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Confidence and Optimism Grow in Some Areas

PARIS, Ill. - Inside the Simonton Windows factory here, some workers who are back on the job after being laid off for months believe they are proof that the darkest days of the recession are over.

"They're saying things are getting better, and people don't seem as worried," says Cammie Hixson, 49, who was laid off for almost four months. "I think the economy has turned around."

Elaine Armstrong, 65, was laid off by Simonton for four months. Now that she's back at work, she says, "I'm very hopeful. I think we're all going to be OK now."

The nation's unemployment rate is 9.7% and it's even higher - 10% - in Edgar County, where Paris is the county seat. Even so, signs of recovery are beginning to emerge. Although 84% of Americans said in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll this month that they believe the nation is in a recession, 52% said things are getting better. Almost two-thirds expect the economy to be better but not fully recovered a year from now.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Sept. 15 that the recession is "very likely over," but he warned that the recovery isn't likely to create many jobs.

"It is still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time as many people still find their job security and their employment status is not what they wish it was," he said.

Here and in other communities where people are heading back to work, though, there is growing confidence as workers who are getting paychecks spend money, spreading optimism to small-business owners and city leaders.

General Motors and U.S. Steel are calling thousands of laid-off workers back. Companies also are recalling employees in:

Waycross, Ga., where a FEMA contract for mobile homes means ScotBilt Homes can recall 110 workers laid off last October. "It's a big shot in the arm for southeast Georgia," says ScotBilt Vice President Tom Holland. He expects new hires to bring the workforce up to as many as 300.

Shenandoah, Iowa, where nine full-time employees were called back to work at the Eaton plant three weeks ago, 40 will return today and five more next week. Eaton makes truck transmissions.

Beatrice, Neb., where Exmark Manufacturing this month recalled about 200 workers after a seasonal plant shutdown was extended from two weeks to five. The plant makes lawn mowers and mower parts.

In Paris, 139 Simonton workers who were laid off in late 2008 and early this year were offered their jobs back. The factory, which makes custom windows, also hired 79 seasonal, temporary employees. Simonton also recalled workers at its West Virginia plant. Other manufacturers here also are rehiring employees.

"I think the worst is over, I really do," Paris Mayor Craig Smith says. "I can see it in this little town" of 9,100, he says, "and if it's happening in Paris, it's got to be going on in other places."

'It can only get better'

It's happening in Wooster, Ohio, where Tekfor, which makes gears, shafts and other auto parts, called back all 40 workers who had been laid off and hired more, President David Griffin says. His workforce is up to 180, and business is better than it has been in more than a year.

The federal cash-for-clunkers program helped invigorate the industry, Griffin says. "All the indicators are that things are turning around and we've bottomed out," he says. "It can only get better from here."

At U.S. Steel's Minntac plant in Mountain Iron, Minn., all but about a dozen of the hundreds of workers who were laid off starting in March are back, says Mike Woods, president of United Steelworkers Local 1938. About 960 workers were rehired.

Woods says people are feeling more confident. "We live for right now and hope it continues in this direction," he says. "Things can change quick, though."

Economists aren't predicting big increases in employment. The Conference Board, a private research group, says online help-wanted ads are up 300,000 since April, including a 5% increase in August, but the group doesn't expect job growth until the end of the year.

"When employers are bringing back workers to ramp up production, that's unequivocally a good thing. The question becomes how prolonged and sustained that will be," says Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, a non-partisan think tank in Harrisburg, Pa.

Some employers are giving their workers more hours instead of rehiring and others might conclude that they can get by with fewer workers, Price says. "I'm a bit worried because we are in such a deep hole," he says.

Some of the Simonton workers who endured layoffs still aren't sure how secure their jobs are. Melinda Landsaw, 28, was let go last December. Although her husband, Matt, who also works at the factory, kept his job, they considered selling their house and moving in with her mom. They used their savings to pay bills.

Now that she's back at work, Landsaw says, "I'm hoping the worst is over, but I'm not holding my breath," she says. She works as many overtime hours as she can get in case she's laid off again.

Stimulus money opens doors

Bob Criss smiles as he hauls packaged windows and doors to the bay where they're loaded onto trucks at the 225,000-square-foot Simonton Windows factory outside Paris on State Highway 133.

