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Holiday plights

• Economists see a brighter new year, but the old one looks dim for many

Valerie Huebner says Christmas is usually a time to go overboard Ñ but not this year, when both she and her husband, David Slay, are unemployed.

'Our families have heard we just can't do as much this year as we usually do; they're all fine with it,' Huebner said. 'As far as the two of us, we've got each other, we have a tree, we'll be fine É there won't be a lot of stuff under the tree, but who needs stuff?'

Coupled to Oregon's still gloomy economy, that's the sort of attitude to make retailers flinch Ñ particularly this year, when pulse-taking stories about holiday retailing are a staple of business news coverage.

Holiday sales represent about 25 percent of retailers' annual earnings, and consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. economic growth.

Huebner's unemployment benefits, and those of several thousand other Oregonians, run out Dec. 28, with no provision for an extension.

In all, it's estimated that several thousand Oregonians receiving unemployment will be cut off three days after Christmas, because Congress left for its winter recess without acting on a bill to extend jobless benefits.

It isn't making for a merry Christmas in a lot of households.

Many economists expect the state's economy to start recovering in the new year.

'The national economy is clearly showing strength,' said Portland economist Bill Conerly. As it grows stronger, he said, the effect will filter down to Oregon.

'The other thing that Oregon is kind of waiting on is for capital spending to turn around,' he said. When companies decide to increase capacity, they will have to spend money on computer chips and other Oregon-made products Ñ which should lead to boosts in production and more hiring.

Still, Oregon boasts one of the highest jobless rates in the nation, and charities and social service agencies are grappling with a need level well above 2001 Ñ and budgets that have dropped below last year's level.

The Portland council of St. Vincent de Paul, for example, will distribute Christmas food boxes to 2,500 families this year. Last year, the number was 3,000.

That doesn't mean the need is less this year, just that in 2001, 'We had more money, more resources,' explained Sharon Hills, director of community resources for St. Vincent.

Hills said the agency has taken as many Christmas requests as it can handle, but she estimated that a couple of hundred more pleas will come in before Dec. 25. 'We're sending them elsewhere, but most everybody is filled up as well.'

Unfortunately, the level of giving reflects the foundering economy. Many larger donors have cut back.

'People who gave $5,000 last year are maybe only giving $3,000 or $2,000,' Hills said.

Need is up, cash is down

The same situation is apparent at the Oregon Food Bank, the center of a statewide network that distributes to food pantries. Spokeswoman Jean Kempe-Ware said local agencies that use the food bank report increased demand for emergency food boxes, which contain enough food for three to five days.

'They are also reporting that they're seeing a wave of new people, people whose unemployment benefits have run out, who are having to access emergency food for the first time ever,' she said. 'And it's hard for them.'

But cash contributions have plummeted, Kempe-Ware said: 'Last year, by Dec. 31 we had $105,000 from businesses and corporations. The last figure I saw for this year was $30,000.'

Huebner's husband, who lost his job with an industrial laundry service in May when the firm downsized, recently learned that his unemployment would be extended another 13 weeks.

'It was a big load off our shoulders,' Huebner said.

She's managed to eke out her unemployment with a series of part-time jobs, and she expects to start working full time after the first of the year. But Huebner, 41, who has a degree in office management, was stunned by the slim pickings for jobs.

'I had applied for a position last summer and got a letter saying they'd gotten 300 rŽsumŽs for the job Ñ and decided not to fill it,' she said.

Her husband is still searching for work.

Time to retool

Job hunter Bob Schlichting, who until about a year ago managed a plant in the Rivergate industrial area that supplied chemicals to the semiconductor industry, said that after months of sending out at least one copy of his rŽsumŽ a day, he's confronting 'the whole idea of just completely retooling Ñ going for a different sector. Manufacturing and management seems to be so dried up.

'It feels to me like people are having to downsize their careers to have a job,' Schlichting said.

The hunt is in marked contrast to his two-month job search in 1995, when the economy was healthier.

'Probably the brightest shining star is that we have hit this period in our lives debt-free,' Schlichting said. 'No credit card debt; no mortgage; our son is out of school. Those three things really added up.'

But Schlichting, who is 52, said it has put an enormous crimp in future plans, not the least because the business of his wife, Elanna, stuttered to a halt and she's about to start searching for a new job. Their 401k is diminished, too, he said:

'That puts you in kind of a quandary. What do we do now?'

Contact Jeanie Senior at

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