By Justin Baer and Eric Morath
CINCINNATI -- In the seven months after the coronavirus and
shutdown tore through this city, Crayona McBerry lost half her
income, then got it back; got sick, then recovered; risked
eviction, then made her rent.
Though she is still on her feet, it isn't relief she feels so
much as anxiety. The 44-year-old single mother is working seven
days a week as a cleaner, behind on some of her bills and ever
alert to what the virus might deal next. "I worry every day," she
The U.S. economy has been growing since its brutal spring
implosion, suggesting the recession might be over, or soon will be.
But it hardly feels that way to Ms. McBerry, or to a Cincinnati
entrepreneur whose coffee shop is still missing many of its
customers, to a young woman who lost her dream job at General
Electric Co. or to a comedian who went seven months without a
Millions of Americans are on the downside of a recovery that is
increasingly split, with some parts of the economy roaring while
other sectors languish. Cincinnati mirrors the national picture:
Its experience shows how economic shock waves continue to
reverberate through people's lives even as the worst effects of the
springtime crash recede. Of 22 million jobs lost nationwide, half
have been restored.
The city's stories also reveal adaptation and resilience. Ms.
McBerry has improvised on child care, the GE worker has found a new
job, the entrepreneur is keeping his businesses going and the
comedian is writing jokes for the pandemic era.
Cincinnati's diverse economy includes factories, universities
and corporate headquarters, including Procter & Gamble Co. and
Kroger Co. As in the country at large, most of the city's
businesses are small. Many sprang up in the past few years as
Ohio's economy surged in lockstep with the country's in the decade
following the financial crisis.
The boom drove the local jobless rate to a two-decade low of
3.1%, just before the crisis struck, and buoyed groups historically
disadvantaged: Black and Hispanic people and those with
disabilities, limited education or criminal records.
The single mother
One beneficiary was Ms. McBerry. She had spent six months
without a home, staying with a relative, before moving with her two
younger daughters to an apartment in a cluster of buildings at the
bottom of a hill. Her two older daughters live in another apartment
in the same complex.
Ms. McBerry works as a cleaner at a child behavior and crisis
center and its affiliated elementary school, employed by a firm
called RaysClean LLC. She moved into the apartment of her own on
A week later, on March 9, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine declared a state
of emergency. The state had recorded three cases of Covid-19. On
March 13, President Trump declared a national state of emergency,
and Mr. DeWine, a Republican, announced schools would close.
Besides directly costing many jobs, that move made it hard for
parents with small children to go to work. Ms. McBerry was squeezed
on both sides. The center's school closed, reducing her work
The loss of half of her income left Ms. McBerry and her family
close to losing their home again. "I don't want to be homeless,"
she said. "That feeling -- I will never recover from that."
She weighed which bills to pay first. She could put off the gas
and electric, she thought, but not rent. "I can barbecue, I've got
flashlights," she said. "But you have to have shelter."
She navigated food pantries and other services. The United Way
referred her to Freestore Foodbank. Ms. McBerry worried she wasn't
eligible because she was working and would feel judged for needing
assistance. But when she arrived at Freestore in late April, she
found its workers gracious and supportive. She came away with
groceries and hygiene products.
Food insecurity in the U.S. has spread, despite the economy's
partial comeback. Across the country, 10.5% of adults lived in
households that didn't have enough to eat at some point in early
September, up from 9.8% in early May, Census figures show.
Freestore distributed 9.6 million meals from mid-March to mid-June
in the tri-state region anchored by Cincinnati, up 58% from that
time in 2019.
Ms. McBerry ran late on her May rent. She had the money within
days but had to wait for another week so she could pay the late fee
her landlord assessed.
The state shutdown closed her infant daughter's day-care center.
To go to work, she had to rely on family, including her 12-year-old
daughter, to watch the baby.
That is a problem nationwide. About 13% of parents stopped
working or reduced their hours in June because of child-care
problems, according to Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist at
Northeastern University in Boston.
Ms. McBerry started feeling run down at work. Her body ached,
and she lost her senses of taste and smell. She learned from
colleagues that an employee with Covid-19 had those symptoms.
Her boss let her stay home for three weeks, without pay. Ms.
McBerry eventually regained her strength, but the time off set her
further back financially. She believes she had Covid-19 but never
found out. She said she couldn't find a free test.
The Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati helped Ms. McBerry
access public-assistance funds, enough to make her rent in June and
July. She is back to working five full days and works several hours
on Saturday and Sunday, 50 hours a week in all.
Her 12-year-old, though, is taking classes online now, and has
told her mother she can't watch the baby all the time. Ms.
McBerry's 20-year-old daughter, who works for the same cleaning
company, took the night shift so she could babysit during the
"I just have to keep myself going, make sure I'm safe and my
family is safe," Ms. McBerry said. "It's not even 'worries'
anymore, it's part of living now. It's life."
