By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor - firstname.lastname@example.org
To get a picture of the direction that economic opportunity has taken in northeast Ohio, watch the flow of traffic on Interstate 90 in the early-morning hours.
According to 2004 U.S. Census Bureau data, 5,775 Ashtabula County residents 16 years and older commute to Lake County to work. Another 2,683 join the westward flow as they head to jobs in Cuyahoga County. Geauga County claims 2,265 workers, Trumbull County 485 and Erie County, Pa., 412. Workers from Ashtabula County also travel to Mahoning, Lorain, Summit and Portage counties to earn paychecks.
Conversely, Lake County contributes 1,200 workers to Ashtabula, Geauga County 257 and Trumbull County 892. Crawford County, Pa., had 644 residents working in Ashtabula County, and Erie County, Pa., sent us 589 commuters.
When all was said and done, there was a net loss of 7,764 commuters from Ashtabula County in 2004. Census Bureau statistics from 1990 to 2000 suggest it is a growing trend, as well.
While those in the economic development community see commuting as a positive thing — it lowers local unemployment rates and means people are working and paying taxes — it’s not good for the municipalities where workers live. In Ohio, workers pay local tax to the community in which they earn the money. Further, commuting damages the environment, increases America’s dependence upon foreign oil, and consumes time that otherwise could be used for volunteering or going to school or spent with family.
For many out-commuters, the longer drive still produces a net economic gain, even with gasoline costing $3.40 a gallon in the Cleveland area. For others, it’s simply a matter of finding work in which they can use their college degree, training or skills.
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Nick Fazio, a Jefferson resident, has commuted to work on Interstate 90 for most of the past quarter of a century. He worked for Avery Dennison in Lake County 21 years.
“One day they said, ‘We no longer need you,’” Fazio says. “I was close to 50 years old.”
Fazio, who still had children at home and a wife in college, looked for work in Ashtabula County. A chemical lab technician, Fazio was skilled and experienced, but Ashtabula County’s chemical industry, once a mainstay of the local economy, had pretty much evaporated. Fazio got an interview with Conneaut’s General Electric plant, now slated for closing, and with one of the plants still operating in Ashtabula Township.
No job offers resulted from those interviews, and Fazio widened his search to the Cleveland area by reading the classified section of The Plain Dealer. He applied for a job with Day-Glow Color Corp., which makes fluorescent paints and pigments. Fazio was hired and started work in 2004.
He discovered there were several other Ashtabula County residents at that plant who car-pool. Fazio joined the rotation, driving one week of the month.
“I’d be paying $350 a month in gas if I were on my own,” Fazio says.
Three of the men rendezvous in the Flying J parking lot around 1:30 p.m., car-pool to Geneva, where they pick up a fourth rider, and head to downtown Cleveland. If he is working overtime, Fazio has to make the run solo.
Frank Taggart of Ashtabula is one of the other three men who car-pool with Fazio. Taggart worked 27 years for an Ashtabula plastics manufacturer before he decided to seek higher wages outside the county. With a daughter heading to college, Taggart needed to earn more money. He told his local employer that he was looking at other opportunities, but that didn’t result in a better offer.
“I guess my experience didn’t count,” he says.
He applied for a job with Day-Glow and was hired immediately. Taggart says the move resulted in a doubling of his wages. Although it means an extra 10 hours a week on the road and driving the course five times every four weeks, it’s worth it to Taggart.
“Financially, it’s not here at all,” he says of the job opportunities in Ashtabula County.
Roy Allen of Kingsville also found better wages by heading west, but the sacrifice is grueling. Allen, 50, is an operator at FirstEnergy’s Eastlake Power Plant. He and three others from Ashtabula County who work at the plant car-pool together from a lot near the Geneva I-90 interchange. On an average afternoon, there are two dozen or more cars parked in the lot. At least that many are in the lot at Route 45 and I-90.
The workers cram into a four-cylinder vehicle for the 45-minute commute. Allen has to leave his house shortly after 5 a.m. to make it to work by 7 a.m. Formerly employed at P&C; Dock in Conneaut, Allen tired of working without a contract and of unsuccessful negotiations with the new owner. He decided to return to his previous employer, although it meant a fivefold increase in drive time.
“Money and benefits,” he says.
Although utility companies are among the highest-paying employers in the region, Allen says his annual wages place him in the lower-middle-class category. Further, workers are increasingly being asked to shoulder more of the costs of health insurance and other benefits.
He wonders how breadwinners who work in Ashtabula County, where per capita income is thousands less than in Lake County, make ends meet.
“I feel fortunate; I have a good-paying job,” he says. “It’s a shame that the blue-collar worker does not fit into that (middle-class) category any longer. They have carried this country on their backs. I don’t know how they can raise their families. If they have a couple of kids, they are really scrambling to feed them.”
Fazio says the better wages in Cuyahoga County also make it worth it for him, but the rising cost of gasoline is whittling away at the margin. Allen says gasoline and vehicle depreciation costs are also pinching the four FirstEnergy workers.
“We’re talking about buying motorcycles,” Allen says.
Dave, a commuter who makes the trip to Mentor every day, says he’s paying between $15 and $18 a day to keep his old car running and put gas in it to go to work. Formerly self-employed, the 47-year-old Ashtabula Township resident says he unsuccessfully looked for work for six months in Ashtabula County before a Mentor company gave him a chance.
“The ads in the paper are all for low-paying jobs,” Dave says. “I’m a single guy and need make enough to pay the mortgage and my (living) expenses. Those $6, $7 an hour jobs are pretty much out of the question for me.”
Employed in Mentor for the past 21⁄2 years, Dave says he notices the same cars and license plates as he heads west on I-90 between 6 and 7 a.m. He’d like to connect with one or two of those commuters who would share the cost. He’s has run ads in the classified section, but the only responses he received were from people who thought he was offering them a job to drive him to work.
The drive is draining him, but there’s no work to be found locally.
“It’s a 90-mile trip every day,” he says. “There’s not enough money left at the end of the month to pay the bills.”
Both Fazio and Allen would like to find jobs in Ashtabula County, as well, and invest their commuting time in more productive pastimes other than burning foreign oil.
“If we could work in this county, we would,” Fazio says.
More than a quarter of employed Ashtabula County residents must leave the county for work for jobs/better wages.
Why it matters:
Payroll taxes are paid to the municipality in which the commuter works; commuting has environmental impacts, deprives workers of time with families and decreases quality of life.Reality Check:
Where we commute:
27.9 percent of Ashtabula County
workers left the county to earn their bread in 2004.
Here’s where they went:
Erie County (Pa.)
Crawford County, Pa.
Sources: Ohio Department of Development/U.S. Census Bureau