Chelsea Miller and Lisa Roberson, The Chronicle-Telegram
On Dec. 10, 2008, Norm Denger, a former burner at Republic Engineered Products in Lorain, said he finished up his shift and was given one last task to do before he left for the day.
He was told to clean out his locker.
“It was just like, ‘Boom — one day you have a job and the next day you don’t,’ ” said Denger, now 61. “We thought we had it good. We were working six days a week and like 10 and 12 hours a day until that day.”
After 28 years at the steel plant, Denger said he was laid off with no warning and no way to replace the $51,000-a-year job he thought he would retire from in a few years. To make matters worse, Denger said he and roughly 750 employees received no severance pay.
Denger’s experience isn’t an anomaly, so it is hardly surprising that numbers released today by the U.S. Census Bureau paint a picture of Lorain and other Ohio counties that show, recession or no recession, Ohioans aren’t earning the kind of money they used to make.
Echoes of recession
Three years after the longest recession since the Great Depression was said to have ended, many, including Denger, still have not found gainful employment or jobs that pay as well as the ones they had.
Worse yet, Ohio never fully recovered from the previous recession, which ran between March and November 2001.
According to the Census Bureau surveys, Ohio’s median household income was $45,739 last year — 17.2 percent less than reported in 1999, when adjusted for inflation.
In Lorain and Medina counties, the declines were more staggering — more than 20 percent.
The median income for Lorain County’s households — meaning half took in more and half less — was $48,280 last year. That’s $12,518 less than the inflation-adjusted 1999 median.
Medina County’s median income of $59,572 last year was higher than Lorain County’s, but so was the $15,763 drop-off from the 1999 peak.
George Zeller, a Cleveland-based economic researcher, said the problem for many people isn’t finding a job. It’s finding one that will pay the bills.
“There’s good news and bad news. Ohio has finally stopped losing jobs,” he said. “In that sense, the impact of the recession is finally over.
“But on the other hand, there’s a large decline in the wages.”
Traci Wolford of Elyria thought she had a pretty decent job prior in 2005. It was part time, only required her to work 30 or fewer hours a week and paid her roughly $20,000.
Then, A-1 Financial Services, a mortgage broker company, closed up and Wolford, 39, lost her job. That same year, Wolford took on more responsibility when she became the legal guardian of her younger brother after the death of her mother.
“I had to go back hunting for a job, and the market was pretty shoddy,” Wolford said. “I haven’t worked at all since 2009. I’m on Social Security disability. But it took me almost two years to find another job.
“When I started work in 2007, I made a career switch and started to do home health care. But we really had to bust our humps and made anywhere between minimum wage and $8.50 to $9 an hour if we are lucky.”
Wolford said she was not surprised to hear how much the median income has fallen off in Lorain County. She said that her experience shows the best employment opportunities exist outside the county.
“If you really want to get a good, livable wage, you have to go outside of Lorain County, especially if you don’t have an advanced degree,” she said. “Even if you have an advanced degree, it is hard to find a job in this community.”
Wolford said she thinks local county officials have forgotten the larger role they play in job creation.
“Our leaders in the county — it doesn’t seem as if they are as concerned about bringing good jobs to the area,” she said. “Why aren’t we competing to get some jobs in these empty buildings? It’s not just Elyria. It’s also Lorain. When I was a little girl, Lorain was booming. Now, it’s a ghost town.”
Wolford said scoliosis and damage to her lower back now have made it impossible to work. She had worked since she was 15, but once her health started to fail and the only job she could find was very hard on her body, she decided to apply for disability.
“But I don’t think I would be so quick to apply for my Social Security if I was able to continue working and make it on that,” she said.
Lorain County Administrator Jim Cordes blames the drop in high-paying jobs on the loss of manufacturing jobs in Northeast Ohio.
Cordes has studied statistics from the Lorain County Workforce Development Agency, which provides services and training for displaced Lorain County workers. Cordes found that 40- to 60-year-olds were the most likely to use the agency’s services, even though that age group generally is the highest paid.
“They’re not making that higher income right now,” he said.
Cordes said agencies like the Lorain County Workforce Development Agency are designed to help workers in their job search and train them to qualify for higher-paying jobs.
The problem, Cordes said, is that many Lorain County workers are overqualified for their current jobs and there just aren’t alternative jobs available in their fields.
Zeller said all industries have been affected — not solely manufacturing — and not in just Lorain and Medina counties.
Zeller said his research of state employment records shows a decrease in annual earnings across the board, with virtually all industries providing lower salaries and a lower average pay.
“All of the industries are cutting wages, and that’s remarkable,” he said. “You never see that.”
Zeller said government officials and business owners need to correct the problem, which will likely continue to decline unless changes are made.
“Until we start setting a goal of raising employees’ salaries instead of cutting them, then we’re going to continue to see these rates,” he said.
Politicians, he said, have put more emphasis on creating jobs in quantity, rather than of quality.
“I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to this, but we will now because these numbers are so drastic,” he said.
Denger said he was never able to find new employment. He said he believes his age and an injury he received while at Republic likely played a part in his continued unemployment.
He is now retired and collecting his pension. His wife is a nurse who works part time. Still, the overall income in his household is not what it used to be, he said.
“I would say it’s about two-thirds less,” he said. “I had a brand-new truck, and I lost that. Of course, the health insurance, I lost that. The biggest chunk of my pension goes to health insurance. Right now, I just watch the spending, and I don’t go anywhere.”