On the Wrong Side of the Split Recovery: ‘I Just Have to Keep Myself Going’

CINCINNATI—In the seven months after the coronavirus and shutdown tore through this city, Crayona McBerry lost half her income, then got it back; got sick, then recovered; risked eviction, then made her rent.

Though she is still on her feet, it isn’t relief she feels so much as anxiety. The 44-year-old single mother is working seven days a week as a cleaner, behind on some of her bills and ever alert to what the virus might deal next. “I worry every day,” she says.

The U.S. economy has been growing since its brutal spring implosion, suggesting the recession might be over, or soon will be. But it hardly feels that way to Ms. McBerry, or to a Cincinnati entrepreneur whose coffee shop is still missing many of its customers, to a young woman who lost her dream job at

General Electric Co.

or to a comedian who went seven months without a paying gig.

Millions of Americans are on the downside of a recovery that is increasingly split, with some parts of the economy roaring while other sectors languish. Cincinnati mirrors the national picture: Its experience shows how economic shock waves continue to reverberate through people’s lives even as the worst effects of the springtime crash recede. Of 22 million jobs lost nationwide, half have been restored.

The city’s stories also reveal adaptation and resilience. Ms. McBerry has improvised on child care, the GE worker has found a new job, the entrepreneur is keeping his businesses going and the comedian is writing jokes for the pandemic era.

Cincinnati’s diverse economy includes factories, universities and corporate headquarters, including

Procter & Gamble Co.

and

Kroger Co.

As in the country at large, most of the city’s businesses are small. Many sprang up in the past few years as Ohio’s economy surged in lockstep with the country’s in the decade following the financial crisis.

The boom drove the local jobless rate to a two-decade low of 3.1%, just before the crisis struck, and buoyed groups historically disadvantaged: Black and Hispanic people and those with disabilities, limited education or criminal records.

The single mother

One beneficiary was Ms. McBerry. She had spent six months without a home, staying with a relative, before moving with her two younger daughters to an apartment in a cluster of buildings at the bottom of a hill. Her two older daughters live in another apartment in the same complex.

Ms. McBerry works as a cleaner at a child behavior and crisis center and its affiliated elementary school, employed by a firm called RaysClean LLC. She moved into the apartment of her own on March 2.

A week later, on March 9, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency. The state had recorded three cases of Covid-19. On March 13, President Trump declared a national state of emergency, and Mr. DeWine, a Republican, announced schools would close.

Besides directly costing many jobs, that move made it hard for parents with small children to go to work. Ms. McBerry was squeezed on both sides. The center’s school closed, reducing her work hours.

The loss of half of her income left Ms. McBerry and her family close to losing their home again. “I don’t want to be homeless,” she said. “That feeling—I will never recover from that.”

She weighed which bills to pay first. She could put off the gas and electric, she thought, but not rent. “I can barbecue, I’ve got flashlights,” she said. “But you have to have shelter.”

She navigated food pantries and other services. The United Way referred her to Freestore Foodbank. Ms. McBerry worried she wasn’t eligible because she was working and would feel judged for needing assistance. But when she arrived at Freestore in late April, she found its workers gracious and supportive. She came away with groceries and hygiene products.

Food insecurity in the U.S. has spread, despite the economy’s partial comeback. Across the country, 10.5% of adults lived in households that didn’t have enough to eat at some point in early September, up from 9.8% in early May, Census figures show. Freestore distributed 9.6 million meals from mid-March to mid-June in the tri-state region anchored by Cincinnati, up 58% from that time in 2019.

A view of Cincinnati.



Photo:

Maddie McGarvey for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. McBerry ran late on her May rent. She had the money within days but had to wait for another week so she could pay the late fee her landlord assessed.

The state shutdown closed her infant daughter’s day-care center. To go to work, she had to rely on family, including her 12-year-old daughter, to watch the baby.

That is a problem nationwide. About 13% of parents stopped working or reduced their hours in June because of child-care problems, according to Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Ms. McBerry started feeling run down at work. Her body ached, and she lost her senses of taste and smell. She learned from colleagues that an employee with Covid-19 had those symptoms.

Her boss let her stay home for three weeks, without pay. Ms. McBerry eventually regained her strength, but the time off set her further back financially. She believes she had Covid-19 but never found out. She said she couldn’t find a free test.

The Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati helped Ms. McBerry access public-assistance funds, enough to make her rent in June and July. She is back to working five full days and works several hours on Saturday and Sunday, 50 hours a week in all.

Her 12-year-old, though, is taking classes online now, and has told her mother she can’t watch the baby all the time. Ms. McBerry’s 20-year-old daughter, who works for the same cleaning company, took the night shift so she could babysit during the day.

“I just have to keep myself going, make sure I’m safe and my family is safe,” Ms. McBerry said. “It’s not even ‘worries’ anymore, it’s part of living now. It’s life.”

