News Column

Are North Texans Better Off Than Four Years Ago?

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Sandy Valliere lost her corporate training job during the recession, spent more than a year looking for another fulltime job, ended up taking a big pay cut, and is now rebuilding.

Mike Coffey, owner of a Fort Worth background screening services firm, saw his business grind to a halt. He cut to one employee for a short time, then saw his firm's workload rocket up. He's up to 15 staff members now and is hiring two more.

Doug Williamson and his wife Margot lost their jobs in the mortgage industry and have spent months getting back on their feet.

Who are they voting for Tuesday? Respectively: Mitt Romney, probably Gary Johnson the Libertarian, and -- in Doug Williamson's case -- leaning toward President Barack Obama. Margot Williamson isn't saying.

Are they better off than they were four years ago? It's a popular question posed by presidential candidates during campaigns since Ronald Reagan famously confronted President Carter with it in 1980. Numerous economic measures -- ranging from a recovered stock market to job gains and, finally, an uptick in housing -- point to an economy that's on much better footing today than it was four years ago at the recession's nadir.

But Romney is hoping voters will turn against Obama's handling of the economy.

Getting voters to assess whether they're better off than they were four years ago is easy. Unless they're still out of work or have other long-running problems, most say they're better off.

Will their answers guide how they vote? That's more complicated.

"There's no quick answer to anything," said Michelle Vargas, a Fort Worth consultant who was on her way to vote Thursday morning and views the country's economic problems as a result of the global crisis.

Starting from the end of the recession in June 2009, most major U.S. metro areas have fewer jobs today, said Cheryl Abbot, a regional economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Dallas.

The exceptions: Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, and Washington, D.C., which have recovered.

"It's never black and white," Abbot said. "We lost massive numbers of jobs over the last four years. We've certainly been gaining them, but it's going to take awhile."

Slow rebound

Valliere, who lives in Alvarado with her husband, describes herself as conservative fiscally, "more middle of the road on other issues" and tending to vote Republican. She views business as reluctant to make any changes out of uncertainty over Obama policies and their impact on costs of doing business.

"They both talk it, but historically, Republicans have done a better job of being fiscally responsible," said Valliere, who has already voted for Romney.

Valliere, 52, was laid off from her corporate training job for a convenience store retailer in February 2009. She subsequently won contract work with the same company and, in October 2010, a fulltime training job with it, but at a much lower level and an $11,000 pay cut, she says.

Valliere, who's in West Virginia this week training staff members, also is building an Ignite Energy multilevel marketing business on the side.

She and her husband had a year's worth of expenses in savings and ran through that, she said. They had just paid off their mortgage when the layoff occurred.

"I didn't have to go into my retirement fund, but everything else, I depleted," she said.

She and her husband have been able to rebuild two months worth of expenses in savings.

Is she better off?

"No, I'm not better off," she said. "I'm beginning to make it up."

'Definitely better off'

The downturn at Mike Coffey's business, Imperative Information Group, started in fall 2008.

"I financed keeping all of my employees on board myself for six months rather than lay them off," he says. "I didn't want to lose the skills, and I didn't want to put them in a situation where they weren't able to take care of their business."

In March 2009, he laid off seven of his eight staff members. Within a few months, his clients started hiring again, and he was bringing his staff back.

Revenue at the company, which does employment background screenings and due diligence checks and gets 30 percent of its business from oil and gas, is likely up 20-25 percent this year, Coffey said.

He still pays 100 percent of employee health premiums. He moved to a policy with high $5,000 deductibles, but reimburses co-pays and funds the first $1,250 out of pocket.

"We didn't lose any clients," he said. "Nobody went out of business, or left for competition. As soon as they started hiring, they started turning it back on. We've seen the rate of hiring in our clients really pick up over the last 18 or 19 months."

Does he give Obama credit for the recovery?

"I think it's just cyclical, I really do," Coffey said. "I didn't blame Bush when the economy went to hell, and I'm not really giving Obama credit for the recovery."

