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From $22 an hour to $11: GM job cuts in Ohio show a hot economy is still leaving parts of America behind

Workers who had jobs related to the General Motors Chevy Cruze factory stand in front of the Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant. Left to right: Cicero Davis, 54, worked at GM for two years. Scott Mezzapeso, 47, worked at Magna, a GM supplier, for eight years before he was laid off last summer. Nicole Thompson, 24, worked at GM for a year and was laid off in 2017. Mike Bajnok, 58, worked at GM for nearly 10 years. He tried to do a retraining program but dropped out after the first week. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

LORDSTOWN, Ohio — Scott Mezzapeso had to do something last month he never imagined: call his ex-wife and warn her that he might not be able to pay child support on time. Mezzapeso has a tattoo of his daughter on his left arm and rarely misses her high school softball games, but money has become extremely tight. General Motors is shuttering its plant here, and Mezzapeso is one of roughly 5,400 casualties.

Mezzapeso earned $22 an hour with good benefits at Magna, a GM supplier that made seats for the Chevy Cruze, but he was laid off last summer as the auto giant scaled back Cruze production and suppliers did the same. Now he makes $11 an hour working part time at Bruno Bros. Pizza, the only job he has found after months of sending out his résumé.

With GM set to shut down production here Wednesday, Lordstown shows how the nation’s booming jobs market is still leaving vast segments of America behind. Last year was the best for manufacturing jobs in more than two decades, but the Youngstown, Ohio, region where Lordstown is located has continued to lose manufacturing jobs in recent years. About a quarter of the country’s metro areas have faced the same fate, many in the Rust Belt, according to data provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The common prescription for laid-off workers from economists and business leaders — retrain and switch careers or move to another part of the country with more jobs — is proving inadequate for workers such as Mezzapeso.

After more than 50 years in Lordstown, Ohio, the General Motors assembly plant, which employs 1,500 people, is expected to close by 2019. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Nick Childers/The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)

“To be 100 percent honest, I thought I would be laid off for a few months and then go back to work,” Mezzapeso said. “At 47, I’m too old to go back to school.”

When GM closes a plant, workers lose their jobs. But the city loses its spirit.

Most jobs Mezzapeso sees pay half of what he used to earn. His 1999 Chevy Tahoe gets lousy gas mileage, making it difficult to take a low-paying job a long drive away.

Friends urge him to go to school and try welding or advanced manufacturing. He and other GM casualties here qualify for the federal government’s marquee retraining program — Trade Adjustment Assistance — that covers all costs for up to two years of classes plus a weekly stipend, meaning they get paid to attend school.

But only about 30 percent have enrolled in TAA, according to Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services.

Many workers echo Mezzapeso’s sentiments that they are too old to go back to school or that they tried but found the classes overwhelming.

When Mike Bajnok lost his $30-an-hour GM job last summer, he followed the state of Ohio’s advice and used TAA to enroll in a program to become a “CNC machinist,” a worker who can set up and operate specialized heavy machinery.

He quit after the first week.

“I just didn’t get it. From Day One, I was lost,” says Bajnok, who is 58. “The instructor told us to put in the flash drive. My skills are so bad, I had to ask him how to do that.”

Moving to another GM factory in Tennessee, Michigan or Indiana, as the company said many workers can do, does not seem like a good option, either. Bajnok lives with his parents, who are 86 and 91, and takes care of them. His two daughters and grandchildren are also here, making uprooting hard. He hopes GM will reopen this plant.

About 700 workers from the Lordstown plant have transferred, according to the local union.

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Many of the GM workers lack the basic computer and math skills to enroll in advanced manufacturing or nursing programs at local community colleges or technical schools. TAA typically isn’t used for remedial course work, and people don’t always know what other programs to tap.

“A lot of people are coming out of the plant with less than a high school diploma,” said Dwayne Alexander, an Ohio workforce development assistant.

The state of Ohio has set up a fully staffed transition center at the United Automobile Workers Local 1112 union hall in Lordstown, where experts such as Alexander help people through their options for life after GM. Many workers he meets walked out of high school and into the factory. They have never made a résumé before, let alone filled out an online job application.

GM is cutting its plant here because it no longer wants to make small cars such as the Cruze in the United States. As of this week, the company has laid off 4,500 workers since cuts began in early 2017, and another roughly 900 have lost jobs at nearby suppliers.

If Lordstown has any chance of reopening, workers will know soon. This fall, GM and the United Automobile Workers union have to negotiate a new labor contract over worker pay, conditions and head count.

So far, GM chief executive Mary Barra has promised only to “keep an open mind.” The company reported near-record profits last year of $11.8 billion before taxes as truck and SUV sales remain hot.