Simonton's 348 production employees work 12-hour shifts and make from $9.45 to $13.75 an hour, plant manager Tony Atzbach says. He says he was able to bring workers back in part because of increased demand thanks to federal stimulus programs that offer tax credits to buyers of energy-efficient doors and windows.

When he was laid off in December, Criss, 44, was told not to count on being called back. "I was devastated," he says. "I was worried about not being able to take care of my family."

Then things got worse. "My whole life I said that if I ever wanted a job, there was a job out there. But I went out looking for work and I couldn't find anything," he says. "I couldn't believe nobody was hiring. That was the scary part."

When the call came asking him to report back to the Simonton factory, Criss says, "I was thrilled to death. I'm surprised I didn't do cartwheels all the way here."

Even better, his 19-year-old stepson, Shawn Williams, was hired for a temporary job at Simonton. He had been working one day a week washing dishes at a restaurant.

When he got the job offer last month, Williams says, "I couldn't stop saying 'thank you.' " Even if he's laid off over the winter, he says, he has a good chance of being rehired next spring. "I feel really lucky," he says.

So does Dave Grovier. He was laid off by another factory in January and was hired for a seasonal job by Simonton last month. Grovier, 54, has a 9-year-old son, Michael. Grovier's wife, Lisa, has cerebral palsy and can't work.

Grovier went back to school and got a food sanitation license but still couldn't find a job. "It was hard," he says. The call from Simonton was a huge relief. He has applications pending at other factories, and he says he's "an overtime addict" in case he's laid off by Simonton when the usual winter lull sets in.

He would prefer to stay here if a permanent job opens up. "There's always hope," he says.

Looking for good signs

The farm economy, still stable here, insulated Paris from some of the recession's effects, but owners of small businesses say times have been hard.

JoEllen Edmonds opened her gift shop, The Calico Basket, in the last vacant storefront on the square in 1984. Over the past three years or so, she says, many stores that closed stayed empty or were replaced by law and insurance offices, diminishing the amount of traffic downtown.

Business is down this year, Edmonds, 61, says. "We have nothing in here that you can't live without," she says. People aren't redecorating their houses or buying extra gifts. She ordered fewer high-end items for Christmas.

Edmonds says she'll know when the economy is improving: "When they call my husband back to work. He's been laid off since February."

Kim Trine isn't ready to celebrate either. She sells books, religious goods and art and operates a prayer ministry at The Cross Walk, which opened in February. "It's tough to get by on $2 in sales in a day," she says.

Smith, who is a lawyer, says the recession was evident at the courthouse, where the number of small-claims cases over unpaid bills and rent was up a third over the past two years. Plans for new employers, housing projects and stores were "put on the back burner" for the past year or so.

The economic downturn has touched the entire town, says Blair Dosch, 20, who works at Benjamin's Office Connection, an office supply store. "Everyone knows everybody, so if someone's dad loses their job it doesn't just affect their family," she says. "It's not like in a big city where someone loses their job and no one cares. It's a big deal when a family here is suffering."

That sense of community prompted generosity that Dosch and her boss, Benjamin's office manager Jeanette Levellie, say brought people even closer together: A woman opened a soup kitchen, residents donated school supplies to families who can't afford them, a paper drive was organized to replace lost state funds for 4-H clubs.

"If someone knows you're struggling, people help," Levellie, 54, says.

As fall arrives in Paris, people are more confident. The mayor expects a major pharmacy to announce plans soon for a store in town. A housing project is planned. There are plenty of cars at Wal-Mart, even on weekday nights. Despite a cool, wet summer, crops seem to be bountiful.

Debra Swinford, 54, who was laid off by Simonton in January, is back at work and "out of the red and into the black," she says, after falling behind on her mortgage and other bills. Her daughter, who left college when mom could no longer help her financially, is taking classes again.

"It's nice to have some money left over from the last paycheck in my checking account instead of living paycheck to paycheck," Swinford says. "I had faith that Simonton was going to call their people back. I just had faith."

Swinford's eyes fill with tears, though, as she describes the toll of the recession on her life.

"I should be settled by now, comfortable, but I'm not," she says. "You just have to keep getting up, keep going and maybe it will happen."

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