How the coronavirus-sparked recession is affecting lives and votes in battleground Ohio

How do we begin to understand the impact of the “Coronavirus Recession?”

Its destruction ranges far beyond the springtime shutdown of our favorite restaurants and it runs deeper than a lull in retail sales or hotel bookings.

Early this year more than 22 million Americans lost their jobs (including almost 900,000 in Ohio), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While slightly more than half have gotten their jobs back, the momentum is slowing and leaders in Washington are battling over a new deal to further stimulate the economy.

Many economists fear a full recovery is two or more years away and that economic anxiety has now become a factor in next month’s elections.

How bad is it and how hard did it get us?

In the past several weeks, The Cincinnati Enquirer, part of the USA TODAY Network, spoke with workers and small business owners from all over Greater Cincinnati, asking how the downturn has affected their lives, their work – and their votes.

One’s a maintenance worker who was proud to be working at one of the region’s premier employers until GE Aviation laid him off. Another had a dream internship at Disney World in Orlando that ended abruptly and left him looking for new work from his parents’ basement.

Yet another was a professor at Miami University before cutbacks sent her packing. One more was a grocery worker who counted himself lucky to have a steady job at Kroger – until he caught COVID-19 and is now grateful to be alive.

These are the faces of the “Coronavirus Recession.” These are their stories:

‘People assume professors have a stable position’

WHO: Basak Durgun, 36, Walnut Hills

JOB: Former visiting professor at Miami University  

HOW WAS SHE AFFECTED? She lost her job in April.

HER FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: Jobs in education are not recovering yet – in fact, it’s getting worse as local and state governments and private schools cut back. More than 1.2 million jobs have disappeared since February. Further cuts are likely as governments look to slash costs to close budget gaps. How deep they cut depends on what Washington decides on any stimulus.   

Basak Durgun poses in a park near her home in the Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Durgun found herself without a job for the current school year when Miami University announced a hiring freeze, leaving her without a new contract and with massive student loan debt.

HER VOTE? She plans to vote for Democrat Joe Biden because she believes he will work harder to combat the pandemic and fund education. “The Republicans don’t support public education.”

HER STORY: Until she was let go by Miami University in April, Durgun liked to think she was helping her students become better citizens. She was born in Turkey but partly raised in Ohio. As a naturalized citizen, she believed she was giving her students a richer understanding of American Studies.

In January, Durgun was confident she’d return for the 2020-21 school year as a non-tenured visiting professor. But a month into the pandemic, the state-run school decided to slash costs with scores of cuts: the elimination of unfilled positions, layoffs and the non-renewal of positions like hers. She was informed she wouldn’t have a teaching position – after most other colleges had already made their hiring decisions for the upcoming fall term.

A recently-minted Ph.D. with nearly $200,000 in student loans, she may have to leave Ohio to find a job that will lead to tenure. That prospect is also hard because she feels she needs to delay getting married and starting a family until her career is more stable. Right now, she’s making ends meet teaching online courses part-time for a college in Virginia.

“The public doesn’t realize … People assume professors have a stable position,” Durgun said.

When air travel crashed worldwide, he lost a ‘retirement job’

Brad Horn poses on the porch at his home in Cleves, Ohio, on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Horn was laid off from his job with GE Aviation in the spring with no expected return date.

WHO: Brad Horn, 35, Whitewater Township

JOB: Former machine operator at manufacturer GE Aviation

HOW WAS HE AFFECTED? He was furloughed, then laid off in April.

HIS FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: Manufacturing jobs are still down 650,000 positions nationwide, but the sector has recovered slightly better than the overall economy. Trouble is – jobs in aerospace parts are dependent on the airline industry, which has slashed flights and is threatening massive cutbacks as stimulus talks drag on. One out of 30 of all U.S. jobs in aerospace are within 30 miles of Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati.

HIS VOTE? Horn thinks Trump has been unfairly blamed for the pandemic and its aftermath. He will vote to re-elect the president.

HIS STORY: For decades, GE Aviation has been a pillar of Cincinnati’s manufacturing sector, employing 9,000 well-paid workers in the region.

