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RV worker rebounds, cautiously

Marlin Hostetler is thrilled to be back at his job building RVs, called back nearly a year after being laid off. But like the community and economy as a whole, he has a long climb back to where he was before the recession broadsided him. By Kari Huus.
Image: Marlin Hostetler
Marlin Hostetler is back on the job at Keystone RV in Goshen. The 36-year old father of three was laid off by the company in August 2008. He sold his house, moved his family, and worked temporary jobs to stay afloat before being rehired in late July.David Friedman /
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The summer brought badly needed good news for Marlin Hostetler: He was called back to work building recreational vehicles in July. Now he once more has a $35 an hour job on the production line at Keystone RV — just like the one he left when he was laid off by Keystone in August 2008.

But the world looks different to Hostetler. “Someone asked me if there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I said ‘yeah, there’s a candle, and the wind is blowing right at it’.”

Like the community and economy as a whole, the 36-year-old Hostetler has a long climb to get back to where he was before the recession broadsided him. He and his family no longer have their own home, they are mired in debt and there is little assurance the RV rebound will last.

The upheaval started on Aug. 7, 2008. As usual, Hostetler had started working at the Goshen plant at 4:30 that morning. At a 9:30 a.m. meeting, management slashed 290 positions, including his — a result of plummeting sales of recreational vehicles. The cuts were effective immediately.

“We got our last paychecks and that evening our insurance dropped us” he said.

He and his Keystone colleagues were far from alone. Hundreds of workers who had been laid off from other area factories after demand for RVs plummeted by 30 percent also were looking for work. Making it harder to compete, Hostetler had been raised in the local Amish community, and, as is the custom, had not attended school after ninth grade.

The primary breadwinner in the family — his wife works outside the home about five hours a week cleaning offices — Hostetler moved quickly to shore up the family resources after his layoff. Realizing he would not be able to keep up with the payments on their house in Goshen, he put it on the market immediately, avoiding foreclosure but selling it at a loss.

“We got out from under it, but it crashed our credit,” he said.

He and his then-pregnant wife, Waneta, and two young sons moved to Shipshewana in neighboring LaGrange County to live with her parents, which was devastating to their sons Bailey, 8, and Brady, 6.

“The toughest part was taking the children away from their friends and school,” said Hostetler. “Just to see our boys go through that was a dagger to me.”

Initially Hostetler was able to find work on short-term construction jobs, which would take him away from his family — by this time including his newborn son, Kaden — for weeks at a time. Later he got a job working in a furniture store in Shipshewana. These jobs paid about $10 an hour — better than nothing, but less than one third what he was earning at Keystone.

The family pared back spending to a bare minimum. They leaned on their faith — their church congregation occasionally helped with finances and food.

“We stayed home as much as possible, because if you stay home you don’t spend money,” said Hostetler. “We had something like three different garage sales. We sold anything we didn’t need — furniture, picture frames, lamps — you’d be amazed.”

They used the money, about $3,000 total, to buy food and put gas in their van. When it was nice outside, he would ride his bike to work.

While grateful to be employed again at Keystone, and to have a free place for his family to stay, Hostetler has a long road to get back on sound financial footing. He is chipping away at $25,000 in credit card debt and saving to make a bigger down payment should they be able to buy another house — a goal that he says seems out of reach for now.

But he’s cautious. The family is keeping a tight budget — one that accounts for the likelihood that Keystone will cut hours, if not jobs, in the fall and winter months.

Hostetler has continued working a few hours a week at the furniture store, where the owner has assured him he can take on more hours if he needs to.

It’s a modest back-up plan, but offers peace of mind in uncertain times.

“It’s a blessing,” Hostetler said.