April 2, 2009 at 1:00 am

Economic woes follow Michigan workers out of state

Sheet metal worker Rick Schenk, 38, moved to Las Vegas to take advantage of what he thought was a better job market. But as Nevada's jobless rate, once well below Michigan's, nearly doubled to more than 10 percent in February, he was laid off, and is now returning to his native state. (Ronda Churchill / Special to The Detroit News)

Las Vegas -- Ryan Spencer was out of his element, a professional snowmobile racer living in the desert with two other Flint-area men.

Like fellow sheet metal workers Pat Edgar and Rick Schenk, Spencer chased a job to Las Vegas when he couldn't find one in Michigan.

The paychecks he earned were sent to his wife in Swartz Creek, who provided daily updates on their toddler's potty training by cell phone.

"This is killing me," he said in December.

But like many people who have moved from Michigan in hopes of finding a better opportunity, Spencer, Edgar and Schenk found the sick economy followed them to Las Vegas.

While they were happy to have jobs on the $9.4 billion City Center project, they were constantly worried about their jobs, aware that job security was measured in weeks, not years.

For many Michigan expats, former boomtowns in the Southwest and the South are starting to feel like home -- and not in a good way. The unemployment and uncertainty they faced in their native state have followed them to the Sun Belt, as the rest of the nation reels from the same economic punch that has staggered Michigan for eight years.

The five states that have recently welcomed the greatest number of Michiganians -- Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and Illinois -- have shed more than 1.4 million jobs in the past year alone.

Nevada's jobless rate, once well below Michigan's, has nearly doubled, climbing over 10 percent in February. Las Vegas lost more than 10,000 construction jobs in the past year.

"It's all finally starting to hit there," Spencer said this week.

If Michigan's economy made people leave; the national economy may force others to stay, said demographer Kurt Metzger. "Now where do we go?" he asked.

The jolt felt in the Southwest will have repercussions in Michigan: While the state continued to lose people into 2008, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the numbers leaving may decline this year for the first time since 2001, Metzger said.

In the past, the loss of some workers over the years eased the burden on unemployment rolls in Michigan. But now that other states are reeling, a lack of migration could boost Michigan's jobless rate even higher.

"Generally speaking, migration is a nice safety valve we have in the United States," said Bill Testa, a regional economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. But he noted that Nevada is now experiencing the same mass layoffs affecting the Midwest and, indeed, the nation. But he noted that Nevada, where a far greater portion of its work force is devoted to construction, is hurting. "These places are really put upon."

Dan Dyrdahl, financial secretary-treasurer of the local carpenters union in Las Vegas, knows that all too well. He watched his local swell with thousands of out-of-towners looking for -- and getting -- work. But now he's telling them to stay away.

During previous downturns, Dyrdahl would steer workers to Florida or California. Those options, too, are gone.

"This time there's nothing," he said.

Vegas no longer a lifeline

For the better part of a decade, Las Vegas' seemingly endless appetite for mega-casinos has provided a lifeline for Michigan construction workers.

An estimated 11,000 Michigan residents have moved to the Vegas area since 2001; in 2007, Clark County was the No. 3 destination among Michigan's migrants, according to IRS data analyzed by The Detroit News.

For many, it's economic necessity. Edgar, an outdoorsman, would rather be in Flint or hunting on his Grand Blanc property.

"We've worked hard for what we've got," said Edgar, 39, a father of four, including 6-year-old twins being raised by his wife, Alicia. "We don't want to lose it."

Edgar's fears are shared by Michigan expats throughout the nation who now know they didn't really leave the bad economic times behind. Mike Hanley moved to San Antonio in the fall of 2007 to try to escape a faltering auto industry.

A year after moving, the 48-year-old was laid off from the San Antonio office of a Farmington Hills-based supplier.

"We thought we were going to our normal monthly financial meeting to talk about how bad the numbers are, and they laid us off," said Hanley, formerly of Grand Blanc.

Before the layoff, Hanley talked about how in Texas, "people are really immune to what's going on up north." Now he knows better.

So too, does Joe Covington, a Detroit-born electrician. He left Detroit, where he's still a member of IBEW Local 58, and headed to Vegas a few years ago when work dried up.

The 1981 Mumford High School graduate had steady work until this past summer. Now he dutifully goes to the local union hall each month to put his name on the jobs list.

Lately, there's been little to do but stand around and talk about the past. After years of fat paychecks, talking about the good times gets old.

As he stood in the parking lot of IBEW Local 357, within a few miles of the steel-and-glass casinos of downtown Las Vegas, Covington was surrounded by three other Detroiters, all members of Local 58. Each found that the desert had for a while provided what the Great Lakes could not -- a job.

"You've got to do something," said Tinell Logan, 32, the youngest of the bunch.

Venture offers taste of home

The city of Henderson sits about a half-hour southeast of Las Vegas, far from the glitzy lights, high-rise casinos and construction cranes.

It's just a couple of traffic lights for those headed to Hoover Dam, a Depression-era works project that required its own national migration of workers to tame a river and bring electricity, flood control and a steady water supply to the Southwest.

Henderson is home to a far-smaller venture: Motor City Coney Island.

More than 2,000 miles from Detroit, Emanuel Sanchez, a 1987 graduate of Westland John Glenn, is trying to tap into the flow of Michiganians that seems to have no end.

"They buy everything," said Sanchez's mother, Patty Batwinas: Faygo, Sanders hot fudge, Vernors and, of course, the coneys -- chili and hot dogs courtesy of Metro Detroit vendors.

"It's Michigan," Batwinas said, "that keeps us going."

But now, she is well aware that the same customers who have helped the restaurant survive are in danger themselves.

It's been over a month since Batwinas has seen a couple of regulars who came from Michigan to work on City Center. As Bob Seger sang about "the days of old," in the background, Batwinas surmised what happened.

"They're not working," she said. "They were the low guys on the totem pole."

And that's where Spencer, Schenk and Edgar found themselves Friday when problems that started a world away hit them. With Dubai World, one of City Center's main financial backers, balking at contributing more to the project, the contractor for whom they worked laid off more than 100 people, including them.

Spencer and Schenk were expected back in Michigan this morning. Home and out of work. Again.

"I don't know what we're going to do," Schenk said as he and Spencer drove east through Nebraska.

Both men said they'll be glad to be back in the same place as their wives and kids. But the future, at least for now, is one giant riddle that a moving van can no longer answer.

"We'll find something," Schenk said. "It won't be what we want, but we'll find something."

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Rick Schenk, Pat Edgar and Ryan Spencer found the sick economy followed ... (Ronda Churchill / Special to The Detroit News)