Until April, Horn, a father of three, was one of them.

“It was a good job – it was a (last until) retirement job,” Horn said. 

While its parent company General Electric was deep into a multi-year restructuring, GE Aviation was its largest, most profitable business unit propping up the rest of the Boston-based conglomerate.

For decades, even during economic downturns in the U.S. or Europe, there was always heavy demand for jet engines to power surging air travel in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Then the pandemic hit, sending worldwide demand for air travel into a tailspin. GE Aviation announced it would cut 25% of its worldwide headcount, including 605 workers based here.

“It happened so fast – they went from business as usual, to slowing down and being scared, to laying off by April,” Horn said. 

Horn is looking at his options, seeking to replace most of his previous salary, but says it won’t be easy. He’s also considering looking for a job in the construction industry.

“There’s not many people paying even half as much as GE,” he said.

Clients had to cut costs and ‘marketing was the first to go’

Lauren Anderson poses in the empty offices of her branding and marketing firm The Creative Department in the Pendleton neighborhood of Cincinnati on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. Anderson struggled to adjust as the pandemic and economy forced her to employees to work from home and lost revenue forced layoffs.

WHO: Lauren Anderson, 61, Hyde Park

JOB: Owner of marketing and branding firm The Creative Department 

HOW WAS SHE AFFECTED? She was forced to lay off two employees and one contractor.

HER FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: Marketing & branding is part of the professional and business services sector, which has shed 1.4 million jobs since February and recovering slower than the overall economy. Advertising and related services have lost almost 50,000 jobs alone.

HER VOTE? Anderson declined to share her political views.

HER STORY: Lauren Anderson’s marketing and branding agency, The Creative Department, had just moved into bigger offices in Cincinnati’s Pendleton neighborhoodin January when the pandemic threatened her small business that now employs 12.

A slowdown in marketing is bad for Cincinnati – the hometown of major advertisers, Procter & Gamble and Kroger. The region is dotted with dozens of specialized firms that help clients with everything from package design to consumer insights.

As emergency shutdowns slammed the brakes on the economy, Anderson’s clients quickly began backing out.

“It seemed like every week we were getting cancellations – clients were cutting costs and marketing was the first (expense) to go,” said Anderson, who recalls past close calls during the 2000 and 2008 recessions that shocked her industry.

Anderson had a strategy session and decided to make a hard pivot: quickly grabbing two new startup clients flush with venture capital money to stabilize her business. She still had to lay off two workers and a regular contractor.

“It’s hard because we’re a small outfit and everyone is like family,” Anderson said.

Security jobs vulnerable to cutbacks

Robert Richardson poses near his home in the West Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Richardson has contemplated making a career change as his current job as a private security guard has seen severe cutbacks in staffing and hours.

WHO: Robert Richardson, 38, West Price Hill

JOB: Security supervisor for a logistics company  

HOW WAS HE AFFECTED? Despite a recent promotion, he’s struggling to get enough hours.

HIS FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: Nearly 70,000 jobs in security work have been lost as part of the cuts to professional and business services in 2020.

HIS VOTE? Undecided. “I don’t have a good feeling about either Trump or Biden. This really has me.”

HIS STORY: Robert Richardson has managed to hold onto his security job – and even managed to get a promotion in 2020.

But multiple facility shutdowns have meant fewer hours this year, which has forced him to do odd jobs to make up the shortfall in his paychecks.

He’s considering looking at other fields for more stable work. He helps support two small children from a previous relationship.

“They’re what keep me going – if it was just me, I’m not sure I’d be trying this hard,” Richardson said.

Will customers dine outside in winter?

Restaurant owner Jose Salazar poses in the dining room of Goose & Elder in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Salazar has struggled to keep his businesses open, between constantly changing regulations, shutdowns and loss of revenue. The hardest hit he said has been having to tell his employees, who he considers close friends, that he doesn't have work available for them.

