Hitting Home: Recession seeps into Vermont homes

02/09/09 5:30PM By Ross Sneyd
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Part of the special VPR Series "Hitting Home: The Recession and Vermont"

AP/Toby Talbot

(Host)  As the recession deepens, thousands of Vermonters are out of work.

Many others have accepted lower wages just to hang on to their jobs.

Economic uncertainty is the basis for many family decisions.

Today, we begin a series that shows just how real the downturn is and how it affects everyday people.

VPR's Ross Sneyd examines how the recession that began on Wall Street has spread to Main Street.

(Sneyd) Jeanne Tarbell and her husband Glenn had their life in Middletown Springs plotted out.

They put away money to build a house where they could raise their family. Eighteen months ago the first addition to that family came when son Keaton was born.

(Tarbell) "Our goal was really just to get by so that I could stay home until our kids were nearing school age."

(Sneyd) The Tarbells would like to have another child, so Keaton has a playmate.

But work has dried up for Glenn, a carpenter.

(Tarbell) "My husband is self-employed and we expect times when he is not going to have work. And now this year he's had at least two jobs that quit or canceled completely. And they're customers very clearly saying because of the economy. And now he's been out of work for another two months. And there's just no work out there.''

(Sneyd) Now the Tarbells' dream of building a modest house for their growing family may be deferred - or wiped out.

As a self-employed contractor, Glenn doesn't qualify for unemployment benefits. For the past two months, the Tarbells have had to rely on their credit card to pay the rent and buy groceries.

They've been trying not to dip into that little nest egg they set aside for their house. But if another month goes by without work, they might have to.

Jeanne is alternately pessimistic and hopeful about the future.

(Tarbell) "I tend to really try to look at life as ... our time is more important than our money. But I'm concerned. We're really letting go of our dreams, which I thought were pretty meager to begin with to build a very small house and have another baby and stay home for a couple years and try to live as cheap as we could.''

(Sneyd) Thousands of Vermonters find themselves in the same situation. It's been all over the news...

(Cascade of headlines) Kaiser: "In Rutland, Carris Reels has laid off 21 people ... And in South Burlington GE Health Care will furlough 50 people ...''

Wertlieb: "The Orvis company is laying off 38 people ... And Plasan Carbon Composites of Bennington is planning to lay off 92 employees...''

Charnoff: "IBM told an estimated several hundred workers today that they'd be laid off at the Essex Junction plant. ...''

(Sneyd) Right now, more than 20,000 people are out of work.

The layoffs have come in construction and manufacturing, software and the media.

The news adds up to a sobering picture. The lack of consumer and business confidence concerns Herb Kessel, a professor of economics at St. Michael's College.

(Kessel) "The hope is that if government adds a stimulus package and people feel confident maybe we'll see a turnaround. There's a lot of maybes. We're not quite sure about a lot of things now. I heard a famous economist after he made a prediction ended up saying, `Knock on wood.' And you don't hear economists generally saying that.''

(Sneyd) It's pretty hard to have much confidence in an economy that's shedding jobs - and wealth - at such a fast clip.

Sue Leroux has seen a quarter of the value of her retirement account simply vanish.

(Leroux) "It was just the idea of so quickly after making that decision and feeling really good and safe I happened to look at the account - which I wasn't planning to touch for 10 years - but just to see someone had pulled the plug, it was shocking. Because we're talking big bucks there..''

(Sneyd) Leroux thought she'd planned everything. She and her husband saved up their money so she could retire early, at 58. After spending 32 years in marketing and human resources with an insurance company in Connecticut, they settled in Mendon.

Leroux is uneasy now. She doesn't know how long it will take for the markets to come back and for her retirement account to recover.

She's worried about health care. She and her husband are both well. But she's paying for their insurance. All told about $20,000 last year.

In this economy, the part-time job she hoped to land to offset that cost hasn't materialized.

(Leroux) "I'm looking at different jobs than I would have before. I'm happy to take a clerical position at this point where I've had years and years of training and experience in communications. But I'd be happy to type someone else's letters at this point because it would be something. It would minimize our need to draw on our savings.''

(Sneyd) Versions of Leroux's story are being told all over Vermont, but economists say we won't see the light at the end of the tunnel until the end of the year.

For VPR News, I'm Ross Sneyd.

AP Photo/Toby Talbot

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