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Published: Friday, 3/25/2005

Michigan economy battering job-seekers

Paul and Jean Vanderhorst, of Temperance, have had to cope with unemployment for much of the last year.

Mr. Vanderhorst, a 49-year-old electrician, was laid off by an electrical contracting firm in February, 2004, but has managed to find a couple of short-term jobs since.

He has five weeks of jobless benefits left, and hopes he doesn't go without income as he did for two weeks last year. To get by at the time, he sold his guns and other hunting and sporting equipment. Said Mrs. Vanderhorst, "That's how we paid the rent. It was hard to make ends meet."

He is among thousands of southeastern Michigan workers on the unemployment rolls. More than 12,000 are idled in Monroe, Lenawee, and Hillsdale counties, according to the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth.

Michigan's unemployment has exceeded the national rate for months, and in January was second highest in the country at 7.1 percent. This week, it reported a February rate of 7.5 percent, sharply higher than the 6.4 percent in Ohio and 5.4 percent nationwide.

While February jobless figures by Michigan county are not available, the January rates weren't pretty: 9.4 percent in Hillsdale County, 8.5 percent in Lenawee County, and 7.2 percent in Monroe County.

Dana Johnson, chief economist for Comerica Bank in Detroit, said job-seekers likely could have trouble, given the state's ties to the automotive industry, which is struggling. Typically, he said, Michigan has higher unemployment early in the year.

"It's very discouraging, but I have the sense it might be bottoming out," he said.

Mr. Vanderhorst, the electrician, considers himself more fortunate than many. He expects to get a job within the next few weeks through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 8 in Rossford.

Dan Minton, business agent of Local 465 of the Laborers International Union in Monroe, "A lot of our members have struggled. Some have run out of health-care hours, and some have run out of unemployment benefits. This is a serious issue."

About 35 percent of his local's active membership of 350 has been idled for over a year, he said, the reverse of a few years ago when the local had to import workers from elsewhere because of construction in the area.

Charlie Condon, business agent in the Adrian satellite office of Local 8, said a fourth of his 2,300 members are laid off. "I've been a member 34 years, and this is the worse I've ever seen it," he said.

Not all unions are seriously affected. Robert Cebina, president of United Auto Workers Local 723 in Monroe said about 80 of his local's 1,600 members are temporarily laid off, and he expects them to return to work soon.

Not all communities are affected much, either. "We haven't had any big layoffs," said James Wonacott, village administrator of Blissfield, a Lenawee County town of 3,200 and of a dozen manufacturers with payrolls ranging from 10 to 400 jobs. "We have two companies that can't hire workers fast enough."

Business experts in Monroe and Hillsdale counties were optimistic that hiring will be coming soon to their areas.



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