WHO: Jose Salazar, 46, Columbia Tusculum

JOB: Chef and owner of three restaurants: Salazar’s, Mita’s and Goose & Elder  

HOW WAS HE AFFECTED? The pandemic forced him to temporarily shut down two of his three restaurants and lay off most of his staff. His sales still haven’t recovered.

HIS FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: Bars and restaurants were the hardest hit employer. While eateries have staged a major comeback, there are still 2.3 million jobs gone – that’s almost 1 of 5 jobs that vanished from the sector.

HIS VOTE? Salazar expressed reluctant support for Joe Biden. “I’m not thrilled, but he’s the better candidate.”

HIS STORY: For now, Jose Salazar said, his three restaurants in Over-The-Rhine and Downtown are hanging on.

A veteran of the industry, he’s used to getting by on thin profit margins. Before the pandemic, Downtown and Over-The-Rhine restaurants like his were thriving and credited with injecting new vitality in the city’s urban core. But now the entire restaurant industry is under unprecedented strain.

Social distancing requirements limit restaurants’ seating to serve customers. Demand is also down with nearby offices nearly empty, tourism way down and some patrons just scared.

Salazar said his restaurants are currently doing about 60% of their previous sales with about three-quarters of pre-COVID-19 staff.

While he praises city and local leaders for quickly authorizing outdoor seating for Cincinnati restaurants that allowed them to seat more customers safely, Salazar worries about the coming winter months.

Salazar knows how bad it could get if his industry doesn’t recover. During the spring shutdowns, Mita’s hosted a restaurant workers relief program (as part of a multi-city effort in partnership with the Lee Initiative and Maker’s Mark) that handed out 11,000 meals to local industry workers.

“My biggest concern is what happens when you can’t eat outside anymore and people don’t want to eat inside – that’s what’s scary,” Salazar said.

Nurses aide: ‘Every day you just say a prayer and hope for the best.’

Jacqueline Davis, 34, and her daughter Jarica Hutchingson, 5, pose for a portrait outside Davis’ apartment in Westwood on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Davis who has worked as a nursing assistant at Bridgetown Nursing and Rehab for about a year has recently started getting her hours cut.

WHO: Jackie Davis, 34, Cheviot

JOB: Nurses aide in a nursing home  

HOW WAS SHE AFFECTED? Her hours are beginning to shrink as jobs in her field get cut.

HER FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: Despite a health care crisis, America is still missing nearly 670,000 jobs in health care. Nursing and residential care homes have been particularly hard hit – losing more than 230,000 jobs.

HER VOTE? She plans to vote for Biden. She believes Trump mishandled the pandemic, which made it and the economy worse. 

HER STORY: Davis, a single mother of four children, works as a nursing assistant in a residential and rehabilitation facility, which has tightly controlled visits to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

“I was worried at first, but you gown up and suit up,” Davis said. “Every day you just say a prayer and hope for the best.” 

While she was jittery about the pandemic at first, lately she’s eyeing her hours. With visits down – so are new residents at her facility, which reduces the overall workload for employees. Recently, her hours have slipped from 46 to 36 hours a week.

“I hope things pick up soon,” she said.

If things don’t improve, Davis is considering looking at opportunities at hospitals.

Personal trainer shops at supermarket for new career 

Aj Penley stands outside of his apartment for a portrait. Penley continues to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

WHO: AJ Penley, 24, Mount Washington

JOB: Previously a personal trainer and now working at Kroger

HOW WAS HE AFFECTED? He lost fitness clients, then his job in March. Later, he took a supermarket job. 

HIS PREVIOUS FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: “Other services” – that’s the government name for the category of workers whose jobs are in hair and nail salons, fitness centers, laundromats, dog groomers and repair shops – is down nearly 500,000 jobs this year.  

HIS VOTE? “I’m a Trump supporter.” Penley credits President Trump for the economy doing better before the pandemic. He’s not sure the president got everything right in the early days of the outbreak but doesn’t blame him for the impact to the country. 

HIS STORY: Penley was forced to move on. 

The personal trainer watched the ominous new coronavirus outbreak unfold on TVs at his former gym in Anderson Township in January and February. He quickly had a lot more time to watch television news as clients got too scared to come in to work out.

