Two years ago Jan Staeblein and her husband earned $35,000 a year and were planning to buy a home and raise a family. Now, since both of them have been laid off several months from factory jobs in the scenic hills of western Maryland, the only thing the Staebleins are planning is how to buy food with $10 a week.
Not only are a house and children out of the picture, but when their refrigerator went on the blink the Staebleins had to keep what groceries they had in a styrofoam cooler for more than a month. Because she cannot afford to use a laundromat, Jan Staeblein said she washes her clothes on an old-fashioned scrub board she once got as a collectors' item.
"Let Reagan come live with me for a month and see if he likes eating spaghetti three times a week because it's only 59 cents," Staeblein said, adding that she grows tomatoes in her back yard to make spaghetti sauce.
Staeblein is one of the thousands of long-term unemployed factory workers who once had hopes of a good life in the western Maryland counties of Washington, Allegany and Garrett but now have hopelessly joined the lines of unemployed in communities that have struggled and stagnated during the last two years.
The counties have had double-digit unemployment for at least a year, although the most recent figures show the unemployment levels have dropped somewhat to 13.9 percent in Allegany, 18.7 percent in Garrett and 13.8 percent in Washington County.
"We have stagnated since 1980," said Thomas Jones, economic development director for Garrett County. "There's stagnation on all fronts--government, services, construction."
The last two years have been plagued by plant closings, and major layoffs at places such as the Mack Truck plant in Hagerstown, Pittsburgh Plate Glass in Cumberland and Bausch and Lomb in Garrett County. Some new businesses are moving into the areas but the jobs they will provide haven't made up for the thousands lost since 1979 in major plants closely linked to the economic misfortunes of the automobile and housing industries.
On the outside the western Maryland communities look prosperous, not destitute. New malls bustle with people. Construction cranes and dug-out foundations are evident and there are no long lines at rescue missions or unemployment offices. Dark green hills provide scenic relief.
Requests for food stamps and public assistance haven't increased dramatically over the last couple of years, according to local welfare officials, and neither has crime.
Hard times are camouflaged by family and friends who take in their neighbors and relatives, people used to hard work who say they are too proud to ask for food stamps. Others who live in this fusion of factories and farms sell off cars, trucks, furniture, clothing and even homes.
Laid-off workers like Staeblein are at the end of their unemployment eligibility and unable to get jobs elsewhere, either because no other employment is available or employers refuse to hire workers they fear may go back to their old jobs when conditions improve.
Gladys Shepherd, who used to work with Staeblein at the Mack Truck plant, said that since she lost her job last October Staeblein's son has had to leave Southeastern College in Florida where he studied music to take a job making $4 an hour.
"He had a part-time job in Florida," Staeblein said of her son. "But without me helping he couldn't keep it up."
In Hagerstown, more than 1,500 people have been laid off at the Mack Truck plant since its peak production in 1979, when it had 4,600 workers. But no significant layoffs have occurred in the last 18 months, said Leroy Burtner, head of Washington County's economic development effort.
Mack has had furloughs, layoffs and recalls off and on in the last few months, but is still the county's largest employer with about 3,300 workers, Burtner said. Earlier this month Mack furloughed 100 workers in preparation for a three-week production cutback this summer. The company said it will close its plant for three weeks instead of the traditional two-week vacation because many employes had built up five or six weeks of vacation.
Fairchild Republic Co., which has about 2,500 employes, has also experienced up and down employment, Burtner said. The company recently furloughed 47 employes because of a slowdown in plant production of aircraft parts.
On the other hand, Burtner boasts about the $600,000 expansion at the United Parcel Service facility, the relocation from within Hagerstown to the suburbs of the Antietam Paper Co., and a $14 million project to build a printing plant and office complex for the Seventh Day Adventists Review and Herald Publishing Association.
The county is loaded with industrial parks, most of which are filled. For example, the $30 million Interstate Industrial Park is about three-quarters filled with 13 companies that employ about 800 people, Burtner said.
