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Out-of-town workers head home after Las Vegas job market tightens

A smear of chopped onions, chili, mustard and frankfurter covers the one-eyed carpenter’s chin at Henderson’s Motor City Coney Island restaurant.

If you’re down and out, Al Mitchell declares, his voice rising over a smooth Smokey Robinson tune on the radio, it’s better to be with family and friends.

"I can’t find any work any more in Las Vegas so I guess I’ll have to head back home where people care about me," he said Tuesday at the eatery, owned by former Detroiter Emanuel Sanchez, where juicy hot dog creations found in southeast Michigan are served up.

There are, Mitchell grunted, 2,000 carpenters on the union hall out-of-work, or waiting list, ahead of him.

"I’m getting really worried about how I’m going to pay my child support and other bills," he said. "I saved some money, but that can’t last forever."

As the 45-year-old Mitchell talks, his right eye waters. A blood disorder caused him to lose vision in the eye a few years back.

"I may get a prosthesis for the eye," he said, using a napkin to dry the tears.

Above him hang mementos of past titles by Detroit’s professional sports teams. They sway in the drafts blasted out of the air conditioner.

Motor City Coney Island has become a gathering spot for some of the thousands of native Michigan construction workers who left the country’s worst economy to work in Las Vegas.

Sanchez said he’s heard some of them say recently they must have brought Michigan’s long, sick economy with them.

Though he worked pretty steadily in Las Vegas until a little over a month ago, Mitchell said if he doesn’t get a job soon he’ll follow in the footsteps of other construction workers from Detroit who are heading back to the Motor City.

Still, the Detroit he might return to continues to reel from auto plant closures, and unemployment there is now at a staggering 22 percent; it’s less than half that in Las Vegas. And economists say prospects for a turnaround in Michigan are probably the dimmest in the nation.

It might seem strange, Mitchell said, but he and other Detroiters who end up unemployed in Nevada return home not only for the emotional support of loved ones but also for financial reasons.

"Unemployment doesn’t give you enough money to live in two places," he said. "It makes sense to go back."

Many construction workers, Mitchell said, are men similar to his friend, Delionel Taylor, on his way home to Detroit.

Mitchell punched in Taylor’s number on his cell phone.

Taylor, driving across Iowa at the moment, said he couldn’t afford to pay for a mortgage in Detroit and rent for an apartment in Las Vegas. When he was working at the Encore and Aliante casinos, and then doing remodeling work at Harrah’s and New York-New York, he was making plenty of money.

Paychecks that included overtime, Mitchell and Taylor said, sometimes hit $10,000 a month.

But the good times didn’t last. Taylor, 34, said he has been out of work more than two months now. Even though he saved plenty of money, it was just "too much," he said, to maintaining two residences at the same time.

"I have no doubts that Las Vegas will come back before Detroit will," said Taylor, the married father of two young children. "But I can’t wait it out."

Mitchell said times have been tough since he was bumped from work a month ago at the CityCenter project. The building contractor he was with redeployed some longtime employees to the Strip after they finished a project in California, he said.

Before that, he helped complete the Encore at Wynn Las Vegas and M Resort casinos.

That construction workers from Michigan made Las Vegas a second home doesn’t surprise Dan Dyrdahl, financial secretary treasurer of Carpenters Local 1977, where thousands of out-of-towners looked for — and easily found — work up until two years ago.

A Detroit News analysis of IRS data found that an estimated 11,000 Michigan residents had moved to the Las Vegas Valley from 2001-2007, many of whom Dyrdahl found swelling his union hall.

"Two years ago, if you had a pulse, you got hired," he said. "Construction workers came here from all over the country like moths to a flame. We were one of the last places in the country that had a thriving construction industry. Now I tell workers not to come here."

Dyrdahl said many of the younger, out-of-town construction workers who’ve become recently unemployed are particularly distraught.

"I’d tell them to save their money, that this life is feast or famine," he said. "But they spent everything, bought everything on time and now they’re in a mess. Some of them have to go through something like this to learn."

Long thought to be recession proof, Las Vegas couldn’t escape the latest version of a national financial meltdown. Construction halted last year at what was to be the massive $4 billion Echelon resort project on the Strip, and away from the Strip at huge developments that include the mixed-use condominium development ManhattanWest.

Dozens of projects planned for Las Vegas never got off the drawing board.

The Associated General Contractors of Las Vegas warned that commercial construction could follow the housing market and come to a near standstill in 2009.

Keith Schwer, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, pointed out that Las Vegas is down 13,000 construction jobs from a year ago. In March there were still 81,100 construction jobs, far less than the peak of 120,000 in 2006.

No longer, Schwer said, can Las Vegas be the safety valve for construction workers around the country.

Detroiters Mitchell and Taylor aren’t sure what they’ll do after they visit with family and friends and try to get by on unemployment, which amounts to about a tenth of what they made each month working in Las Vegas.

"I’ll probably try and build garages," Mitchell said.

Taylor predicts he’ll hit the road again.

"I’ll probably head to Wyoming," he said.

Wyoming, the nation’s top coal producing state, has an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent.

Taylor said he heard from other construction workers and union leaders that former Vice President Dick Cheney made sure while he was in office that his home state "would do good even if there was a recession."

"I might as well take advantage of that."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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