“It started to get slow, then it was dead – a lot of people were worried about coming in and getting sick,” Penley said, recalling he was only handling about a quarter of his regular workload when he was laid off in March.

After losing his job, Penley switched fields taking a job at Kroger’s Mt. Carmel pick-up only store, which fulfills online grocery shopping orders. He was one of the tens of thousands of new employees Kroger has added this year as consumers cut back eating out and cooked at home.

So far, Penley likes the new job and recently interviewed for a supervisor position.

A safe, steady paycheck – until he caught COVID-19 

Ken Batchelor poses outside the Kroger store where he worked in Cleves, Ohio, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Batchelor didn't think much of the COVID-19 pandemic until contracted it and became seriously ill, requiring hospitalization, just short of his planned retirement.

WHO: Ken Batchelor, 65, Lawrenceburg

JOB: Meat cutter at Kroger (recently retired)  

HOW WAS HE AFFECTED? He was making extra money until COVID-19 hospitalized him and left him with medical bills.

HIS FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: Grocery stores nationwide have added more than 60,000 jobs even as the broader retail sector shed nearly 500,000 jobs.

HIS VOTE? “I don’t plan to vote. I’m not a big follower of politics – there’s nobody out there that you can trust.”

HIS STORY: Batchelor, who was eyeing retirement after working 45 years at Kroger, never doubted the pandemic was a health risk. But he couldn’t quite believe the frenzy it caused.

“I thought it was a little much – who’d think something like this would hit you so hard? This is America,” Batchelor said.

Then he caught COVID-19 and spent three and a half weeks in the hospital and missed three months of work.

While he was sick, funds at both Kroger and his union helped cover his most of medical bills. Months later, Batchelor said, he still doesn’t feel 100% better. 

Batchelor credits his daughter, Shanda, a nurse, who insisted on dragging him to the doctor when he was still convinced he had a stubborn cold or allergies.

“She might have saved my life – they said I caught it early,” he said. “It still was no picnic.”

Fairy tale Disney World opportunity disappears

Ben Shipp poses in downtown Cincinnati on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Shipp was forced to move back into his parents' home in Dry Ridge, Ky., after his dream internship with Disney was abruptly cut short as Disney World and the surrounding resorts closed in the spring. Shipp had goals of working his way up in the company and starting his career before the pandemic put the brakes on his work.

WHO: Ben Shipp, 26, Dry Ridge, Kentucky

JOB: Former intern for guest services at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom

HOW WAS HE AFFECTED? He was laid off in March.

HIS FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: Arts, entertainment and recreation have shed nearly 800,000 jobs since February and have been slower than the rest of the labor market to restore jobs. 

HIS VOTE? He plans to vote for Joe Biden. “Trump’s incapable of not playing politics to help people like me.”

HIS STORY: Shipp thought his luck had turned around in 2020 when the University of Cincinnati grad landed a coveted internship at Animal Kingdom in Disney World after a tough job hunt.

After just a few weeks on the job, his supervisors liked what they saw and were encouraging Shipp to apply for a permanent slot. He started eyeing corporate entry-level positions. He was also making lots of new friends and things seemed to be coming together.

But in March, Disney World shut down, abruptly eliminating his position as the entertainment giant laid off thousands. Since then, Shipp has lived at his parents’ suburban Cincinnati home and has been doing some freelance photography work as he tries to figure out his next move.

“I went from Neverland to being stuck in my parents’ basement,” Shipp said. 

Flight attendant fears looming furloughs  

Jayme Johns, a PSA flight attendant.

WHO: Jayme Johns, 23, moving back to Charlotte, North Carolina

JOB: Flight attendant for PSA Airlines, an American Airlines regional carrier   

HOW WAS SHE AFFECTED? Schedule cutbacks kept her from securing a regular service route and she expects to lose her job.

HER FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: More than 100,000 jobs in air transportation have been lost this year – and it’s getting worse, not better. Major airlines are threatening massive cuts if Congress doesn’t provide further aid. The industry has already received a $25 billion bailout this year – on condition it didn’t lay off workers until after Sept. 30.

