Hard-hit by recession Lyon County struggles with state’s worst unemployment rate
Ray Smith watched businesses fail for months when he got a call Wednesday morning.
The 63-year-old Lyon County man said he knew he would lose his job, he just didn’t know when.
Businesses can’t afford a lot of things in a recession, he said. His 13 years of experience as a janitor couldn’t change the economy.
“People who think their jobs can’t be eliminated are pure stupid idiots,” he said.
Smith lives in the county with the worst unemployment rate in the state. March statistics show Lyon County had a 15.2 percent unemployment rate, compared to Nevada’s overall 10.4 percent rate and the nation’s 8.5 percent.
Lyon County’s rate has been higher than 15 percent since January, reaching 15.6 percent in February, according to the Nevada Department of Employm-ent, Training & Rehabilitation (DETR).
The jump marked the first time the county’s unemployment rate had been higher than 15 percent.
But Smith said he’s sure he’ll find a job within a month.
He smiled Friday afternoon as he sat in a Dayton bar wearing a baseball cap and holding a drink. His white beard hung down his paint-stained jacket. He said people call him “Happy Smith” because of his attitude.
But the economy has hurt a lot of people in Lyon County, Smith said, and some barely have enough money to survive.
“I kind of worry with them,” he said.
Rapid rise, rapid fall
Lyon County’s population growth that fueled construction and the jobs it brought earlier in the decade stopped suddenly last year.
Nevada had been one of the fastest-growing states in the country for 20 years until recently. Lyon was one of the fastest growing counties in the state. It tripled in size in the last 20 years.
At its height, Lyon county grew 10.6 percent from 2005 to 2006, according to the state demographer. The state overall grew about 4 percent in that period.
But Lyon County’s growth fell sharply from that peak until population actually declined in 2008.
Jered McDonald, a state research economist, said the county fell hard and fast for several reasons.
Stagnation in population growth stopped the need for construction jobs to build new houses on cheap available land, he said. After that, the county didn’t have an industrial base to fall back on.
The two biggest towns, Fernley and Dayton, are bedroom communities for Washoe County and Carson City, both of which have unemployment rates of over 11 percent.
“Lyon is getting hit pretty hard,” McDonald said.
One former Lyon County construction worker, Tom Taylor, packed his RV on Thursday with the possessions he wasn’t selling in a yard sale.
He had set out gloves, a couch, bird houses and a tape measure beside the mobile home in Dayton Valley he recently sold.
Taylor, 62, lost his construction job in October. He and his wife are moving to Florida to stay with his daughter after living 15 years in Northern Nevada.
He said he’ll at least have a chance of getting a job in Florida.
Construction work has dried up in Lyon over the past two years. The county reported it issued 551 new home building permits in 2005. In 2008, it issued 54.
Foreclosures grew from 13 in 2005 to 532 in 2008. It has had close to 200 so far this year.
“There’s not much left here, let’s put it that way,” Taylor said.
Many Lyon County workers have to leave the county for work. About 16 percent of workers commute to Washoe County or Carson City, according to DETR.
The largest employer in the county, the school district, plans layoffs at the end of the school year. About 35 of its 1,100 employees will probably lose their jobs ” the first district-wide layoffs in 30 years.
Caroline McIntosh, county school superintendent, said residents are “frantic” over what to do about the slow economy. More families are moving in with each other, more children are asking for extra school meals and more parents are nervous about losing their jobs, she said.
“We have hungry children now,” McIntosh said. “We have really worried people.”
But the county is committed to getting residents back to work, said Lyon County Manager Dennis Stark.
Commissioners and county staff are working with business development agencies to attract companies, he said. The county particularly hopes California businesses will be lured by the area’s low taxes and business-friendly regulation, he said.
The county government, the county’s third largest employer, has also delayed layoffs as long as it could, he said. A $1 million budget shortfall could force the government to lay off more than 15 full-time employees at the end of the month, however.
Stark said the county has cut services as much as possible to try to avoid the layoffs. Unemployment is “big factor” factor that has hurt revenue of residents and the county, he said.
He told the Assembly Government Affairs Committee in February that 1 in 75 homes are in foreclosure and the level of service in the county is below national standards due to a lack of funds.
“The recent economic downturn has taken its toll in a variety of ways: financially, philosophically and emotionally,” he said.
‘God help us all’
The community service organization Friends in Service Helping (FISH) has given about 330 people food, clothing or housing help at its food bank and thrift store outside Dayton, said Jeff Fast, FISH executive director.
Part of the problem people face is looking for work and paying for basic needs in a county that is so spread out, he said. Dayton on the county’s west side is 40 miles away from Fernley on the county’s east side. Small towns dot the desert in between.
Fast said living in Lyon County is not like living in Carson City or Reno.
“When you have to drive 20 miles to the grocery store, it’s a lot different,” he said.
Doris Richardson of Dayton drives 45 miles to Sparks for an on-call casino job that keeps her in her 28-foot trailer. She lost her full-time job as a card dealer in February. Richardson, 50, said she had to search for five weeks before she found her new, unsteady work.
She had to borrow money from her mother to pay for food for her dog, Annie, while she was looking for an income.
“I don’t know how people can make it,” she said. “I want to say, ‘God help us all’ because our government is not helping. I’m worried about us.”