Laid off Elkhart County Highway Department workers move on (or try to)

When let go in March, the workers — casualties of a funding dip due in part to the down economy — expressed disbelief, anger. Where are they now?

Posted on July 13, 2014 at 5:00 a.m.

There’s life after being laid off.

Jessica Miller, one of 10 Elkhart County Highway Department workers let go in March as part of a cost-cutting move, has since found two jobs — landscaping and working in her father’s restaurant.

Back in March, the laid off workers — who county officials say were casualties of a dip in government funding brought on in part by the down economy — expressed disbelief and anger over their forced departures. A measure of distaste lingers.

"I can understand when layoffs are needed, but I really don’t think it was needed at our place," Miller said in a phone interview. Other cost-cutting moves could have been implemented to avoid having to lay off so many workers, she maintains.

She’s moved on, though, and there’s a silver lining to it all.

”I’m not stressed," Miller said, alluding to the more relaxed work environment since leaving the highway department. What’s more, instead of having to sit in a highway department plow this coming winter — her fate much of last January and February due to the heavy snowfall here — she’ll be able to spend it in more enjoyable pursuits.

Still, it’s not all peaches and cream for everybody.

Jim Hinken, let go from the highway department last February after about seven years there, is still looking for work.

"It ain’t a good thing. It’s a bad situation all the way around,“ he said.

At 63 years old, opportunities aren’t as plentiful as they are for younger workers, so he’s thinking of tapping Social Security early.

"Yeah, I could find a job at McDonald’s, Burger King,” he said. But he was a mechanic in the highway department, and “there’s quite a difference.”

Losses due to property tax caps have forced Elkhart County government and the cities and schools here to slash spending. The recession only exacerbated the ever-widening funding dip.

In the case of the highway department, it was a drop in gas tax revenue — not property tax caps  — that proved lethal to the 10 department jobs. Fewer autos hitting the road compounded with the rising costs for the supplies to fix roads, according to Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder. It’s yet another lasting effect of the recession.

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack or visit him on Facebook.

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