HER VOTE? “I’m very outspoken, but I don’t want that out there – I’m looking for work.”

HER STORY: Johns is moving back to Charlotte, North Carolina, after spending a year in Ohio as a flight attendant for an American Airlines’ regional carrier. Her plan was to work her way through her early reserve status out of Dayton Airport until she could win a regular route from PSA Airlines’ base at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport – until it was closed.

She got stuck on reserve status after airlines cut service way back amid the COVID-19 travel meltdown.

Major airlines are running flight schedules that are half what they were last year. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines warned they would implement massive furloughs if lawmakers in Washington didn’t provide further stimulus for the industry.

“I’ve been living in uncertainty for the last six months and I can’t rely on that,” Johns said.

Hotels struggle to fill rooms

Marin Pittman is the Vice President of operations at The Summit, a hotel in Madisonville that opened in April 2018. The novel coronavirus pandemic caused them to close the hotel for 75 days early in the pandemic. Today, business is slowing coming back. Pittman is photographed Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in the library, which prior to COVID, was open to the public. To allow for cleaning, the room now must be reserved.

WHO: Martin Pittman, 52, Pleasant Ridge

JOB: General manager at The Summit hotel, Madisonville

HOW WAS HE AFFECTED? The pandemic closed his hotel, forced layoffs and has left bookings at a fraction of normal.

HIS FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: The hotel industry has lost more than 725,000 jobs nationwide, and job recovery in the sector is way behind other sectors. Industry officials warn the sector could see a wave of bankruptcies without a bailout from Washington.

HIS VOTE? Pittman definitely plans to vote in November. He also firmly declines to say for whom. 

HIS STORY: As the general manager of The Summit hotel, Pittman sometimes fills in behind the front desk or the kitchen, but this spring he’s also been forced to cut nearly 50 staffers.

Opened in 2018, to serve the region’s mix of business, international and tourist travelers, The Summit had a robust 2019 and won awards, including a four-diamond rating by AAA and a Trip Advisor Travels Choice. The 239-room facility is one of more than a dozen new hotels or major renovations the region has seen in the past few years.

Pittman said it was forecast to grow revenues by double digits this year.

After COVID-19 hit, the hotel completely closed down for more than two months ending in mid-July.

Industry data shows national hotel occupancy has plummeted to less than 45% in 2020, while revenues have been cut in half. Hotel occupancy in Cincinnati averaged 28% in August.

“This economy is crushing the industry – we’re running at about 30% occupancy now,” Pittman said, adding that Cincinnati hotels normally stay about 65% full on average. 

After months off, back to work with less flexibility for her kids

Kim Delaney poses near the rental car return lot at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Delaney was laid off from her job at a national rental car brand as the pandemic economy took a dive in the spring, and air travel came to a near halt.

WHO: Kim Delaney, 41, Independence

JOB: Auto rental worker at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport

HOW WAS SHE AFFECTED? Laid off in spring, she was recalled in September with a less flexible schedule.

HER FIELD IN THIS ECONOMY: Financial services, which is mostly banking and insurance jobs, has held up pretty well during the downturn. The exception within financials are the leasing businesses for real estate and equipment rental businesses that have shed almost 160,000 jobs.

HER VOTE? She thinks political views should be private.

HER STORY: Delaney, a mother of four, is glad to be back at her job at a car rental business at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport after nearly six months off the job.

A few years ago, she lost 14 years of seniority when she switched to part-time for a more flexible schedule to take care of her kids. But she still mostly worked full-time by filling in on shifts.

Local officials estimate CVG airport contributed $6.8 billion to the local economy in 2018.

Now that Delaney’s back, she’s lost her flexible schedule – her current hours are a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. She may have to look for another job if things don’t improve.

“I have to take it now – it’s all I have, but it’s hard,” she said.

For the latest on Cincinnati business, P&>, Kroger and Fifth Third Bank, follow @alexcoolidge on Twitter.

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