The comedian

As a professional comedian for over 30 years, Steve Caminiti is used to lean times, but not like this.

He was booked to perform at Cincinnati’s Belterra Park casino and at a private party the weekend of March 13. A state ban on large gatherings shut the casino that day, and there went $3,500. Also halted was a side gig he had, ushering at Cincinnati Reds baseball and college basketball games. Suddenly, his whole income was gone.

“I don’t have a plan B,” Mr. Caminiti said in his faux-shocked comedic style. “I forgot to get a plan B!”

Congress passed the $2.2 trillion Cares Act in March as a bridge to the economy’s reopening, then assumed to be in just a month or two. The U.S. sent stimulus checks to many households, offered forgivable “Paycheck Protection” loans to small businesses that kept their workers, extended unemployment insurance to gig workers and added $600 a week to benefits. By May, more than 30 million Americans were receiving regular and special pandemic-related benefits.

Still, a patchwork of state rules and overwhelmed processing systems meant many claimants struggled to collect benefits. Some 44% of people who filed for unemployment between March and Aug. 15 hadn’t received their benefits by Aug. 31, according to the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank that does labor-market research.

Comedian Steve Caminiti went seven months without a paying gig after the coronavirus struck.



Photo:

Maddie McGarvey for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Caminiti applied for jobless benefits a dozen times but kept hitting roadblocks. He had worked in various states, and individual performances often didn’t pay enough to generate the tax forms he needed to prove his income. Eventually, he was able to tap the self-employment benefit, but the $600 enhanced benefit expired at the end of July. In August, Mr. Caminiti received less than $100 a week.

His longtime landlord gave him a break on his rent, and he turned to family members for a loan. “It’s embarrassing,” the 58-year old said. “At my age, I shouldn’t have to do that.”

Mr. Caminiti orders off the dollar menu at fast-food restaurants. He doesn’t turn down leftovers after his Italian family gathers for dinners at his parents’ house.

Mr. Caminiti’s daughter, who lives in Hawaii, had his first grandchild earlier this year. He visited in February but doesn’t know when he can afford to return.

“I made a decent middle-class living, but this changes everything,” he said. “I’m going to have to find a job that has retirement benefits, and maybe do the comedy on the side.”

Mr. Caminiti worked for several weeks as a Census taker, at about $24 an hour. A friend in construction paid him for a few painting jobs.

The U.S. had 10.7 million fewer jobs in September than in February, despite the comeback from the depths of the downturn. The ranks of the laid-off who no longer expect to return to their old jobs within six months keep growing, a sign that some sectors may take years to return to their pre-pandemic employment status.

At highest risk are businesses that, like Mr. Caminiti’s, depend on live customers. About 36% of the jobs deficit, versus February, is attributable to three industries: food service, accommodations and arts, entertainment and recreation.

“Comedy will survive, but some of the venues won’t,” said Mr. Caminiti.

Cincinnati’s restaurants are allowed to open now, but seated diners were down more than 30% in mid-October from a year earlier, according to reservation app Open Table. Ohio now allows indoor venues to have the lesser of 15% of seating capacity or 300 people. The Belterra Park casino is open again for gambling but hasn’t restarted entertainment events.

On Saturday, Mr. Caminiti performed his first show since March, at Bircus Brewing Co. in the suburb of Ludlow, Ky. He has lined up a few shows for later in the year, but had another gig, a company holiday party, postponed, due to the recent uptick in virus cases. He expects income from the last three months of the year to be down 40% from last year, after he earned no money from comedy from April to September.

He was apprehensive about returning to the stage for the first time since March, unsure how to do comedy about a pandemic. “Everyone says I should tell jokes about unemployed people,” he said, with a slight chuckle. “But they don’t work.”

The young corporate employee

Economic research shows that when a recession knocks people out of the job market or off a career path in their prime, the scars, in the form of lower income or less job security, can last years.

Katie Smanik, a supply-chain specialist, spent six years climbing the career ladder at a General Electric facility in Evendale, 15 miles to Cincinnati’s north. Then, in a matter of months, the 28-year-old was collecting unemployment.

“It’s like when you lose someone in your life,” she said. “You have to move forward.”

Ms. Smanik started full-time at GE right after her 2014 graduation from the University of Cincinnati, where she studied marketing and operations management. It was her dream employer, a big, well-known multinational, and she thought she would spend her entire career with the company. She did well, and last year a manager asked her to take on a new position tracking parts orders for a U.S. military engine.

She became an example of how the pandemic toppled dominoes. Americans canceled business trips and vacationers stayed home, slamming air traffic. Airlines postponed orders for aircraft and parts, including engines.

Rumors of job cuts swept through GE’s Evendale offices. “I was just praying daily it wouldn’t be me,” Ms. Smanik said. She had six years of experience and a string of favorable reviews, but was the newest employee on her team.

