The Ripple Effect: What One Layoff Means For A Whole Town

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Bryan Regan / Wonderful Machine

When Brian Whitfield, center, lost his job, it affected not just wife Debbie and son Logan but also some fellow citizens.

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One Lost Job

Sunday morning in Roxboro. The streets are empty, but the church parking lots are full: it seems as if every one of the town's 8,876 residents is at services. At the United Methodist Church on North Main Street, Pastor T.R. Miller is delivering a sermon titled "Rags to Riches to Rags." At the largely African-American First Baptist Church on the other side of Durham Road, the choir is singing "I'd rather have Jesus than silver and gold" so loudly you can hear it in the parking lot.

In the second-to-last row of Roxboro Baptist, the Whitfields try to listen to the sermon, but Brian's mind wanders. Last autumn, Debbie warned Brian that the ax might fall. She grew up in Flint, Mich., the granddaughter of a man who participated in the landmark 1936-37 sit-down strike at GM's Fisher body plant that established industrial-labor-organizing rights in America. But she saw her father and uncle go down with the automakers. "When they shut down the Fisher plant [in 1987], everything within a two-to-three-block radius closed down: bars, restaurants, gas stations, banks. Because I lived through the '80s up there in Flint, I just had a feeling that something wasn't right," she says. Since December, Eaton has idled 99 of its 289 Roxboro employees.

After he lost his job, Brian went to the Roxboro office of North Carolina's Employment Security Commission and met with Roxie Russell, the branch manager. She suggested that he go back to school. Even if Brian could afford it, he doesn't want to start a two-year M.B.A. program only to drop it when a job comes along. He has focused his efforts instead on looking for work, so far without success. He keeps his spirits up by looking after Logan and coaching Little League.

In the meantime, the family is trying to save. Brian's father, a barber with a shop opposite the courthouse, has some farmland outside of town. Brian planted a garden and takes home vegetables; Debbie calculates that they have shaved $125 a month off their grocery bill, but most of their savings come from other cutbacks. They dropped their membership at the local country club, saving $110 a month. They no longer spend $350 to $400 per month on babysitting now that Brian looks after Logan. Their weekly dinner date? Gone, saving another $175 or so per month.

The Whitfields aren't the only ones scrimping in Roxboro. Roy Waldron, a pipe fitter, has stopped going out to dinner with his wife Judy since losing his job in February. Tommy Woods, a former forklift operator, says he is collecting aluminum cans to get gas money to drive to job interviews.

The list goes on: Russell, the elegant, no-nonsense employment-office manager, says traffic to her office increased 13% over the past 12 months. Of the county's 19,510 workers, 2,358 were unemployed as of Aug. 13 — a rate of 12%. More cuts may be on the way. Aleris International, a manufacturer of rolled aluminum that employs 149 at its Roxboro plant, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February. Charter Communications, which has 14 working for it in Roxboro, followed suit in March. "People are afraid to spend their money now," says Marcia O'Neil, head of the Roxboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

The imposed frugality in Roxboro goes directly to Brad Rogers' bottom line. He and his wife Betty opened a popular Golden Corral franchise just south of unemployment services on Durham Road in 1999. Everyone from the town's low-skilled workers to the city elders goes there, drawn by the $9.99 all-you-can-eat buffet and the slogan "Help Yourself to Happiness." This year the Whitfields, the Waldrons and many others aren't: sales are down 2.5% this year, and it would be worse, says Rogers, if he hadn't launched a big coupon push. But that's eaten into profits, which dropped 63% over the past two years and are on track to do the same this year.

To stay in the black, the Rogerses cut all worker hours 10% at the beginning of August, which saved jobs but lowered the wage dollars available to the community. Rogers isn't even the worst off — his cheap buffet can still fit into many tight budgets. O'Neil says other restaurant owners in town tell her they're down 25% in 2009. Big Al's diner closed in February.

In the bigger picture, though, consider a GM dealership that was run by three brothers and closed down in November 2008, taking with it 26 jobs. One brother, John Boyette, moved out of town in search of work, while another, Norman, is selling used cars for a dealer in Cary, 50 miles away. "We're getting along the best we can now," says Norman. It's axiomatic that if the local dealership can't sell cars, then GM doesn't need as many parts from Eaton, which then doesn't need as many Brian Whitfields.

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