AUBURN – The tough times aren’t over yet. The latest job losses: Perham’s gem store in West Paris announced it would close and the Ethan Allen sawmill in Andover is laying off 60 workers.

But the layoffs are smaller and expected to continue to shrink in 2010, experts say.

Some are crossing their fingers, hoping that the worst is over.

“It’s getting better,” said Pat Long-Cressey, owner of Gregory’s Hairstyles salon in Auburn, which employs nine stylists. Six months ago business had slowed. Some patrons were not coming in as often, or not coming in at all. Today, more of her chairs are occupied. “It’s not normal, but it’s improving,” she said.

Mark Bennett, CEO of Formed Fiber Technologies in Auburn, is cautiously optimistic.

Since Formed Fiber, which makes automobile trunk liners, laid off nearly half its work force six months ago to help the company survive, it’s been able to hold on to remaining workers.

“We haven’t had to let any additional (people) go,” Bennett said. “It seems the automotive industry is starting to turn around slowly.”

It doesn’t hurt that Formed Fiber makes trunk liners for Toyota, a car manufacturer in a better position than most, especially with the federal government soon providing buy-backs for clunkers.

Area businesspeople say the economy is still weak but stabilizing. They predict improvement in 2010.

“Our sales are gradually increasing, but I’m not seeing it ever getting back to where we were before,” Bennett said. Sales don’t justify bringing back laid-off workers, he said.

Peter Geiger of Geiger in Lewiston, whose company laid off 30 workers early this year, agreed.

“Flat is the new up,” Geiger said. He predicted the economy will go “sideways” in the next six months. “There’ll be ups and downs, but not a lot of gains,” he said. “It isn’t going to snap to.”

When the economy was shaken by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “it got better quickly,” Geiger said.

This recession has caused significantly more harm. The infrastructure of the economy has been damaged, he said. “It’s got to be put together. It’s going to take a while.”

Many companies laid off workers and are now leaner and better positioned for the new economy, where flat sales are considered a success. “Everybody is looking at just being stable,” Geiger said.

Ronald Peyser, owner of Gamache & Lessard, an Auburn window treatment company that employs five, said compared to six months ago business is steady. “It’s a little better,” Peyser said.

People are looking at, but not buying, expensive window treatments that they would have bought two years ago, he said. He’s selling fewer high-end products but more energy-efficient window shades.

With home sales down and people not buying houses, “they are fixing what they have,” Peyser said. “I see people remodeling. I see a lot of that happening.”

In recent months, the Lewiston-Auburn region has seen additional layoffs, “but the mass layoffs are not what we had been seeing,” said Mary LaFontaine, manager of the Department of Labor’s CareerCenter in Lewiston. “The layoffs are small in number.”

There still is pain. People who have been laid off are coming in looking for work. “It’s a daily thing,” she said. Some live in fear of losing their homes or their cars, she said.

New jobs have been created: A tractor supply store is coming in and Marriott Residence Inn has opened. But those new jobs are not as great as the number lost, LaFontaine said.

Statewide, 10,000 jobs have been lost since January, according to Maine Department of Labor statistics. The Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission predicts that Maine jobs will shrink by 3.8 percent in 2009 and by 1.6 percent in 2010.

Many economists are predicting the economy will begin to recover in 2010; some say early in the year, some say late.
One bright light is that there has been “a huge increase” in requests for training from laid-off workers, LaFontaine said.

More people are looking to go back to school. Because of the stimulus act, “we actually have the money to help them,” LaFontaine said. More people looking for training is a good sign that people want to prepare for jobs. “We are blessed with the recovery act’s training dollars to send people to school,” she said.

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Amy Bilodeau left, cuts fabric on the work table as Paul Chabot, center, and Ron Peyser, right, study work plans at Gamache & Lessard Window and Floor decorators in Auburn.


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