Small businesses, laid-off workers aren’t seeing economic recovery


BY JAMES LAWSON
jlawson@kenoshanews.com
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For 27 years, Daniel DeRose has been able to make a living cutting and trimming trees. And when he couldn’t cut trees, his Silver Lake company, American Tree Service, would get the call to haul rubbish or help homeowners clean out cluttered basements.

Things changed last year. His phone wasn’t ringing as often. And with this season’s harsh weather, customers aren’t rushing to schedule his services. “I’ve never seen it this bad before,” DeRose said. “Sure there have been some slow years, but not like 2013.”

DeRose’s vehicles and equipment certainly have seen better days. His aerial bucket truck, stump grinder, and chipper machine are old but trusty because of careful maintenance. His only new piece of equipment is a trimming saw he bought two years ago. He parks his equipment on a three-acre parcel he owns, but if times grow worse he may have to sell his property or get out of the business altogether.

“Things are so bad that I had to borrow money from my mother for the first time in my life just to pay the rent on my one-bedroom apartment,” he explained. “I don’t think people have the money to take down a tree, shape it, or trim one. I’m ready to work, but the calls just aren’t coming in.”

In Paddock Lake, Mary Schutt is mulling similar sentiments. Schutt owns Paddock Lake Thrift Shop, but recently she’s been wondering why she opened the store.

“I’ve only had one customer all day,” Schutt said on a Wednesday afternoon earlier this month. “There use to be a time when I’d have 10, maybe 20 customers in a day.”

Business leaders and corporate executives appreciate the success Kenosha County enjoyed in 2013 as companies expanded, relocated here or announced plans to bring work to the area. The experts are optimistic for 2014, but for some local residents and small business owners, last year was no golden dream and this year is off to a slow start. Some wonder when the promised jobs will come and when they will see their own personal recovery.

“Most of 2013 was bad, and 2014 so far is not much better,” Schutt noted. “I was getting some people coming in looking for clothes for a job interview. But now, they’re not even doing that. They are using what they have.”

In business for five years, Schutt has seen the good and the bad. Her first two years in business were her best. Now she has to use some of her personal savings to pay the $1,000 monthly rent. “I never had to do that before,” she said.

When she has customers, often they have their own stories of hard times.

“I talk to people who all seem to be struggling. They say they go from job to job,” she said “Some have lost a job or have to work two part-time jobs to make ends meet.”

Bright spots for some

Business owners aren’t the only ones who have seen dismal times lately.

Kenosha resident Pamela Zamora lost two jobs in 2013. At the beginning of the year, she was hopeful of an overdue raise she expected from JC Penney. Last March, however, across-the-board budget cuts at all of the national retailer’s stores dashed that enthusiasm.

“I had pleaded to my store manager to do my review so that raise would happen, but his hands were tied,” she said. “(Then) our hours were cut. My schedule went down to 11 hours a week.

“So I had no other choice than to look for employment elsewhere. Doing that just made matters worse because no one was hiring, so I was without a job for three months.”

Then she found work at a Paddock Lake billing firm.

“It was way less (pay) than I made at JC Penney, and then the company was downsizing so the last people hired were let go,” she recalled. “I was one of them.”

Not only did she have a short tenure with the company, but while working there much of her paycheck went toward gas she bought to travel from Kenosha to Paddock Lake.

But things are looking up for Zamora. She found a job a Festival Foods on 80th Street, mere minutes from her home.

“So now I only use minimal gas. It is a great store with a lot of deals, so I’m not starving all the time,” she said. “I would love to see gasoline go back to $3 a gallon, but of course that is hoping against hope. We all have to tighten our purse strings and just be more cautious with our spending, which is no problem to me because I’m already that way.”

Pessimism on the horizon

Throughout the employment turmoil, Zamora remained hopeful, but she and others say the search for work can be depressing. Some may be lacking job skills. Others have worked consistently for many years and are thrown for a loop when they find themselves unemployed. One 57-year-old Kenosha woman who lost her job in mid-January finds herself in this category. The woman, who asked not to be identified, had been a machine operator for 39 years.

Throughout much of the last two or three years she has suffered from a variety of ailments — an arthritic knee, torn cartilage, complications from stomach surgery, a blocked colon. Two weeks after she was fired, she spent five days in the hospital. She now regrets not being admitted to the hospital before she was fired because she thinks maybe then she wouldn’t have lost her job.

“I was let go because they said I had surpassed my 60 hours of unpaid time off,” she said. “The company had a policy that only allowed for medically excused absences and all others counted against the employee.”

Meanwhile, she isn’t receiving unemployment or disability payments.

“I hope I can make it through the year with the money I took from my 401(k),” she said. “I’ve been to the job center. I’m still looking for work. I would take part-time work. I applied for jobs at a couple of factories. I think I would do anything — cashier, house cleaning, care giving.”

As for the year ahead, she’s not sure what it will hold. DeRose is uncertain, too. At 51, he is apprehensive not only about his own future but about the years ahead for younger people just starting to make their way.

“I’m scared about the economy, especially for the young people,” DeRose said. “I wonder what they’ll do. There doesn’t seem to be much for them.”


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