Perched on the edge of her chair, Jennie Hutchinson nervously twisted her purse strap as she answered routine questions at the unemployment office.
She had been laid off just hours earlier. After 3 1/2 years of working as an executive secretary for a Hanover real estate company, Hutchinson came to her office Tuesday morning only to be shown the door.
The 49-year-old grandmother from Ferndale, who has custody of her10-year-old grandson, said she was prepared for the blow. With construction of new office buildings almost at a standstill, Emory Hill McConnell Associates already had cut back sharply, Hutchinson said. Several of her colleagues were given pink slips a month ago.
"I'm surprised I lasted this long," she said after filling out her forms at the Unemployment Insurance Office in downtown Glen Burnie. "I knew they were cutting down a lot to keep on their feet until this recession is over."
Hutchinson is one of countless victims of the statewide real estate slump, employment experts said. From small homebuilders to the largest commercial companies, the industry has been shaken by adeclining demand for new homes and office space, coupled with a glutleft from the boom days. To survive, residential and commercial realestate companies are slashing costs, laying off employees, and cutting deals that were unheard of during the 1980s.
"The county experienced a lot of commercial growth during the '80s at the height of economic expansion," said Samuel Minnitte, the county's economic development director. "The commercial expansion was in real estate, construction, the finance area and the defense area. You can't pick three industries more hard-pressed than these three areas."
With banking, real estate and defense-related industries cutting back sharply, the county is following the East Coast in a "white-collar recession," saidJames B. Basford, manager of the unemployment office in Glen Burnie.
"We're seeing a lot more white-collar workers," he said. "We havebanking officials, Westinghouse employees. It's a new experience forthem."
The number of construction and seasonal workers filing forunemployment compensation to tide them over until the next job has increased. Some, like Teresa Reiner, who works at a nursery and produce stand in Annapolis, are used to relying on weekly unemployment checks during breaks in their cycle of employment. Others are new to the system.
"I do this every year after Halloween," said Reiner, 76, aclerk at Peaches Produce and Nursery, a stand on Riva Road that opens every March and closes in November. "After the pumpkins and cider, business really drops off, and we're unemployed 'til spring."
Although the county's unemployment rate increased by several percentage points during the winter and spring, it has consistently lagged behindthe national average and other sections of Maryland. From a high of 5.2 percent in February, the unemployment rate has dropped to 4.4 percent in September, the last month for which statistics are available.
Carroll and Frederick counties matched Anne Arundel in September,while Howard, Charles and Montgomery counties fared slightly better.The rest of Maryland had higher unemployment rates, statistics from the state Department of Economic and Employment Development show.
"Anne Arundel County is not in bad shape when you look at those figures," Basford said.
But the county's low unemployment rates can give a false sense of security. Although less than 5 percent of the labor force was out of work during most of 1990 and 1991, the number of unemployment claims doubled.
New claims filed at the county's unemployment offices in Glen Burnie and Annapolis during the second week of October rose from 157 in 1989 to 303 in 1990 before dipping slightly to 293 this year. Additional claims during the same week increased from 50 in 1989 to 102 in 1990 to 140 this year. And continuing claims that week climbed from 1,515 in 1989 to 2,585 in 1990, to 4,074 this year.
The discrepancy between the unemployment rate and claims suggests that some new jobs are being created in the county, Basford said. But at the same time, the figures indicate that laid-off workersare struggling longer to find another job. Most are using the maximum 26 weeks of benefits allowed under federal law.
The county's unemployment offices are gearing up for another surge in claims in January, when 800 employees from the Westinghouse electronics plant in Linthicum will stop receiving paychecks. A claims center will be set up at the plant to speed the filing process.
"I think we're a little better prepared than in other recessions," Basford said. "We're automated now, and we have a better sense of what's coming."
Rene Gagne, an appliance salesman who worked for a division of Westinghouse that was later sold to a distribution company based in Dublin, Ohio, is not pleased with the automation. He believes increasing computer sophistication has forced many workers out of jobs.