EASTON - Frances Kostkowski cried when Boater's World decided to close the Denton distribution center where she spent 14 years filling orders for boating accessories.
The 57-year-old widow cried again while sitting inside a Panera Bread on Route 50 in Easton and contemplating an uncertain future in the face of an unstable job market.
"I can't live on minimum wage," Kostkowski said. "I can't pay the rent, the electric bill, the car payments, the car insurance on minimum wage."
That distress is gripping residents across the state as the recession's unabated sweep leaves an accumulation of closings and layoffs in its wake.
One of the hardest-hit regions has been the largely rural Upper Eastern Shore. In Queen Anne's County, the unemployment rate almost doubled, from 3.8 percent to 7.5 percent, as did Caroline County's, from 5.2 percent to 10.2 percent. And Dorchester now has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state, at 11.5 percent, behind only Worcester County. County figures are not adjusted for seasonal changes in unemployment.
"We tend to be behind most of the swings in the economy, both going up and down," said Paige Bethke, Talbot County's economic development director. "This one's definitely caught us."
J.O.K. Walsh, executive director of the nonprofit Caroline Economic Development Corp. in Denton, said he had not seen Caroline County's unemployment rate approach double digits in 25 years working on the Shore.
"We didn't have enough workers for the last four or five years," he said. "Now, all of that is suddenly turned around."
Employment counselors say former mortgage brokers and real estate agents, as well as people with college degrees, are walking through their doors. "In the time that I've been doing this, I've never seen this kind of broad decline," said Daniel McDermott, executive director of the Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board. "Before, we were only dealing with manufacturing."
The Boater's World's closure next month affects 68 employees. It's owned by Ritz Camera Centers, which is in bankruptcy and shutting down hundreds of stores nationwide.
Bryan and Sons in Easton and Regina USA in Cambridge also filed notices.
Job losses in Baltimore County and City are much larger, 1,639 and 1,025, respectively. But the elimination of more than 600 jobs is magnified in counties where the average population ranges from 20,000 in Kent to about 47,000 in Queen Anne's.
Closing Boater's World could raise Kent County's unemployment rate by a whole percentage point, McDermott said. "One hundred people getting laid off in the county is huge," he said.
Kostkowski is fighting to remain optimistic.
The Beltsville-based Ritz Camera is shutting the Denton warehouse as part of a reorganization that will close 130 Boater's World stores nationwide.
"They were trying to find buyers for it, but weren't successful," said Bob DeVita, vice president of advertising for Ritz Camera.
Demand for the chain's accessories withered in the face of the recession and last summer's spike in gas prices, which crippled the boating industry.
Walsh was justifiably proud of the boat builders he attracted to Caroline County in recent years, but recently they have been struggling, he said. One builder who boasted an 18-month backlog now has no orders and is concentrating on repairs.
"The first thing everybody cut out was discretionary spending," Walsh said. "And buying a boat is discretionary."
Staff at the Boater's World warehouse shrank from 10 shippers to three as layoffs began last fall, Kostkowski said, while shipment volume decreased from 2,000 packages a day to about 500.
Kostkowski, who shares a rented farmhouse with her 76-year-old mother in Greensboro, has a 401(k) plan from Boater's World and one from a part-time job at a Food Lion. She does not know the value of either one.
She will draw her husband's Social Security payment when she turns 60, but fears that is not enough. "We still have fuel to buy every winter and electric to pay," she said. "We sometimes get down to the end of the month where we're scraping pennies."