But Washington County, like other one- or two-industry economies trapped by the slump in those businesses, is trying to diversify its employment base. "Historically, Fairchild was the largest employer," Burtner said. "As Fairchild's fortunes rose and fell, so did the community. Then Mack Truck came 20 years ago." Fairchild accounts for 5 percent of employment and Mack Truck contributes 6 percent, Burtner said.
But the expansion hasn't helped Emma Rogers, a former Mack employe, who must sell the home she worked for for nine years because she and her husband can no longer afford the payments.
She has resorted to making chocolate candies in her kitchen to sell at Easter and making knitted afghans to earn income. Rogers said her husband, an insurance agent, has had his income cut in half because many of his clients were Mack employes. However, none of the people who have looked at the 11-room home with the wide veranda in Hagerstown have been able to buy it, Rogers said.
Rogers said she is already two months behind in her house payments and if she misses another month, her bank will foreclose on the house. Rogers' daughter was married this month, but hard times reduced the planned catered affair to a backyard party with home-made dresses, food and flowers, Rogers said.
"I have always wanted my own home, an old house," Rogers said. "Now that I've got it, I can't repair it. Now my only wish is to get rid of it. We looked for this house for nine years before we bought it. We had such great plans for what we were going to do with it.
"My little ones can't understand why they can't go bowling, why they can't go to the movies," Rogers said. If she can sell her house, Rogers said, she and her family will move to North Carolina to stay with relatives until they can find other jobs.
In Allegany County, Richard Mappin, that area's economic development director, said he doesn't expect to see much improvement unless tha national economy picks up. The county's major industrial employer, Kelly-Springfield Tire Co., has had no major layoffs recently but announced that it would lay off 250 workers for one week when production of bias-ply medium truck tires was halted because of sluggish demand. About 350 workers were laid off May 10 and returned May 17.
Last Monday 1,500 Kelly-Springfield employes went on a week-long furlough when the plant shut down because of sluggish demand for light- and medium-weight truck tires.
The Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant that once employed 550 now has 175 workers, and the Celanese Corp. plant has closed temporarily. But at least seven new businesses have located in the county recently and K mart and J. C. Penney stores have opened, anchoring a 55-store mall, Mappin said.
John Pfeiffer, who has been unemployed since October after being laid off by PPG where he worked 19 years, said last week he put in a request to be transferred to a PPG plant in Pennsylvania because he is unable to find work in the quaint city of Cumberland in the Appalachian foothills.
"I'm at the age now that I thought I'd be pretty set in my life," Pfeiffer said. "I'll be 48 soon."
Pfeiffer said he is saved somewhat because his wife has a part-time job and most of his children are grown. "That kind of keeps my head above water a little bit."
To keep his unemployment checks coming in, Pfeiffer said he has to prove he has visited at least four employers a week seeking work. But he said employers are reluctant to hire him because they fear he may be recalled by PPG and leave them. In addition, Pfeiffer said the job search burns up a good chunk of money. "It costs a lot of gas money to run from place to place," Pfeiffer said, "I'd like to be back to work and be the breadwinner for the family again."
The Celanese plant that manufactured yarn in Allegany County is closing temporarily until the market improves, Mappin said. That means a loss of 600 jobs in a county with a workforce of 33,000 and a probable increase in unemployment from 13.7 percent to 15 percent, he said.
On the brighter side, the Westvaco Manufacturing Co., which produces fine paper, employs 1,918 workers and is going strong. "There's a demand for fine quality paper," Mappin said. "They're not hiring any more, but they haven't laid off any people.
"The decline started with the auto industry," Mappin said, and spread to Allegany County.
Although jobs are hard to come by, residents have banded together to contribute for public projects, Mappin said. The county hospital needed $25 million in remodeling but not enough money was available, so the community raised $1.2 million in donations from individuals and industries, Mappin said. County residents also raised $12,000 to send an Allegany Community College team to a competition in Kansas.