As a professional comedian for over 30 years, Steve Caminiti is
used to lean times, but not like this.
He was booked to perform at Cincinnati's Belterra Park casino
and at a private party the weekend of March 13. A state ban on
large gatherings shut the casino that day, and there went $3,500.
Also halted was a side gig he had, ushering at Cincinnati Reds
baseball and college basketball games. Suddenly, his whole income
"I don't have a plan B," Mr. Caminiti said in his faux-shocked
comedic style. "I forgot to get a plan B!"
Congress passed the $2.2 trillion Cares Act in March as a bridge
to the economy's reopening, then assumed to be in just a month or
two. The U.S. sent stimulus checks to many households, offered
forgivable "Paycheck Protection" loans to small businesses that
kept their workers, extended unemployment insurance to gig workers
and added $600 a week to benefits. By May, more than 30 million
Americans were receiving regular and special pandemic-related
Still, a patchwork of state rules and overwhelmed processing
systems meant many claimants struggled to collect benefits. Some
44% of people who filed for unemployment between March and Aug. 15
hadn't received their benefits by Aug. 31, according to the Century
Foundation, a left-leaning think tank that does labor-market
Mr. Caminiti applied for jobless benefits a dozen times but kept
hitting roadblocks. He had worked in various states, and individual
performances often didn't pay enough to generate the tax forms he
needed to prove his income. Eventually, he was able to tap the
self-employment benefit, but the $600 enhanced benefit expired at
the end of July. In August, Mr. Caminiti received less than $100 a
His longtime landlord gave him a break on his rent, and he
turned to family members for a loan. "It's embarrassing," the
58-year old said. "At my age, I shouldn't have to do that."
Mr. Caminiti orders off the dollar menu at fast-food
restaurants. He doesn't turn down leftovers after his Italian
family gathers for dinners at his parents' house.
Mr. Caminiti's daughter, who lives in Hawaii, had his first
grandchild earlier this year. He visited in February but doesn't
know when he can afford to return.
"I made a decent middle-class living, but this changes
everything," he said. "I'm going to have to find a job that has
retirement benefits, and maybe do the comedy on the side."
Mr. Caminiti worked for several weeks as a Census taker, at
about $24 an hour. A friend in construction paid him for a few
The U.S. had 10.7 million fewer jobs in September than in
February, despite the comeback from the depths of the downturn. The
ranks of the laid-off who no longer expect to return to their old
jobs within six months keep growing, a sign that some sectors may
take years to return to their pre-pandemic employment status.
At highest risk are businesses that, like Mr. Caminiti's, depend
on live customers. About 36% of the jobs deficit, versus February,
is attributable to three industries: food service, accommodations
and arts, entertainment and recreation.
"Comedy will survive, but some of the venues won't," said Mr.
Cincinnati's restaurants are allowed to open now, but seated
diners were down more than 30% in mid-October from a year earlier,
according to reservation app Open Table. Ohio now allows indoor
venues to have the lesser of 15% of seating capacity or 300 people.
The Belterra Park casino is open again for gambling but hasn't
restarted entertainment events.
On Saturday, Mr. Caminiti performed his first show since March,
at Bircus Brewing Co. in the suburb of Ludlow, Ky. He has lined up
a few shows for later in the year, but had another gig, a company
holiday party, postponed, due to the recent uptick in virus cases.
He expects income from the last three months of the year to be down
40% from last year, after he earned no money from comedy from April
He was apprehensive about returning to the stage for the first
time since March, unsure how to do comedy about a pandemic.
"Everyone says I should tell jokes about unemployed people," he
said, with a slight chuckle. "But they don't work."
The young corporate employee
Economic research shows that when a recession knocks people out
of the job market or off a career path in their prime, the scars,
in the form of lower income or less job security, can last
Katie Smanik, a supply-chain specialist, spent six years
climbing the career ladder at a General Electric facility in
Evendale, 15 miles to Cincinnati's north. Then, in a matter of
months, the 28-year-old was collecting unemployment.
"It's like when you lose someone in your life," she said. "You
have to move forward."
Ms. Smanik started full-time at GE right after her 2014
graduation from the University of Cincinnati, where she studied
marketing and operations management. It was her dream employer, a
big, well-known multinational, and she thought she would spend her
entire career with the company. She did well, and last year a
manager asked her to take on a new position tracking parts orders
for a U.S. military engine.
She became an example of how the pandemic toppled dominoes.
Americans canceled business trips and vacationers stayed home,
slamming air traffic. Airlines postponed orders for aircraft and
parts, including engines.
Rumors of job cuts swept through GE's Evendale offices. "I was
just praying daily it wouldn't be me," Ms. Smanik said. She had six
years of experience and a string of favorable reviews, but was the
newest employee on her team.
