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Hurting For Work: Recession Hits Middle Class Hard In Connecticut

Mara Lee

September 05, 2010

Two and a half years ago, Jim Johnson was making a decent living as a sheet-metal worker, pulling in $45,000 year, getting to see the results of his labor.

A week ago, instead of bringing his newborn son Sebastian home to the Branford condo he had rented for 12 years, Johnson and his wife, Jennifer De Sola-Johnson, went home to the Hilton Garden Inn in Milford.

The country's middle class has been under strain for years, but in this recession, thousands of once-comfortable Connecticut families have fallen into poverty. As Labor Day arrives in a sluggish recovery, a new report shows that the heaviest job losses have been in the middle of the pay scale and that Connecticut has seen more long-term unemployment than elsewhere.

Johnson, 44, has not had work since February, or steady work since mid-2008. At first couldn't bring himself to admit how bad things have gotten for him and his family. He said his $519-a-week unemployment check was allowing him to scrape by.

What he didn't want to say was that when the checks stopped for about a month in May in a bureaucratic hiccup, Johnson missed his June rent payment. Johnson and his wife, a former interior designer who also is out of work, were evicted from the condo.

"I didn't tell you everything because I have my pride," he said. "I'm looking for a place to live. We're staying in a hotel. That's how bad it is."

Paying for a room in a Super 8, where they lived before Sebastian was born on Aug. 23, was more expensive than his $1,000-a-month rent had been, and the Hilton Garden, where they went after the baby was born, is even more expensive.

But they've been turned down five times for apartments. With no paycheck to show, and poor credit, landlords think he's a poor risk.

"We just got a call now" from a landlord, said DeSola-Johnson, 36, said Friday. "He's still vacillating, but it's not good."

"I never in my life thought I would be in this position," Jim Johnson said.

Lost In The Middle

Thousands of jobs have returned in Connecticut in 2010 even good ones in manufacturing. But there are still more than 160,000 Connecticut adults who are out of work and looking. And job creation in the middle of the wage scale has been weaker than the creation of upper-income jobs for decades; the recession just accelerated that trend.

According to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Connecticut Voices for Children, the state has had healthy job growth in the top 20 percent of the income scale jobs that typically pay more than $66,000. The data, shows that those top-wage jobs grew by close to 6 percent between 2003-06 and 2006-09.

The number of jobs that pay below that wage shrank over the period and the biggest fall was smack-dab in the middle, those that typically pay between $38,500 and $50,300. The number of jobs in that middle wage category, where 40 percent of all jobs pay more and 40 percent pay less, declined by nearly 7 percent more than 14,000 positions.

Carpenters, sheet-metal workers, truck drivers, bookkeepers, manufacturing inspectors, secretaries, customer service representatives, insurance claims clerks these are the type of jobs that evaporated in the recession.

"The middle class is taking the hit," said Paul Fitze, 65, a sheet-metal worker from Plainfield who has had only five weeks of work in 2010.

Johnson asked plaintively: "If we keep closing our doors to the working people of this state, where are they going to go?"

He and his wife were surrounded with baby things in their hotel room stuffed animals on the table, a bassinet by the wall, a plastic box full of baby suits. Their own clothes were stuffed in one suitcase, too full to zip, and a duffel. Most everything's in storage. The bottle warmer was in the bathroom.

Johnson's mother is in assisted living, so they can't move in with her. In fact, he helps her out with $100 here and there when she falls in the Medicare drug benefit "doughnut hole" and can't pay for her seven medications.

His insurance is more comprehensive. "Thank God for being a union worker. I have not lost my health insurance."

"The government needs to get back to the basics," he said. "Bring back our industries. We import from China. The government needs to rebuild this country for the working people. We can't idly sit by and have it brought to us for a cheaper price and have the American worker with their hands tied. We outsource too much. Way too much."

"Scratching Here And There"

While manufacturing has been decimated in the past 20 years in Connecticut, and it took a bad hit again in the recession, construction workers are suffering the most the field has 26 percent fewer workers than it did in the middle of 2007.

Don Schweitzer, a self-employed carpenter in Deep River, is advertising his services at $20 to $25 an hour. The last time he had steady work was January to July 2009, at $35 an hour.

"From that point on, I've basically just been scratching here and scratching there," he said. He said he's worked maybe three months out of the past 13 months. And that's being generous.

Because Schweitzer works for himself, he doesn't collect unemployment. So when he doesn't work, he has no income at all. He's divorced, and can't keep up with the child support for his 14-year-old.

"I'm living at my mother's house. She's 85 years old. I was living with a roommate down in Clinton last year, who was also a carpenter. I just couldn't keep up with the rent. Now I owe him like 2,900 bucks. He understands. He's in the process of probably giving his house back to the bank. He's got his own problems, too.

"I'm fortunate to have a place to live. If I didn't, I'd be living in my truck. I'm 58 years old. That doesn't make it any easier when people are looking for help, either."

People older than 55 are the least likely to be out of work in this recession, but when they do lose their jobs, they're the most likely to be out of work for six months or longer. In Connecticut in 2009, almost 45 percent of the unemployed in this age group were long-term unemployed.

Connecticut had the fourth-highest percentage of long-term unemployed people in the country in 2009: 36.7 percent. The national average was 32 percent. The authors of the Connecticut Voices for Children report on the state of working families, which provided these statistics, said things probably have improved in 2010, but updated data is not available.

Part of the reason older workers are out of work longer is that they're in their peak earning years, and are likely to be receiving a generous unemployment check, $500 a week or higher. It's hard to find a job that pays more than $12.50 an hour in this weak recovery. If the job-seeker has a college degree, he or she may be less willing to take a cashier's job, just to get work.

Orlando Rodriguez, co-author of the Connecticut Voices for Children report, said it can also be that because older workers have more financial resources, "they can wait longer" to find a job.

That's the case for Fitze, the Plainfield worker, who has been able to stay current on his mortgage even as his wife's real estate commissions have slowed. He was awaiting an assignment at the Kleen Energy power plant in Middletown when an explosion killed 6 workers and badly damaged the building in February. He still expects work there once repairs are completed and it opens.

But with home building and renovations scarce, carpenters are unlikely to see a turnaround soon.

"It's getting to be kind of a real scary situation with winter coming up," Schweitzer said. "I just keep answering every ad I see in the paper, keep calling everybody I know, just hoping for the best. I've got a plow on my truck, come winter I'll hopefully do some plowing."

Johnson echoed that sentiment. "I pray every day that work comes back."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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