LONE STAR — At 8.2 percent, Texas' unemployment rate is the highest in 22 years. But that sounds enviable in Morris County, an isolated industrial island in the northeast corner of the state where the jobless rate has reached 15.6 percent, even higher than in Michigan.
There isn't a drilling rig at work in the county, 130 miles east of Dallas, but the slowdown in places like the Barnett Shale has rippled across Texas and virtually shuttered the area's prime employer, the sprawling U.S. Steel Tubular Products plant in Lone Star, which produces pipe for drilling.
Since January, more than 1,300 jobs have been lost at the mill, said Kay O'Dell, executive director of Workforce Solutions Northeast Texas. An estimated 200 workers are still on the job.
The impact has rolled across the rural region, said O'Dell, who noted that many mill workers commuted from Cass County (12.5 percent unemployment) and Red River County (10.5 percent). The workers earned an estimated $18.50 to $21 per hour. But when the mill was "blowing and going" in full production, steelworkers frequently racked up 20 and 30 hours of overtime a week for months at a time, union workers said. "People drove a long way because these jobs paid very good for this area. And they didn't require a very high educational level," O'Dell said.
Those factors sent generations of steelworkers' sons from high school to the mill, creating a "company county," said John Feezell, an economics professor at LeTourneau University in Longview.
People here say they're a resilient bunch who over the decades have toughed it out through bitter strikes and other downturns in the steel business.
This, however, is different.
The recession has limited people's options, and after U.S. Steel bought the mill in 2007, there's no local connection to the plant's future. "That's a major change," Feezell said.
More so than most areas, all of Morris County's economic eggs are in one basket, and that stiffens the odds for jobless workers -- there are no comparable jobs within easy commuting distance, and friends, neighbors and former co-workers are competing for the few positions available. And for people willing to move for work, selling their homes becomes equally problematic, Feezell said.
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