on.

Since he bought the car wash Jan. 1, he's been able to keep it open only three weeks.

"When it rains, it's like a free wash from God, so nobody's gonna open. That's the way it is," he said, looking at a paltry pile of receipts on a cloudy morning. "Today, so far it's dead."

Southern California's third rainiest season on record has delivered a huge blow to car washes, landscaping crews, house painters, and construction workers alike, hurting business owners and their paycheck-to-paycheck workers.

Dramatic footage of mansions teetering on hillsides may dominate television coverage of the storms, but for those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, the rainy season has been a slow-moving disaster.

On a Chula Vista street behind a rock and brick supplier, about two dozen men chatted in Spanish and sipped coffee while hoping to catch a day's work. Many said they normally work construction jobs, but most sites are closed due to the saturated ground.

"You can last one, two weeks without work. But by the third, it's very hard," said Francisco, a 47-year-old undocumented worker from Zacatecas, Mexico, who would give only his first name. He's had to ask for a one-month extension on his $550 rent _ a bargain price in the area _ for his family's two-bedroom apartment.

Nearby, Joaquin Fierro, 45, works a cell phone looking for jobs while hoping a potential employer will drive by.

"We're getting by, but only by 'hechandoles ganas,'" he said in Spanish, using a phrase roughly meaning "sticking to it."

He then tells a reporter, "If you give me work, I'd be OK with that."

Costs difficult to calculate
The cost of storm-related job losses is hard to gauge, according to several analysts from different business sectors.

Across Southern California, new home construction contributes $25.2 billion to the economy and employs 243,000 workers. Having framers, roofers and other outdoor crews unable to work will drive the cost of housing projects up, said Wes Keusder, secretary-treasurer for the California Building Industry Association.

"It's a hardship for developers, but in more ways than one its a hardship for the workers," Keusder said. "It's the pieceworkers, or the hourly wage guys _ those guys are getting nailed."

The storms' impact can be seen in a growing number of classified ads from "handymen" seeking work and lighter traffic on the interstate near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nearly half of the estimated 40,000 people who live in Tijuana, Mexico, and commute to jobs in San Diego County work in the labor and service sector, according to a 1994 study, the most recent report available. On rainy days, vehicle traffic at the main port of entry falls by 20 percent, and pedestrian traffic by 50 percent, U.S. Customs & Border Protection spokesman Vince Bond said.

Southern California farmworkers, mostly poor immigrants from Mexico and Central America, are surviving by picking broccoli, one of the few crops that can be harvested in the rain, according to Joe Mota, a United Farm Workers union representative in the Coachella Valley, which surrounds Palm Springs. More lucrative jobs in citrus groves are scarce, he said, because citrus gets dented or moldy if picked in humid conditions.

"It is hitting the pocketbook. They're doing as much as possible to make ends meet," Mota said. "Some of them are hitting up the food banks."

Mark Sterk, who runs a Vista landscaping firm, said he's cut his crew of 20 in half. He keeps the remaining men busy with jobs cleaning up debris or clearing clogged storm drains. He said this season is the worst he's seen since he began working as a landscaper in 1977.

"People are needing to borrow money to make rent payments," he said. "I bet we've missed 30 percent of our work days the last couple of months."

At Helo's car wash, a crew of attendants sits idle on a bench. Alisa Vares, a 23-year-old from Tijuana, says she's using her savings to pay the bills.

"We're experienced, so we know that these three months are usually bad. So we've saved," she said. But three straight weeks without work has been a heavy burden, she said.

Helo said he's keeping his television tuned to The Weather Channel, and jokes that he and the crew are praying for sun.

"We're going to church every day," he said.