At the end of April she got an email arranging a video call with her boss and someone from human resources. As it began, she knew almost immediately she was losing her job. “I bawled like a baby,” she said.

“Do you need a minute?” her boss asked.

“No,” she said. “It’s OK.”

Katie Smanik lost a job at GE when it began layoffs a short time after the pandemic began. She moved back with her parents to save money and has found a new job.



Photo:

Andrew Spear for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Smanik’s uncle urged her to accept the stages of grief. She cried for days. She grew angry. She questioned why others were spared, and wondered if she would have been, too, if she had turned down the new role that made her a team’s junior member. A week passed before she could muster the strength to mount a job search.

Ms. Smanik had an apartment in Cincinnati’s Oakley neighborhood and was saving to buy a home. She moved back with her parents in Maineville, 30 miles to the northeast. Many young adults nationwide have made the same adjustment. Some 52% of 18-to-29-year-olds surveyed said in July they were living with at least one parent, up from 47% in February, according to the Pew Research Center.

When Ohio let businesses reopen in May, Ms. Smanik went back to a weekend job as a server at Oakley Pub & Grill. She kept applying for jobs in her field. For a while, she despaired of returning to her career path. It looked as if she could become part of the long-term scarring that economists cite.

But a position at a supplier to GE called Midstate Machine looked promising. By mid-July, she was back at work, in a job that involved a lot of her past responsibilities at GE. She earns 17% less than before but is saving enough from living with her parents to start shopping for a home of her own.

One of Ms. Smanik’s best friends made it through the cuts at GE. When they speak, Ms. Smanik gets updates on what it’s like at Evendale now, after so many of their colleagues are gone.

“I made a lot of lifelong friends at that company,” she said. “I love them. It was heartbreaking.”

The entrepreneur

Like many who start businesses, Means Cameron is an optimist. This year has tested his resolve.

His two Cincinnati shops, BlaCk OWned OuterWear and BlaCk Coffee Lounge, are a few blocks from a downtown that was emptied by the pandemic and then was in the path of this spring and summer’s protests over police treatment of Black people.

He has felt stress over whether his businesses can survive in a shrunken retail landscape, but also exhilaration over the opportunities from a greater awareness of the challenges confronting Black Americans.

Mr. Cameron started a clothing line in high school. He put his business on hold for Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he studied marketing. In 2011, BlaCk OWned, a new clothing brand, made its debut, and in 2014 he opened a clothing store.

Five years later, Mr. Cameron rented the space next door and opened BlaCk Coffee Lounge. The shops are adjacent to Over-the-Rhine, a once hardscrabble neighborhood that gentrified, drawing young professionals and wealthy empty-nesters to its restaurants and cultural attractions.

Means Cameron owns two downtown Cincinnati shops. Both have suffered during the pandemic.



Photo:

Maddie McGarvey for The Wall Street Journal

The coronavirus shutdown arrived just as BlaCk Coffee Lounge was becoming the kind of community space he set out to create. Mr. Cameron, who is 36, shifted his focus to bringing it back. “What do I need to do to reopen?” he asked himself. “What do I need to do to survive?”

He tried curbside pickup in April but closed that down after a week because of slow sales. In anticipation of reopening, he had to persuade anxious employees it was safe. Three agreed, but “my manager decided she didn’t want to come back.”

As the state business lockdown wore on, protesters gathered in Columbus chanting “reopen Ohio.” Gov. DeWine allowed restaurants to reopen on May 21 with social distancing.

The morning of May 22, Mr. Cameron’s eyes darted toward BlaCk Coffee’s front door every time a customer stepped in. Reopening day had arrived, though not with the fanfare of his launch in July 2019, when 400 people packed the lounge. Many of the downtown office employees who used to come in were working from home.

A few days later, George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, and subsequent protest demonstrations turned destructive in Minneapolis and other cities, including Cincinnati.

Five days after Mr. Floyd’s killing, an employee of BlaCk Coffee Lounge who came in early called Mr. Cameron to say a stone had been thrown through a window. Mr. Cameron was in disbelief, first that his store had been hit and then at the stream of customers and neighbors who stopped by to offer support.

Business remained brisk for several weeks, but that hasn’t lasted. Nearby corporate headquarters remain largely empty.

His two young children have helped him overcome the rough stretches, he said, as well as loyal customers such as the 71-year-old who stops in every few weeks to buy a new “BlaCk OWned” cap.

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In July, a news photographer captured the image of basketball star Chris Paul wearing a “BlaCk OWned” mask from Mr. Cameron’s online store. The subsequent boom in orders has been “a whirlwind,” Mr. Cameron said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cameron is working on launching an online store to sell his house beans and on reopening to in-person dining. He has hired a third barista and is in talks to sell coffee to some of the companies whose office workers will eventually return to downtown.

“That’s really what it’s all about,” he said. “Being able to adjust.”

Write to Justin Baer at [email protected] and Eric Morath at [email protected]

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