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Thousands apply for jobs at Fresno veterans home

Thousands of job seekers swarmed Fresno's new state veterans home Wednesday, some coming from as far as Delano and Livingston to line up in the dark and cold three hours before the career fair opened.

By the time the hiring fair ended at 4 p.m., about 2,200 prospective employees had submitted applications and résumés at the home, which is on the southwest edge of Fresno at California and Marks avenues.

Some said they are already working for other employers but want a new job so they can improve their salaries and benefits. Others -- like Fresno resident Ricky Vasquez, who has been out of steady work for two years -- were looking for stable employment.

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Vasquez, 58, a pharmacy technician, had "a gleam of hope" when he was told about 9:30 a.m. that his application was one of the few in his job category.

"But it's still early," he said with a mixture of optimism and pragmatism.

About 100 people will be hired in the spring in preparation for the home's opening in the fall, said Robin Umberg, an undersecretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs. Eight veterans will move each month into the 300-bed home, which could take up to three years to fill, she said.

Jobs at the home will pay $25,000 to $108,000 a year, Umberg said. The positions include nursing, medicine, pharmacy, mental health services, social services, sanitation and janitorial, plant operations, grounds keeping, security and accounting.

The home will employ 400 people when all beds are filled.

Applicants were allowed into the job fair 20 at a time beginning at 8 a.m. At least 1,000 were in line when the doors opened. Job seekers attended workshops, filled out applications and spoke with officials about job requirements.

Vasquez, the pharmacy technician, was laid off two years ago from the former Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla because of budget cuts. The prison recently was converted to house male inmates.

The Fresno resident has worked for temporary agencies but has had a tough time paying his bills. "I don't know what I'm going to do for February," he said. But Vasquez said he's hopeful he'll land a job at the veterans home.

Claudia Green, 52, of Fresno, a care provider, worked two jobs until she was laid off from one in 2010 and the other in August.

"I lost my home, lost my car. I lost everything," she said.

She hopes her experience will give her an edge in gaining a job at the home.

Darrin Stephenson, 31, a Navy veteran who works as a security guard, applied for the same type of work Wednesday.

"It would be great to have a state job, more security, better pay," the Fresno resident said. "I see a future here."

Veterans are given additional points in the application process.

Stephenson said his military experience would help give the veterans proper care.

"I have more compassion for them," he said. "That's why I would be a good fit."

The jobs at the home are a boost to a region where unemployment is high, said Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board. But the home also is a boon to deserving veterans who need a place to live, he said.

"Opening this veterans home in Fresno means we have a chance to serve those who so nobly served us by their commitment and sacrifices in the military," Konczal said.

The cash-strapped state has struggled to find funds to operate the new home. Lawmakers last year had approved enough money to open it with a limited staff and serve a limited number of veterans.

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget released this month includes $27 million to run veterans homes in Fresno and Redding, which Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, a Fresno Democrat, said should fully fund the Fresno facility.

Wednesday's turnout pleased officials with the California Department of Veterans Affairs, which held the event. Additional job fairs could be held for hard-to-fill medical positions, Umberg said.

"It's great to see this many people looking for meaningful employment," she said, "providing a home that fosters dignity and respect for our state's veterans."

The reporter can be reached at ejimenez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6386.

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