Ohio workers along Lake Erie struggle in winter
PORT CLINTON, Ohio (AP) — Each year, Val Kochensparger is laid off from her job just before Christmas.
She collects unemployment for 8 to 10 weeks, and she and her husband rely on his income to help get them through the winter.
When the ice clears off Lake Erie, usually in March, Kochensparger goes back to her job managing the ticket booth at the Miller Boat Line on Catawba Island.
“I can’t imagine having to do it with just one income,” she said. “It would be tough. We had our tough winters when I first started.”
Kochensparger, of Port Clinton, feels grateful her husband makes enough money to support them and that the Miller Boat Line treats her and her co-workers very well. She’s worked there for 20 years.
“When I first started, we were shut down by Thanksgiving and opened back up in May,” she said. “Now the seasons are longer.”
The tourism business here is all about the season, and it’s one of the area’s biggest employers. Some businesses close down completely during the winter, while others lay off staff or reduce hours during slower months.
By December, some restaurants and hotels close for a few months.
“It’s a way of life around here, the high season versus the low,” said Ralph Ruta, who owns three hotels in the Port Clinton area.
And other businesses that planned to stay open all year sometimes close down unexpectedly, usually when owners decide being open won’t be profitable. The Islander Grille, for example, surprised its employees this year by shutting down for the winter, said Chris Galvin, United Way of Ottawa County executive director.
Put-in-Bay is the most extreme example of seasonal work, said Larry Fletcher, Ottawa County Visitors Bureau executive director.
There, only a few businesses stay open in the winter to accommodate South Bass Island residents and visitors.
The mainland fares better, although some of its attractions close down as well, he said. Tourism-related businesses that stay open expect to see less revenue in the winter.
“Certainly, these businesses are making the majority of their revenue for the year in a relatively short period of time,” he said. “They need to maximize the amount they make, and it needs to last.”
Ruta, who owns the Sleep Inn, Port Clinton Islands Inn and Comfort Inn, knows this as well as anyone.
The Sleep Inn closes from late fall until April, unless the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Carroll Township shuts down for maintenance. During those times, the hotel basically breaks even putting up contractors who come to work at the power plant, he said.
His other two properties stay open in the winter.
“We just keep a skeleton crew and try to minimize our expenses,” he said. “We’re in the red all winter long.”
The transition from very few customers to a booming spring and summer customer base can be tough, he said. Employees understand when they’re hired they probably won’t be working in the offseason.
“The bottom line is that there’s definitely a lack of work in the winter,” he said. “The majority of them qualify for unemployment.”
The tourism industry is vital to the area, although manufacturing still remains the No. 1 employer, county officials have said.
In 2009, there were 2,966 full-time equivalent jobs in the travel and tourism industry in Ottawa County, according to information the visitors bureau bought from the Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism.
Most of those jobs are part-time year-round or full-time seasonal positions, Fletcher said. The company that the division of travel and tourism hired to study the employment figures — Oxford Economics Co. — converted the actual number of those jobs into what they would equal as full-time positions, Fletcher said.
The division collects county data every two years, and 2011 information will not be available until next summer, Fletcher said.
“I’m anticipating that we’ll see an increase in those (job) numbers,” he said. “We saw an increase in lodging occupancy, and room rates were popping up a little bit.
“With increased visitation level, that’s often going to translate into more jobs.”
Some seasonal workers do well and make a career out of working part of the year, Ottawa County Commissioner Steve Arndt said.
They work during the summer, collect unemployment in the winter and have more time to participate in their children’s school activities while they’re not working, he said.
Ottawa County has the 17th highest median income in the state, said Arndt, citing research from the Ohio Department of Development. Ottawa County’s median household income is $53,277, compared to Ohio’s median of $47,669.
Property values are higher, as well, he said.
“The quality of life typically with a community that has a tourism base like ours is typically higher,” he said.
Arndt recognizes the downsides, too. Unemployment claims in Ottawa County always are highest during the winter months. Claims peak in January and February and usually start to taper off in March and April, according to information from Ottawa County Department of Job and Family Services.
“We know where those unemployment numbers will go,” he said. “I don’t like those numbers. If there is a silver lining, you know that it’s temporary, that those jobs will be back next year.”