Economy Is Rebounding But Not Employment
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Yesterday, we found out that the U.S. economy started growing again in recent months, but that does little to ease the pain of the 15 million Americans without jobs. And even if the economy keeps growing, it could be a while until employers put those people back to work.
NPR's Brian Reed reports.
BRIAN REED: If the economy's getting better, you'd never know it from the looks of Goldray glass factory in Brooklyn.
Mr. ZACH WEINER (Owner, Goldray Glass Factory): This is a factory, 40,000 square feet. We're custom fabricators of glass product, or at least we used to be.
REED: Zach Weiner(ph) owns the company.
Mr. WEINER: Only a year ago, if you came here now, I would had may be 40, 50 workers here fabricating glass. The lights would be on. There would be a lot of noise. But right now, that's just not the case. I had a couple of guys in here this morning from 7 a.m. until noon, but there wasn't much work for them to do, so they just went home.
REED: The factory is enormous, packed with machinery. Weiner can't afford the electric bill, so it's completely dark. But the eeriest thing is the silence, all these huge hulking machines frozen like steel statues.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
Mr. WEINER: That's just like a loud doorbell, right? But again, usually when the factory is going, you need that type of volume to get anyone's attention. But right now, it just gives you a headache.
(Soundbite of laughter)
REED: Weiner's suffered a lot of headaches in the last year. The price he used to get for glass dropped by half, and he had to lay off almost all of his employees. There used to be about 80. Now he's down to seven, just part time.
Mr. WEINER: The thinking was, and it still is, is just to survive. We see a lot of companies like ours around the United States folding weekly. So the goal is to stay as small as possible until things pick up. That may be three months, six months, two years down the road, but our goal is just to survive until then.
REED: Unfortunately, Weiner's not the only business owner thinking that way.
Professor JOHN GRAHAM (Finance, Duke University): So we asked companies: When will you get your employment levels back to pre-recession levels?
REED: John Graham is a finance professor at Duke University. He conducts a survey for CFO magazine of businesses across the country, big, small, public and private.
Prof. GRAHAM: And this is where the numbers are a bit discouraging. Almost half of companies in many industries said it'll be three or four years, maybe longer, until employment gets back to where it was pre-recession.
REED: There is some good news in the survey. CFOs say they've gotten more optimistic about the coming year, but they're still being extra cautious about spending money, which means they're trying to get the most out of the workers that they do have.
Mr. JAY GREENFIELD (Martin Greenfield Clothiers, New York): One of the things we've had to do to make this work is to make our employees more productive by sharing certain responsibilities.
REED: Jay Greenfield runs Martin Greenfield Clothiers, one of the oldest clothing factories in New York. He had to lay off about 40 people during the recession, almost a third of his employees. And for the first time in a hundred years, his assembly line has started multi-tasking.
Mr. GREENFIELD: You know, say somebody who used to do just one operation of, you know, sewing a sleeve into a garment, and they could do that all day long. Well, if we have less sleeves to sew, then the rest of their day, they have to do some other job, as well.
REED: That extra productivity is one reason why the economy is growing even as the workforce shrinks. But the government also played a big role in the growth, slashing interest rates, giving tax breaks on new cars and houses. So business owners are wary of what'll happen when those supports disappear. Zach Weiner, the glass manufacturer, says the recession has permanently changed his business philosophy.
Mr. WEINER: Bigger is not always better. I would say the smaller you are and the more profits you can take out of the business, the better. It's sad to see a factory with no employees, but I don't really look at it like that. I look at it as it's - now it's a big challenge to figure out how to fill this place up with employees again.
REED: But Weiner says if that day does come, filling it up won't mean 80 workers anymore. It'll be more like 15 at the most.
Brian REED, NPR News, New York.
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