Economy
5:30 am
Tue December 24, 2013

Thousands Fall From Middle Class After RV Industry Collapse

Originally published on Wed December 25, 2013 5:24 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to take a close look, now, at the human cost when an industry shuts down. Oregon has kept detailed records on what happened to thousands of people who lost their jobs when the state's RV manufacturing industry imploded during the recession. Since then, many workers dropped from middle wage to low wage earners, a trend playing out across the United States. Some fared even worse. NPR's Kelly McEvers when to Oregon to meet the people behind the numbers.

BRADLEY WARING: Entering Junction City, 5,460 people.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Junction City, Oregon, yeah. So at one time, this was, after Elkhart, Indiana, the RV manufacturing center of the world. At the height of the industry, I think up to 8,000 people were employed just in the manufacturing industry. Just tell everybody who you are.

WARING: My name is Bradley Waring(ph). I was a major supplier to all of the top name RV manufacturers in the United States of America.

MCEVERS: As we drive into town, Brad and I are surrounded by high end recreational vehicles sitting on lots unsold. When I say high end RVs, I mean those big situations that are shaped like a bus. Consignment, RV sales.

WARING: Right. Sales, (intelligible) consignment.

MCEVERS: Automotive.

WARING: And then, they're, yeah, they got, you know, used cars on their lot. They're just doing whatever they can to survive.

MCEVERS: After companies that made RVs here went out of business, the people who used to work for them saw dramatic changes even if they managed to get new jobs. Employment records show former RV employees lost nearly two-thirds of their wages. That means if you were making good money, you're now making okay money. If you were making okay money, now you're making not-so-great money.

And if you were making not-so-great money, well, you see where this is going. So let's start with Brad. He's in that first category, someone who was making good money. When business was good, Brad was traveling around the country supplying heated floors for luxury RVs. On paper, he was worth a million bucks. Then, in 2007, banks stopped lending to customers who wanted to buy RVs. Sales started to slip. RV manufacturers here started laying people off.

WARING: When the economy collapsed and those companies filed bankruptcy, I was forced to file bankruptcy myself.

MCEVERS: And fire all his employees. He's now publishing a newsletter and a website to encourage RV tourism in Oregon and looking for the next business to start. He and his wife get by on about $36,000 a year. Of the dozens of former RV employees I talked to, many at the high end, like Brad, said while the industry collapse was a shock, in the end, they will be fine.

Most said they simply had to reinvent themselves. Problem is, that reinvention means getting by on much less than before. Which brings us to the second category. Just a few miles down the road from Junction City is the college town of Eugene, Oregon. That's where I meet Don Culver(ph), a single dad at his favorite taco joint.

When I tell him I'm buying, he splurges on the $5 burrito. You usually get something else here?

DON CULVER: I usually - $2.35 (unintelligible) carne asado taco.

MCEVERS: Don has to be frugal these days. He used to make $50,000 a year as an inventory control supervisor at one of the big RV makers. He sent his four boys to private school. They all went to the symphony, vacationed in England. Then, the RV company started struggling, Don took a pay cut and one Monday...

CULVER: Showed up to work and I could tell that this was the day.

MCEVERS: The company closed. Don went on unemployment.

CULVER: It wasn't really enough, so what we did is I rented out rooms in my house.

MCEVERS: Three bedrooms to renters, one bedroom for Don and the four boys. The next summer, Don and the boys got referee licenses and spent weekends reffing(ph) soccer tournaments. They'd camp or sleep on friends floors to earn enough money to pay for school supplies and cover some bills at home. Don finally did get a job earlier this year at a call center. You mind if I ask what the pay is?

CULVER: It's about $10 an hour.

MCEVERS: Plus bonuses, that's about $25,000 a year, half of what Don made before. Don says he figures he'll have to work until he dies. With wages stagnating and middle class jobs dwindling, he's not feeling so good about the future.

CULVER: I almost think it's going to go back to pre-1930s, two, three generations living in one house trying to keep things together. It's going to take possibly having chickens and growing food in the back. It's going to take two or three incomes in one household to keep it afloat.

MCEVERS: Here's the thing. As hard as it's been for Don, he managed to make it. He's down to renting only one room in the house now, which brings us to the third group, folks who were getting by and now it's really tough.

SUSAN JONES: If you will take a step to your right, and there are some big tables in there...

MCEVERS: We're back in Junction City where Susan Jones is the executive director of local aid. She tells a delivery guy where to put a bag of donated potatoes. The agency operates out of a building once owned by one of the big RV companies, Country Coach. When it went under, the number of local aid clients who need food, clothes and assistance with utilities, went up. Susan Jones takes me to two of these clients, Matt Lucero(ph) and his girlfriend.

JONES: Kelly, this is Matt and Amy.

MCEVERS: How are you? Nice to meet you. Hey, how are you?

For two years, Matt was a welder and laminator for Country Coach. So was it good money or...

MATT LUCERO: Yeah, it was good money. I mean, you could work on the weekends when you wanted, to make extra income.

MCEVERS: Matt made about $21,000 a year, a living wage in Junction City. He had his own apartment above the Dollar Tree. In late 2007, he left town for his mom's funeral. When he got home, the layoffs had already started. He couldn't get hired back. Now, he lives in his girlfriend Amy's camper in an alley next to a trailer park. He shows me a big hunk of ice where a garden hose is supposed to give water to the camper.

LUCERO: Frozen solid.

MCEVERS: So you can't take showers.

LUCERO: No. Been three days, frozen solid.

MCEVERS: How do you - and then you got propane tanks on the back, yep.

LUCERO: Yep, yep. Got heat.

MCEVERS: Do you care if I ask what your income is now?

LUCERO: It's nothing. Zero.

MCEVERS: So have you guys - how do you do it?

LUCERO: Amy's on Social Security. We get by on just whatever she can supply. That guy there - there's old Raymond. Old Ray, he's homeless. You know, he's been living out in the sticks.

MCEVERS: Oh, my goodness.

LUCERO: I don't know what I'd do if Amy wasn't around. I'd be out there with Ray, homeless.

MCEVERS: The Oregon employment departments says 36 percent of the thousands of people who used to work in the RV industry had no reported income four years after they lost their jobs. Many of them left the state. Others, like Matt, stayed. I asked him how he spends his days.

LUCERO: Right now, we spend it with that little puppy there. So just making time go by, I guess.

MCEVERS: All three of these guys - Brad, Don, Matt - are in their 50s and economists say all three of them represent a long running trend that's bigger than the recession as middle wage jobs disappear. In many places, it's low wage jobs or no jobs that come in their place and that means, for a lot of people, life will never be the same. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.