Top stories of 2009, No. 4: The Economy

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SALT LAKE CITY -- As 2009 began, the economy was in shambles and recovery this year was shaky and slow at best. We continue our countdown of the top stories of the year with a look at the story voted No. 4 by the KSL News staff: the Great Recession and its impact on Utah.

Housing prices fell, foreclosures rose, retail sales slid, and Utah businesses battled to stay in the black; that was the economic picture as 2009 began, and all of those factors pointed to the bleakest statistic of them all: rising unemployment.

In August, Mark Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said, "I'm thinking job gains won't come until the first half of next year."

While Utah saw signs of recovery in recent months, Knold says job losses are the most severe since the Great Depression. The state lost about 5 percent of its jobs in 2009 -- more than 60,000. While the nation's unemployment rate hit double digits, Utah's rate went as high as 6.5 percent in October before dipping to 6.3 percent in November.

Regardless, workforce services reports 86,000 Utahns were out of work in November. Knold said, "It's going to be a rough ride coming out of the other side employment-wise."

A fall job fair at Qwest drew 1,000 applicants for 80 jobs. Kendra Lenz was part of the steady stream of job seekers. She said, "It's been hard. I lost my job from the bank in December, and I have yet to find a job. I've looked and looked and looked, and it's been so hard." In January, Kennecott cut 175 contractors and 66 employees.

Jobs were created when Utah got more than $200 million in stimulus money for transportation projects. But in December, with Christmas just two weeks away, news of 800 layoffs at ATK in Box Elder County hit harder.

More Utahns slipped into poverty this year and the middle class was affected.

"I don't know what we're going to do. I really don't know, I don't," said Vern Karr, who was laid off from his job as an alcohol and drug counselor due to budget cuts.

Slumping tax revenues forced the Legislature to slash most state agencies' funding by nearly 4 percent and more cuts loom for 2010.

Just this week, holiday retail sales numbers added modest optimism to the economic outlook, but job creation remains the long term key.

James Wood, with the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, said, "We'll I don't think we're going to have a quick turnaround in this recession."

The chief economist for Utah's Workforce Services thinks it could take until 2012 just to get back the jobs the state has lost.

According to a local poverty report, many more people sought help from Community Action agencies this year. And 61 percent of them did so for the first time.


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Jed Boal


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