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Unemployment ripple effect hits thousands in Triad

by Keith Barber

The Employment Security Commission in Winston-Salem was the second stop of the day for Anthony Clinton. A freelance photographer, Clinton was eighth in line when he arrived shortly after noon on Nov. 12, and as he waited  a number of other applicants filed in behind him. Clinton surveyed the scene — job seekers stationed at computer terminals applying for open positions or building their résumés, a man tending to an infant while waiting his turn to speak to a receptionist and a dozen or so people seated in blue chairs also quietly waiting.

“Most people here never thought they would be here,” he observed.

By his own admission, neither did he. In 2002, Clinton was laid off by his employer of 16 years, Tribuzio-Hilliard, Inc., a commercial photography studio in High Point. Since then, he’s been doing freelance work to pay the bills.

When it was his turn to speak to a receptionist at the unemployment office, Clinton inquired about his eligibility for benefits. The receptionist asked for his Social Security number to check the state’s database. She then asked if Clinton was self-employed.

“Yes, I am,” he replied.

 “Self-employment doesn’t pay into the unemployment taxes, so let me check and see.

“What did you have to do, a 1099 at the end of the year?” she asked.

“I think so,” said Clinton.

Moments later, the receptionist informed Clinton he was not eligible for unemployment benefits. Upon hearing the news, Clinton’s expression did not change. No sign of disappointment, but certainly no sign of joy either — even keeled. It was Clinton’s steady nature that helped him maintain a good relationship with his previous employer, he said, and that led to the majority of his photography assignments over the past six years. Clinton vividly remembers the day he got the news of the layoff.  

“I was angry and shocked they had done that but I didn’t show no anger or shock when they handed me my slip,” he said. “I had to keep my calm when they told me. I said, ‘If you need me to come back, call me.’”

And Trubuzio-Hilliard did call. Clinton estimates he spent 11 months freelancing for his old studio the first year after being laid off. However, the next year, it became eight months and then it dwindled to six months. Clinton said the company, which specializes in furniture photography, began to see a drop in business as manufacturers began outsourcing their labor and photography needs to firms in China. Then, three months ago, the biggest blow of all came. Trubuzio told Clinton his services would not be needed for the fall High Point Furniture Market.

“That was my main income. I was going to pay my taxes off with the furniture market,” he said. “You know how you have the wheels rolling and suddenly they’re not rolling anymore — it’s a ripple effect.”

Clinton said he’s still making payments on his 2007 tax bill, and the $7,000 he invested in camera equipment last year is placing a strain on his finances. Following the discouraging news, Clinton said he’s been pounding the pavement, trying to drum up business for his studio, Mobalage Photo.

That’s why Clinton’s first stop of the day on Nov. 12 was a Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce event.  Clinton joined the Chamber to build his network of business contacts. He realizes, in retrospect, that he should have been doing that all along.

“I should’ve been doing was building my business outside the studio more than relying on [Trubuzio],” he said. “That was my fatal mistake.”

Clinton remains philosophical about his situation, saying he’s “put it in God’s hands.” He has been through a lot in the past six years. He lost his job, endured the passing of his father, Ulysses, and former wife, Debra within two months of one another, and watched his standard of living slowly disappear. Yet he remains hopeful.

 “I think once this economy gets better I think a lot more businesses will open up and I think the studios will get busier, too,” he said.

In the meantime, Clinton said he will continue to market Mobalage Photo to potential clients. He could soon be forced to make some hard decisions.

“I’m thinking of doing something part-time in between, maybe drive a school bus or something,” he said, “but I need to have time to build my business.”

Archie Hicks, manager of the Employment Security Commission in Winston-Salem, said Clinton’s story is not unusual. Hicks said the last published unemployment rate for Forsyth County is 6.3 percent, but the true rate is most likely higher.

“There’s a pretty good indication the rate is going up for the year and they say by next year, it’s going to be around 8 percent,” Hicks said. “You got to consider that one, a lot of people don’t get in the figures. A lot of people leave the job market because they become discouraged with what  they’re looking for. They do these surveys the same way to get these figures and the figures most recently was 6.3 percent for the county, but that doesn’t include people who haven’t given up the prospect of finding work.”

