By LEONARD SPARKS
Maryland upper shore counties: unemployment rates Feb. 2005 to Feb. 2009. (Source: Md. Dept. of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation)
EASTON (April 30, 2009) - Frances Kostkowski cried when Boater's World decided to close the Denton distribution center where she spent 14 years filling orders for boating accessories.
The 57-year-old widow cried again while sitting inside a Panera Bread on Route 50 in Easton and contemplating an uncertain future in the face of an unstable job market.
"I can't live on minimum wage," Kostkowski said. "I can't pay the rent, the electric bill, the car payments, the car insurance on minimum wage."
That distress is gripping residents across the state as the recession's unabated sweep leaves an accumulation of closings and layoffs in its wake.
No Maryland county is untouched by the economic malaise that has sent the state unemployment rate soaring from 3.7 percent in March 2008 to 6.9 percent through last month.
One of the hardest-hit regions has been the largely rural Upper Eastern Shore, consisting of Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne's and Talbot counties.
Unemployment rolls boomed there between February 2008 and February 2009 by more than 3,600 people.
Queen Anne's rate almost doubled, from 3.8 percent to 7.5 percent, as did Caroline's, from 5.2 percent to 10.2 percent. And Dorchester now has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state, at 11.5 percent, behind only Worcester County. County figures are not adjusted for seasonal changes in unemployment.
"We tend to be behind most of the swings in the economy, both going up and down," said Paige Bethke, Talbot County's economic development director. "This one's definitely caught us."
J.O.K. Walsh, executive director of the nonprofit Caroline Economic Development Corp. in Denton, had not seen Caroline County's unemployment rate approach double digits in 25 years working on the Shore.
"We didn't have enough workers for the last four or five years," he said. "Now, all of that is suddenly turned around."
Employment counselors say former mortgage brokers and real estate agents, as well as people with college degrees, are walking through their doors.
"In the time that I've been doing this, I've never seen this kind of broad decline," said Daniel McDermott, executive director of the Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board. "Before, we were only dealing with manufacturing."
Five times in the past 12 months, companies on the Upper Shore have notified the state about coming layoffs or closures.
The notices were required under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, a federal law requiring companies with 100 or more employees to give states 60 days notice about mass layoffs or plant closings.
Wireless company Powerwave Technologies closed its Salisbury facility last fall, eliminating 278 positions.
Cadmus Communications, a medical and scientific book printer in Easton for more than 60 years, will leave 185 out of work when it shuts down this month.
Boater's World's closure next month affects 68 employees. It's owned by Ritz Camera Centers, which is in bankruptcy and shuttering hundreds of stores nationwide.
Bryan and Sons in Easton and Regina USA in Cambridge also filed notices.
Job losses in Baltimore county and city under the WARN Act are much larger, 1,639 and 1,025, respectively. But the elimination of more than 600 jobs is magnified in counties where the average population ranges from 20,000 in Kent to about 47,000 in Queen Anne's.
Closing Boater's World could raise Kent County's unemployment rate by a whole percentage point, McDermott said. "One hundred people getting laid off in the county is huge," he said.
The state's 12 workforce investment boards are expending extra energy. Drawing their memberships from business, education and social services, the boards develop job training programs for their geographic areas, operate "one-stop" career centers and counsel job-seekers.
They also mobilize when notified of mass layoffs or closings. The Upper Shore's board uses a converted Winnebago to traverse its five-county jurisdiction to educate unemployed and soon-to-be unemployed residents about available benefits.
"We're in places that we've never been in before," McDermott said.
The Upper Shore's board received a $30,000 state grant last year to hire someone to work specifically with laid-off workers. Catherine Mazzola has been the board's "navigator" since September, matching people to eligible benefits, including computer training or college classes.
"It's overwhelming for them," she said. "The good part of my job is I am here to help."
The board also works with Chesapeake College and the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to organize job fairs around the region. The largest took place April 21 at Chesapeake College, but the turnout from employers symbolized the contracting job market.
The 50 employers who staffed tables in the college's gymnasium were 28 fewer than last year and 39 fewer than 2007. Several regular attendees sent notes blaming the economy for their absence, said Guido DeLuca, director of career planning and job development for Chesapeake College.
The retreat by employers is also visible in the weekly newsletter DeLuca produces for job seekers. A decline in businesses advertising openings condensed the newsletter from 12 pages to eight.
"Everything seems to be shrinking," DeLuca said.
The job fair drew scores of Cadmus employees.
Robert Benson started as a temporary employee there and became permanent in 2005. He operated a saddle-stitch machine, binding pages into book form. Several rounds of layoffs beginning one and a half years ago signaled the end, he said.
"It wasn't a surprise to me," he said. "It was slowly kind of going downhill."
Benson knows that finding a similar job will be difficult on the Eastern Shore. A co-worker recently found a printing job near the District and plans to commute for a year before considering a move across the Bay Bridge.
His next step is a board-sponsored computer class. Basic computer skills are a must-have these days, Benson said.
"Now companies don't even want applications anymore," he said. "You have to do everything online."
He feels fortunate to have a valid commercial driver's license and car repair experience. Benson was also prescient enough to keep payment insurance on one credit card, and has already arranged to suspend payments. Another looming budget decision involves cable TV.
"I'm trying not to get stressed out," he said. "The main thing I got to do is keep my car, my insurance, my rent paid and enough money to get something to eat."
Kostkowski is also fighting to remain optimistic.
The Beltsville-based Ritz Camera is shutting the Denton warehouse as part of a reorganization that will close 130 Boater's World stores nationwide.
"They were trying to find buyers for it, but weren't successful," said Bob DeVita, vice president of advertising for Ritz Camera.
Demand for the chain's accessories withered in the face of the recession and last summer's spike in gas prices, which crippled the boating industry.
Walsh was justifiably proud of the boat builders he attracted to Caroline County in recent years, but recently they have been struggling, he said. One builder who boasted an 18-month backlog now has no orders and is concentrating on repairs.
"The first thing everybody cut out was discretionary spending," Walsh said. "And buying a boat is discretionary."
Staff at the Boater's World warehouse shrank from 10 shippers to three as layoffs began last fall, Kostowski said, while shipment volume decreased from 2,000 packages a day to about 500.
Kostowski, who shares a rented farmhouse with her 76-year-old mother in Greensboro, owns a 401(k) plan from Boater's World and one from a part-time job at a Food Lion. She does not know the value of either one.
She will draw her husband's Social Security payment when she turns 60, but fears that is not enough. "We still have fuel to buy every winter and electric to pay," she said. "We sometimes get down to the end of the month where we're scraping pennies."
Kostkowski is looking at unemployment insurance for the first time. The need to cover prescriptions for high cholesterol and back pain may require other kinds of government assistance.
"I'm willing to do whatever I have to do to keep myself in medical insurance and prescriptions and money," she said. "I'll do what I'll have to do."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.