A GM spokesman said that these were “tough decisions” and that “virtually any employee who wants a job will have a job” at another plant, although that does not apply to suppliers, and he mentioned only 2,700 available positions right now — amid layoffs at five big plants.

'You've got to move on'

Cicero Davis is not optimistic GM Lordstown will return. He worked at the factory installing batteries in the Cruze and was cut in the initial round of layoffs in early 2017. His buddies on the battery line told him they would see him again soon, but he was one of the first to enroll in TAA.

Temporary layoffs are common in the auto industry as demand fluctuates for vehicles, his co-workers said. They also pointed to President Trump’s promises to bring back manufacturing jobs.

Trumbull County, where the factory is located, voted blue for decades but swung to Trump ahead of the 2016 election. Losing jobs overseas is a particularly sore point here since a GM factory in Mexico also started making the Cruze.

But Davis was at GM for only two years before the layoffs hit, and he was still considered a temporary worker, meaning he was paid about $20 an hour versus $30 for permanent employees. He felt less loyalty to the company and was one of the few workers at the plant driving a Honda, not a U.S. brand.

When the 54-year-old heard about TAA, he quickly signed up for classes to earn his commercial driver’s license, which enables him to drive trucks and buses. His trucking school did training drives on the road in front of the GM Lordstown plant.

“You’ve got to move on. These companies aren’t waiting for you to return,” said Davis.

Today Davis is making more money than he did at GM. Shortly after earning his trucker’s license, he got a full-time job as an overnight corrections officer at a state prison. It pays “about $20 an hour” with good health benefits, he said. On days off, he transports RVs for extra cash and conducts interviews for the U.S. census.

He is a success story, but he knows many are not. A friend from GM now works the cash register at a liquor store and asks him for advice.

“A lot of people here are still going through a grief cycle over this,” Davis said. “I have to tell my GM friends to go apply for the Affordable Care Act so they’ll have health insurance.”

'It takes time to sink in'

At the union hall transition center, Alexander, the workforce development assistant, asks workers a litany of questions about their skills, how far from home they are willing to travel for a job, whether they would consider going back to school and how much money they need to pay their monthly mortgage, car payment, child care and more.

The answers are almost always the same: People want another factory job right away that is close by and pays over $15 an hour. They do not initially think of retraining.

“There’s a strong work ethic here. Most want to get another job,” said Alexander, who has to gently explain that their next job might involve a pay cut or driving 40 minutes away. “These people had a good lifestyle at GM. When that is taken away, it takes time to sink in.”

Economists at career websites LinkedIn and Indeed say auto manufacturing workers typically stay in blue-collar jobs, although some end up in retail.

GM workers click most often on job postings for customer service representative, store clerks, warehouse jobs and “team assemblers,” according to an analysis by Indeed for The Washington Post. All of those jobs have an average annual salary of under $35,000.

Economists recommend retraining, but barriers are high for blue-collar workers. Fewer workers receive on-the-job training today than in the 1990s, says Martha Gimbel, research director for Indeed’s Hiring Lab, and the U.S. government spends a tiny fraction of what most other advanced nations do on retraining.

“High-paid white-collar workers get to invest in training and development for their entire careers, but that’s not what we’re doing for workers in manufacturing,” Gimbel said.

'Worst thing you can do'

GM has been the heartbeat of this blue-collar area, providing middle-class lives for tens of thousands of families since the 1960s, including Mezzapeso’s father, who put in 30 years at the factory and retired with a full pension and health benefits.

Many homes and store fronts in the area have a poster up that says “Drive it home” and “Support GM Lordstown,” with an image of Ohio and a road running through it.

Trump visited nearby Youngstown early in his presidency and told the crowd not to sell their homes because the jobs were “all coming back.”

When GM announced just after Thanksgiving that it would idle the Lordstown plant and four others in 2019, Trump said in an interview with Fox News that the company “was not going to be treated well.” But he also said “it really doesn’t matter” because the jobs will be replaced “like, in two minutes.”

Mezzapeso is starting to feel like this will be akin to the Great Recession all over for him, a period when he tended bar, cut down trees and did whatever odd jobs he could to survive before the Magna position came along.

The past few weeks have brought difficult conversations with his teenage daughter and older son. Mezzapeso’s ex-wife is in the final GM shift that’s now getting laid off. It’s possible GM will send her a forced-transfer notice, basically requiring her to move to a plant in another state. If she says no, she would only be able to work at GM Lordstown — a gamble.

Mezzapeso has promised his daughter, a junior, that he will do whatever it takes to stay in the area so she can finish high school here.

“I feel the worst thing you can do to kids is uproot them,” Mezzapeso said. “I don’t have good options right now.”