He characterizes himself as "pretty much a Libertarian with a small L," being fiscally conservative but sympathizing with Obama's "big picture goals as far as social justice and an equitable society." He's leaning toward voting Libertarian after backing Obama the last election.

He likes the goal of some level of universal healthcare and views characterizations of Obama's Affordable Care Act as a government takeover of healthcare as unfair. Still he says the plan is too expensive.

Is he better off? "I'm definitely better off than I was four years ago."

His outlook for the next year: "I think it's going to be good. There's nothing out there that makes me think there's going to be any significant change, regardless of the outcome of the election."

'Living back to normal'

The Williamsons lost their jobs in July 2008, he as a mortgage executive, she as a youth director at a troubled church.

Margot Williamson, now 43, took a job in March 2009 for the benefits. In June that year, Doug Williamson, 45, landed another job with a mortgage company, this time managing real estate portfolios from foreclosures.

"The credit crunch caused me to lose a job and the credit crunch caused me to get a job, 350 days later," he jokes.

In December 2010, with help from a former boss, Williamson landed a better job at another firm in the mortgage industry, this time in business development and client management.

"The importance of having the inside track to the employer is really what makes the opportunities," says Williamson, who spent a fair share of his layoff co-founding the nonprofit Career Search Network in Fort Worth.

The couple drained a 401(k) to make sure they didn't lose their home on Fort Worth's Near South Side, and to meet monthly $1,000 COBRA healthcare insurance premiums. They put the clamps on spending for two years.

"Ironically, it helped our credit rating," Doug Williamson jokes. The couple refinanced to a cheaper mortgage, going to 2.75 percent from 6 percent, and shaved 12 years off their term.

"We're living back to normal," Williamson says. Last year, the couple replaced the windows on their home and bought a new washer and drier. "But we went to a scratch and dent place," Margot Williamson says.

This summer, the couple took a five-day cruise off of Los Angeles.

The couple describe themselves as "fairly independent minded." Williamson says he voted for George W. Bush and, four years ago, Obama.

This time, he's leaning toward Obama again, wondering whether Obama needs more time to finish what he's started. His wife isn't saying how she's leaning.

So, is the couple better off today?

"Yes," Williamson says. "I am employed. De facto, I am better off."

'Definitely not better'

The economy's recovery has been visible at job search networks in the region. At the Southlake Focus Group, the popular professional group that meets at White's Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, weekly attendance at the Thursday get-togethers has leveled off at about 200 for the last six months, said Doug Anderson, a member of the leadership team.

It peaked at more than 400 in April 2010.

"We're seeing churning now," he said. "There's quite a few that have been back for a second or third time."

That's more common among IT workers and even administrative who might have been on contract and now coming off, he said.

Anecdotally, the group's members who have landed new jobs during the downturn and recovery are learning about 20 percent less, Anderson said.

The downturn continues to have hit older workers harder than most other segments of the population, and many who lost their jobs have likely dropped out of the job market, he said.

Valliere says she went up against perception issues about her age during her job search, discovering employers "perceiving I wasn't so relevant."

Navigating the downturn has been a challenge for Vargas, 46, who lives in northwest Fort Worth's Lake Country Estates with her husband and three children.

Vargas, who consults on processes and systems, is finishing up a year-long Defense Department contract that's had her commuting between her home and Washington, D.C. Her husband, a medical helicopter pilot, has just taken a new job that his him commuting to Brownwood.

Vargas has beefed up her resume to make herself more employable, adding certifications such as master black belt in the Lean Six Sigma processes and project management professional.

The choreography required to manage the household typically has made it difficult for her husband and her to work at the same time, putting more pressure on, Vargas said. She's open to a permanent position, and the couple is considering work outside the area, even outside the country, she said.

Are they better off than four years ago?

"Definitely not," she said. "But we're not on the street, our kids are doing great, we're all covered by health insurance. It won't turn into a financial crisis."

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