State job crisis deepens; Baldwin hit particularly hard

Georgia’s unemployment rate hit a record 10.4 percent in January, besting the previous record high of 10.3 percent reported in December.

The January jobless rate was up 2 percentage points from 8.4 percent at the same time last year, according to a news release from the Georgia Department of Labor.

Wayne Johnson of Milledgeville knows all too well how bad the unemployment situation is.

He lost his job in May 2009 shortly after Rheem Manufacturing Corp. announced earlier that year it was closing the Milledgeville plant.

Johnson, 57, had worked at the plant 12 years, and he planned to work there until he retired. He worked as a group coordinator and quality assurance inspector and took classes in warehouse inventory and management. Now Johnson spends every day looking for another job.

“It’s been rough,” he said. “I’m caught between a rock and a rock because of my age and I’m an unskilled laborer.”

During the past 10 months, Johnson has applied for jobs in a 30-mile radius around Milledgeville.

“It’s discouraging,” he said. “You show up for a job and you look at 30 people ahead of you.”

State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond said the state’s job crisis is deepening.

Baldwin County has been hit particularly hard with several companies, including Rheem, which had about 1,000 employees, shuttering their doors last year.

Shaw Industries announced in January 2009 it would close letting 150 workers go. T&S Hardwoods Inc., which employed 95 workers announced in March it would stop production. The GMC dealer closed in April after filing for bankruptcy in January. The Frank C. Scott Jr. State Prison in Hardwick, with 281 workers, closed in August. In September, state officials announced it would close the Bill E. Ireland Youth Development Campus, affecting 300 employees.

Baldwin County’s unemployment rate was 14.2 in December, the last reported figure by the state. That’s up from 11.4 for the same period in 2008.

Johnson said his unemployment insurance payments are set to run out in about six months, as he faces the last extension of his benefits.

Ben Loper, co-owner of downtown restaurant Pig in a Pit, said the business closures affect everyone.

“Our business has definitely gone down,” Loper said. “Other restaurants have been talking about it, too.”

When he opened two years ago, two or three people a day would come in looking for a job, he said. Now at least four a day come in asking for work.

Perhaps a saving grace for his business is about 45 percent of his customers are Georgia College & State University students, and its enrollment has been steadily increasing in recent years.

Harold Goodrich, owner of Harold’s Tuxedos, said that while his customers are mostly older and fairly affluent, his business reflects the economy. He carries tuxedos and ladies clothes in his shop.

“If my neighbor is unemployed, then that makes you think that maybe you shouldn’t be spending money,” Goodrich said. “It discourages people who do want to spend money.”

The situation in Baldwin County is hurting the local government, too, said County Manager Joan Minton.

“We’ve reduced the county budget by $3 million, and out of a $20 million budget, that’s huge,” Minton said. “The biggest revenue that’s declined is sales tax. Over a two-year period, our sales tax is down by 25 percent.”

During the past 15 years, the county has had a steady growth rate of 2-4 percent each year, she said.

The county has cut $650,000 from county salaries, frozen vacant positions, cut out unnecessary spending and other measures during the past two years to help make up the loss, Minton said.

“No, no, no is our motto,” she said. “We’re keeping services going, but with a reduced staff.”

‘It’s been tough’

There was a steady stream of people looking for work Thursday at a job fair hosted by the Macon Police Department and AmeriCorps. at Southside Community Church, 4162 Roy Ave.

One of them was Merland Felton, 59, of Macon. He’s been unemployed for a year and a half. With 25 years of machine technician experience, he thought he’d be able to find work. “I thought I’d be able to find a job,” he said. “I have a lot of experience.”

Felton said he’s even looked for work with retailers and car dealers. “It’s been a disappointment,” he said.

William Wadley, 55, of Milledgeville, traveled to Macon for the job fair. A construction worker for most of his working life, Wadley said he remembers when he could always find work. “I used to stay busy,” he said.

For the last year, he’s been busy unsuccessfully looking for work.

“I’ve been looking for just about anything,” he said. “I look on the Internet and don’t get any calls back.”

Wayne Smith, 54, has been looking for work for 14 months. “I have 15 years experience driving a forklift and I can’t get a forklift job,” he said. “I looked for work at Lowe’s, Walmart, Kmart, Arby’s and quite a few others.

“It’s been rough.”

Georgiana Braham, 32, hasn’t found work in two years. She was hoping to find something at the job fair.

“It’s been very hectic,” she said. “I got unemployment and it ran out.”

Braham used to work at the Perdue plant in Perry. She has eight children and is struggling to provide for them.

“It’s frustrating not being able to support my family.”