Slumping Economy Shatters 'Recession-proof' Myth

March 10, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

George F. Cormeny Jr. opened the interview on a down note, sliding aclip from a business weekly across his desk at First National Bank of Maryland in Annapolis. There -- 1,200 layoffs at Westinghouse.

Cormeny, a senior vice president in charge of economic development, was just asked to size up * First in a series the county's economic situation. He's not in the habit of looking on the dark side and believes the current decline will be short. But he acknowledged that the cutback at Westinghouse Electrical Systems Group in Linthicum was a shock to the myth that Anne Arundel -- where five of the top six employers are government -- is somehow immune from recession.

Westinghouse cut 1,200 jobs when the U.S. Defense Department canceled the $57 billion A-12 aircraft program. Before that, 100 assemblers and inspectors lost their jobs at Martin Marietta Corp.'s Glen Burnie plant. The latter were temporary layoffs due to a lag between contracts for the production of Navy underwater listening devices.

Brad Kelley, an Annapolis home builder who was forced to close his office in the summer when business slumped, put it this way: "They say --or they said -- Annapolis is recession-proof. And look what happened. Everybody is vulnerable at some level."

The county has been finding that level.

Between January 1990 and January 1991, the latest date for which figures are available, the county unemployment rate jumped from 2.9 to 4.7 percent. That's still below January's national figure of 7 percent and the state figure of 6.1 percent, and well below the county's 1982 recession high of 7.4 percent.

Sue Ellen Tingle, who manages the state Office of Economic and Employment Development in Annapolis, said the office was a bit less busy this week than early last month when, she said, people were applying for unemployment benefits "from all areas -- construction, professional -- no one particular group."

The people gathered in the waiting area that afternoon in early February bore out Tingle's observation.

Guy L. Swanson of Arnold was among 50 other Eastern Airlines employees at Baltimore-Washington International Airport who lost their jobs when the carrier went bankrupt in January. Swanson had worked for the company for 35 years and held a post as regional mail manager, serving as liaison between the airline and the U.S. Postal Service. He was optimistic.

"I'm hoping to lock on with one of the other major carriers," said Swanson. "I look at it as a new opportunity. . . . I look forward to working another 10 years. My career has been extremely rewarding. I have no complaints."

Troy Chew of Annapolis said he left a job thatday doing body work at a West Street auto dealer after two months because "you can't make no money. Business is slow." He said he hoped to find work in a stock room or warehouse, "something that pays good."

A young man from Arnold who declined to give his name said he'd been laid off from a waiter's job at a Severna Park restaurant because"business is just dead there. They laid off three people."

He said he had a part-time job as a private investigator and was waiting for his license to work full time.

Job orders from area employers have been grown scarce, said Bill Franz, the Economic and Employment Development Office's employer service representative. Restaurants and landscapers are now looking for summer help, but Franz said he's not nearly as busy as he was last fall.

"Two, three months ago, I couldn't process them fast enough," Franz said in February. "Now it's so slack you really have to beat the bushes."

Franz had recently received the results of an employment outlook survey by Manpower Inc., theworld's largest temporary help agency. In the Annapolis area, the survey of employers showed that 17 percent expected to cut their work force in the first quarter, while 7 percent planned to hire people. The trend was reversed a year ago, when 17 percent were hiring and 13 percent were planning layoffs.

"People are nervous, no question about it," said Jeanette D. Wessel, executive vice president of the AnneArundel Trade Council. She noted that in the last few months, businesses that had sponsored charity events and scholarships in the past had declined. She's also seeing more delinquency in dues payment amongthe council's 750 members, with many saying, "I can't pay you until my creditors pay me."

She said the construction industry lag was pulling the whole county down with it.

"Our economy is so driven bythe construction industry, or perhaps the land-use industry. I just never realized how much of a trickle-down there is."

Both Cormeny and Rosemary Duggins, of the county's economic development office, are confident the county remains if not recession-proof, then at least cushioned from a steep slide.

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