At the end of April she got an email arranging a video call with
her boss and someone from human resources. As it began, she knew
almost immediately she was losing her job. "I bawled like a baby,"
"Do you need a minute?" her boss asked.
"No," she said. "It's OK."
Ms. Smanik's uncle urged her to accept the stages of grief. She
cried for days. She grew angry. She questioned why others were
spared, and wondered if she would have been, too, if she had turned
down the new role that made her a team's junior member. A week
passed before she could muster the strength to mount a job
Ms. Smanik had an apartment in Cincinnati's Oakley neighborhood
and was saving to buy a home. She moved back with her parents in
Maineville, 30 miles to the northeast. Many young adults nationwide
have made the same adjustment. Some 52% of 18-to-29-year-olds
surveyed said in July they were living with at least one parent, up
from 47% in February, according to the Pew Research Center.
When Ohio let businesses reopen in May, Ms. Smanik went back to
a weekend job as a server at Oakley Pub & Grill. She kept
applying for jobs in her field. For a while, she despaired of
returning to her career path. It looked as if she could become part
of the long-term scarring that economists cite.
But a position at a supplier to GE called Midstate Machine
looked promising. By mid-July, she was back at work, in a job that
involved a lot of her past responsibilities at GE. She earns 17%
less than before but is saving enough from living with her parents
to start shopping for a home of her own.
One of Ms. Smanik's best friends made it through the cuts at GE.
When they speak, Ms. Smanik gets updates on what it's like at
Evendale now, after so many of their colleagues are gone.
"I made a lot of lifelong friends at that company," she said. "I
love them. It was heartbreaking."
Like many who start businesses, Means Cameron is an optimist.
This year has tested his resolve.
His two Cincinnati shops, BlaCk OWned OuterWear and BlaCk Coffee
Lounge, are a few blocks from a downtown that was emptied by the
pandemic and then was in the path of this spring and summer's
protests over police treatment of Black people.
He has felt stress over whether his businesses can survive in a
shrunken retail landscape, but also exhilaration over the
opportunities from a greater awareness of the challenges
confronting Black Americans.
Mr. Cameron started a clothing line in high school. He put his
business on hold for Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he
studied marketing. In 2011, BlaCk OWned, a new clothing brand, made
its debut, and in 2014 he opened a clothing store.
Five years later, Mr. Cameron rented the space next door and
opened BlaCk Coffee Lounge. The shops are adjacent to
Over-the-Rhine, a once hardscrabble neighborhood that gentrified,
drawing young professionals and wealthy empty-nesters to its
restaurants and cultural attractions.
The coronavirus shutdown arrived just as BlaCk Coffee Lounge was
becoming the kind of community space he set out to create. Mr.
Cameron, who is 36, shifted his focus to bringing it back. "What do
I need to do to reopen?" he asked himself. "What do I need to do to
He tried curbside pickup in April but closed that down after a
week because of slow sales. In anticipation of reopening, he had to
persuade anxious employees it was safe. Three agreed, but "my
manager decided she didn't want to come back."
As the state business lockdown wore on, protesters gathered in
Columbus chanting "reopen Ohio." Gov. DeWine allowed restaurants to
reopen on May 21 with social distancing.
The morning of May 22, Mr. Cameron's eyes darted toward BlaCk
Coffee's front door every time a customer stepped in. Reopening day
had arrived, though not with the fanfare of his launch in July
2019, when 400 people packed the lounge. Many of the downtown
office employees who used to come in were working from home.
A few days later, George Floyd was killed in police custody in
Minneapolis, and subsequent protest demonstrations turned
destructive in Minneapolis and other cities, including
Five days after Mr. Floyd's killing, an employee of BlaCk Coffee
Lounge who came in early called Mr. Cameron to say a stone had been
thrown through a window. Mr. Cameron was in disbelief, first that
his store had been hit and then at the stream of customers and
neighbors who stopped by to offer support.
Business remained brisk for several weeks, but that hasn't
lasted. Nearby corporate headquarters remain largely empty.
His two young children have helped him overcome the rough
stretches, he said, as well as loyal customers such as the
71-year-old who stops in every few weeks to buy a new "BlaCk OWned"
In July, a news photographer captured the image of basketball
star Chris Paul wearing a "BlaCk OWned" mask from Mr. Cameron's
online store. The subsequent boom in orders has been "a whirlwind,"
Mr. Cameron said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cameron is working on launching an online store
to sell his house beans and on reopening to in-person dining. He
has hired a third barista and is in talks to sell coffee to some of
the companies whose office workers will eventually return to
"That's really what it's all about," he said. "Being able to
Write to Justin Baer at email@example.com and Eric Morath at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 18, 2020 14:15 ET (18:15 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.