The Employment Security Commission website reveals there have been 27 business closings and nine instances of layoffs in Forsyth County in 2008. One of the largest in the region’s history occurred in June 2007. Hanesbrands, a spinoff of Sara Lee, closed its Stratford Road facility and pink-slipped more than 600 employees. Hicks acknowledged that many of those former Hanesbrands workers have not been calculated into the current unemployment statistics, because they managed to find lower-paying jobs in the interim.

“That’s what you don’t see a lot of times with the rate of unemployment,” he said. “These people may have found jobs but their earnings have gone down, so their buying potential has also gone down.”

Darwin Eldridge, 29, was one of those employees laid off by Hanesbrands last year.

“I feel like they abandoned us after we’ve been there for them all these years,” he said. “There were people out there who had worked for Sara Lee, Hanes, HBI for 40 or even 50 years, and they just put them out in the street.”

Eldridge, a 29-year employee of Hanesbrands, said the quality of the company’s product has suffered as a result of shipping those 610 jobs overseas, and now the company is reaping the consequences. On the day the Stratford Road plant closed, Hanesbrands stock enjoyed a share price of $29.47. On Nov. 13, HBI stock traded at $14.95 a share, nearly a 50-percent drop in one year’s time.

Rather than despair, Eldridge took the opportunity to finish his education, taking advantage of a federal program that pays for training and additional unemployment up to two years for workers whose jobs have been moved abroad. Eldridge completed his GED at Forsyth Tech last fall and is currently in an HVAC Service Technician class, which he plans complete next spring. On Nov. 13, Eldridge practiced soldering two pieces of metal tubing during his HVAC class at Goodwill Industries. Eldridge said after he got past the anger and bitterness of being laid off, he began to take control of his life.

“My mama always told me, what you can’t control, put in the Lord’s hands,” he said.

Greater challenges lie ahead but Eldridge has maintained a positive outlook.

“I’m always looking forward to every day because it’s a challenge, and I always like a challenge even when I worked at Sara Lee,” he said.

Harold Schwab said he’s had a more difficult time getting past the anger and frustration of being laid off. Schwab, a mechanic with 20 years experience, was laid off earlier this year due in large part to “cheap labor.”

“I worked 20 years to get to $13 an hour,” he said. “Now, if was able to find a job in the labor end in automotive, I got to go back down to $8, where I started 20 years ago. It’s frustrating, absolutely frustrating.”

Schwab said he’s had to swallow his pride for the past seven months to survive. He’s accepted assistance from local food banks, the Salvation Army and Crisis Control Ministry just to get by.

“You’ve worked all your life and suddenly you have to come down and beg,” he said.

Schwab said he wants to pursue a career in health care, and on Nov. 12, he spoke with Paulette Stokes at the Employment Security Commission. Stokes, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County program manager for the Northwest Piedmont Council of Governments, shared information regarding the Workforce Investment Act, which assists dislocated workers by paying for additional schooling. Schwab said his short-term goal is to enroll in a course in nursing or radiology at Forsyth Tech, to begin the process of getting back on his feet.

Once a worker has completed a retraining program, there’s still no guarantee they’ll find a job. The Employment Security Commission has seen the ranks of Forsyth County’s unemployed expand by 48.8 percent over the past 12 months, with thousands of new benefit-seekers coming online over that period.

And the economic picture is not getting any brighter. On Nov. 14, the federal government announced that retail sales fell a record 2.8 percent in October, with furniture and home furnishings sales falling 2.5 percent. Every day, Hicks arrives at his office to find 15 to 20 people waiting in line.

“What sticks in my mind now is the sheer volume. We’re having a lot of people coming in seeking unemployment,” Hicks said.

The job market is shrinking, which means job seekers have to work even harder to land a full-time position in tough economic times.

“People want to know where they can go and find jobs and that’s a tough sell because employers are a little more particular now than they have been in the past,” Hicks said. “People really have to market themselves because there’s so many people applying for those same jobs.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Keith T. Barber at keith@yesweekly.com.

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