washingtonpost.com
The recession's job roller coaster
Governments have saved some via stimulus but have had to cut others

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Audrey Hedgepesth was in the shampoo aisle at CVS when she got the phone call that changed her life. She had been hired as a Bladensburg police officer, the caller said, a position created by federal stimulus money. "I started dancing in the middle of the aisle," recalled a grinning Hedgepesth, 23.

About the same time in October, veteran Prince George's County auto mechanic Mark Carrico got life-changing news, too. The county was facing tough times, he was told, and some people had to be let go. The news that he was one of them left him feeling like he was "falling out of an airplane without a parachute," Carrico, 52, said.

In responding to the recession, government has given with one hand and taken with the other. Although some have been saved by the $787 billion stimulus, many others have been the victims of local government cutbacks. States and localities, faced with shortfalls and mandates to balance their budgets, have laid off thousands, adding to the unemployment crisis.

The Prince George's area has seen both policies play out, creating its share of winners and losers. For Hedgepesth, becoming a police officer felt like a just reward after three years of trying. For Carrico, two stints with the county totaling 13 years came to an abrupt end.

Prince George's officials said they tried everything before letting Carrico and 49 other employees go. They froze hiring, slashed spending, cut vacant positions and furloughed all workers for 10 days, two years in a row.

Then, in August, Maryland announced cuts to localities, costing Prince George's $22.7 million and leaving a gaping hole in the county budget. To help close it, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said he had no choice left but to lay people off.

More than $34 million in stimulus funds awarded to the county government did little to avert layoffs, officials said, because it came with constraints on how it could be spent. More than $10 million could be used only to hire 50 county police officers for three years. And $6.9 million was earmarked for the county's bus fleet. Other funds will go to energy-efficiency efforts.

"While these are great programs and they're helping the county a lot, it doesn't really help to offset general-fund dollars," said county budget director Jonathan R. Seeman. "These are grant funds, and they are almost universally for very specific purposes. . . . It really doesn't affect the layoffs."

Lost and gained

Countywide, nearly 5,000 jobs were lost in the public and private sectors from March through October, labor statistics show, and the stimulus is credited with creating or saving nearly 600 jobs during about the same span.

From March through October, 2.8 million jobs were lost nationwide, including 131,000 state and local government positions, according to federal statistics. About 640,000 jobs have been created or saved by the stimulus, according to the government Web site http://recovery.gov. That figure does not account for jobs indirectly created by the aid through re-spending and subcontracting.

The government cuts in Prince George's added to grim circumstances for many residents. The county was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, and many neighborhoods remain checkered with abandoned lots. Small-business owners, unable to get loans, are closing up shop, reversing years of progress the county had made in attracting retail within its borders, said Phil Lee, president of the Kettering Civic Federation.

"I'm really kind of distraught," Lee said. "It's two steps forward, four steps backward."

Carrico's sons Luke, 13, and Vincent, 11, munched on Reese's Puffs cereal before school one recent morning while their mom, Betty, worked in the kitchen. All around them in their Huntingtown house were signs of how things have changed.

A school lunch calendar on the refrigerator displayed the kids' initials -- an "L" on taco day, a "V" on chicken nugget day -- part of a money-saving system to ensure the boys don't buy a school lunch too often. A paint can, a bucket of drywall compound and a putty knife sat on the floor -- remnants of the house repairs Carrico undertakes to fill his newfound spare time. On cold nights, the family has also taken to sleeping with extra blankets and socks to avoid turning on the heat as much as possible.

And then there's the biggest addition, Carrico, who would already have been servicing county police vehicles about the time his boys were waking up on mornings like this.

"I loved working on the police cars," he said. "It was kind of my way of giving back to them. I feel confident that if these guys had to go out and do 130 miles per hour in a car, the car would be there for them. . . . They have enough things they have to focus on."

Now, after dropping the boys at the bus stop and saying goodbye to his wife as she leaves for work each morning, Carrico must acclimate his ears and his psyche -- accustomed to the drilling, hammering and clanging of an auto shop -- to his quiet, empty house.

He tries his best to stay productive. The Vietnam veteran has taken apart his deck to resurface it. He fixes friends' cars in his garage, often just for the cost of parts. He puts up drywall in his basement and pursues federal job listings online because he still believes that "there's nothing like the security of a government job."

His most consuming job might be playing down the turmoil for the kids' benefit. Luke, a science whiz, wants to find a cure for cancer. Vincent wants to play for the New York Yankees. Neither should have to sacrifice their dreams because of a bad financial turn, both parents said.

"I keep all the emotions in a little tiny box inside of me," Betty Carrico said, "because if I let it out, I'll lose it."

None of this, however, means they're giving up.

"When God closes one door, he opens another," Mark Carrico said. "I believe something really good is going to happen. . . . It's just a matter of whether we can hang on that long."

After 3 years, a uniform

The stimulus dollars didn't arrive a moment too soon for Hedgepesth, a former nightclub security worker who decided to become an officer just as departments nationwide were about to face severe budget constraints.

She first applied to the Prince George's police academy in 2006 but was turned down in favor of more-qualified applicants, she was told. Undeterred, she applied to Anne Arundel County's academy but couldn't complete a 1.5-mile run fast enough during a preliminary test.

"I don't want to say I wanted to give up, but I was just getting irritated," she recalled.

Hedgepesth eventually enrolled in the Prince George's Community College police academy, where she took classes, lost weight and got herself in shape to pass the fitness requirements.

But as graduation neared, another obstacle came into focus: the job market.

Representatives of only seven agencies attended an open house for academy students this summer, but upward of 20 had done so in years past, she said.

She applied to more than 10 police agencies and waited for good news. It finally came from the one-square-mile town of Bladensburg last month, where officials decided to make her their 21st officer. The position was created with $221,000 in federal stimulus money that will pay her salary and benefits for three years.

Hanging on her sergeant's every word, Hedgepesth sat eagerly during roll call recently before embarking on her first night shift. She sported a new police uniform with her name embroidered on the front, her hair pulled tightly back and an engagement ring sparkling on one of her folded hands. Still a trainee, there was no gun on her hip, just a cellphone.

After the briefing, she set out on her 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift, during which she assisted the officer training her on everything from traffic stops and filing reports to questioning a gang member.

"I've been trying awhile, a long time, to become police," she said. "I'm ready."

On Tuesday, she was officially sworn in as Officer Audrey Hedgepesth.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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