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Inside an American Comeback: 'I Just Have to Keep -2-

He was apprehensive about returning to the stage for the first time since March, unsure how to do comedy about a pandemic. "Everyone says I should tell jokes about unemployed people," he said, with a slight chuckle. "But they don't work."

The young corporate employee

Economic research shows that when a recession knocks people out of the job market or off a career path in their prime, the scars, in the form of lower income or less job security, can last years.

Katie Smanik, a supply-chain specialist, spent six years climbing the career ladder at a General Electric facility in Evendale, 15 miles to Cincinnati's north. Then, in a matter of months, the 28-year-old was collecting unemployment.

"It's like when you lose someone in your life," she said. "You have to move forward."

Ms. Smanik started full-time at GE right after her 2014 graduation from the University of Cincinnati, where she studied marketing and operations management. It was her dream employer, a big, well-known multinational, and she thought she would spend her entire career with the company. She did well, and last year a manager asked her to take on a new position tracking parts orders for a U.S. military engine.

She became an example of how the pandemic toppled dominoes. Americans canceled business trips and vacationers stayed home, slamming air traffic. Airlines postponed orders for aircraft and parts, including engines.

Rumors of job cuts swept through GE's Evendale offices. "I was just praying daily it wouldn't be me," Ms. Smanik said. She had six years of experience and a string of favorable reviews, but was the newest employee on her team.

At the end of April she got an email arranging a video call with her boss and someone from human resources. As it began, she knew almost immediately she was losing her job. "I bawled like a baby," she said.

"Do you need a minute?" her boss asked.

"No," she said. "It's OK."

Ms. Smanik's uncle urged her to accept the stages of grief. She cried for days. She grew angry. She questioned why others were spared, and wondered if she would have been, too, if she had turned down the new role that made her a team's junior member. A week passed before she could muster the strength to mount a job search.

Ms. Smanik had an apartment in Cincinnati's Oakley neighborhood and was saving to buy a home. She moved back with her parents in Maineville, 30 miles to the northeast. Many young adults nationwide have made the same adjustment. Some 52% of 18-to-29-year-olds surveyed said in July they were living with at least one parent, up from 47% in February, according to the Pew Research Center.

When Ohio let businesses reopen in May, Ms. Smanik went back to a weekend job as a server at Oakley Pub & Grill. She kept applying for jobs in her field. For a while, she despaired of returning to her career path. It looked as if she could become part of the long-term scarring that economists cite.

But a position at a supplier to GE called Midstate Machine looked promising. By mid-July, she was back at work, in a job that involved a lot of her past responsibilities at GE. She earns 17% less than before but is saving enough from living with her parents to start shopping for a home of her own.

One of Ms. Smanik's best friends made it through the cuts at GE. When they speak, Ms. Smanik gets updates on what it's like at Evendale now, after so many of their colleagues are gone.

"I made a lot of lifelong friends at that company," she said. "I love them. It was heartbreaking."

The entrepreneur

Like many who start businesses, Means Cameron is an optimist. This year has tested his resolve.

His two Cincinnati shops, BlaCk OWned OuterWear and BlaCk Coffee Lounge, are a few blocks from a downtown that was emptied by the pandemic and then was in the path of this spring and summer's protests over police treatment of Black people.

He has felt stress over whether his businesses can survive in a shrunken retail landscape, but also exhilaration over the opportunities from a greater awareness of the challenges confronting Black Americans.

Mr. Cameron started a clothing line in high school. He put his business on hold for Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he studied marketing. In 2011, BlaCk OWned, a new clothing brand, made its debut, and in 2014 he opened a clothing store.

Five years later, Mr. Cameron rented the space next door and opened BlaCk Coffee Lounge. The shops are adjacent to Over-the-Rhine, a once hardscrabble neighborhood that gentrified, drawing young professionals and wealthy empty-nesters to its restaurants and cultural attractions.

The coronavirus shutdown arrived just as BlaCk Coffee Lounge was becoming the kind of community space he set out to create. Mr. Cameron, who is 33, shifted his focus to bringing it back. "What do I need to do to reopen?" he asked himself. "What do I need to do to survive?"

He tried curbside pickup in April but closed that down after a week because of slow sales. In anticipation of reopening, he had to persuade anxious employees it was safe. Three agreed, but "my manager decided she didn't want to come back."

As the state business lockdown wore on, protesters gathered in Columbus chanting "reopen Ohio." Gov. DeWine allowed restaurants to reopen on May 21 with social distancing.

The morning of May 22, Mr. Cameron's eyes darted toward BlaCk Coffee's front door every time a customer stepped in. Reopening day had arrived, though not with the fanfare of his launch in July 2019, when 400 people packed the lounge. Many of the downtown office employees who used to come in were working from home.

A few days later, George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, and subsequent protest demonstrations turned destructive in Minneapolis and other cities, including Cincinnati.

Five days after Mr. Floyd's killing, an employee of BlaCk Coffee Lounge who came in early called Mr. Cameron to say a stone had been thrown through a window. Mr. Cameron was in disbelief, first that his store had been hit and then at the stream of customers and neighbors who stopped by to offer support.

Business remained brisk for several weeks, but that hasn't lasted. Nearby corporate headquarters remain largely empty.

His two young children have helped him overcome the rough stretches, he said, as well as loyal customers such as the 71-year-old who stops in every few weeks to buy a new "BlaCk OWned" cap.

In July, a news photographer captured the image of basketball star Chris Paul wearing a "BlaCk OWned" mask from Mr. Cameron's online store. The subsequent boom in orders has been "a whirlwind," Mr. Cameron said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cameron is working on launching an online store to sell his house beans and on reopening to in-person dining. He has hired a third barista and is in talks to sell coffee to some of the companies whose office workers will eventually return to downtown.

"That's really what it's all about," he said. "Being able to adjust."

Write to Justin Baer at justin.baer@wsj.com and Eric Morath at eric.morath@wsj.com

  

Corrections & Amplifications

This article was corrected Oct. 19, 2020 to reflect that Means Cameron is 33 years old. The original version incorrectly stated his age as 36.

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 18, 2020 14:15 ET (18:15 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.