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On this Labor Day, local workers are mostly hunkering down and waiting to see what happens

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon Sept. 2, 2009 - Suzanne Miller has always worked in food -- as a waitress, a hostess, she even worked in catering for a while. She got tired of that, though, and started working as a bartender 10 months ago.

With this slow summer season for restaurants, it hasn't been great timing. Thanks to the economy, people are eating out even less, she says, and tipping less, too. So, Miller's had to make some changes.

"I canceled my cable," she says. "I miss the Food Channel."

And this Labor Day weekend, Miller will be working behind the bar at Deluxe in Maplewood.

"Yes," she says. "All weekend."

For many people, Miller not included, Labor Day means a three-day weekend and the end of the grilling season. But Labor Day has its origins with the American labor movement in the late 1800s, says Henry Berger, professor emeritus of history at Washington University.

"And today, it's sort of just become another holiday," he says.

This year, though, the holiday will probably get a little more attention, he thinks, "because of the fact that the economy tanked."

The national unemployment rate's at 9.4 percent, according to an early August report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the next report should be released Friday, Sept. 4, Berger says, just in time for Labor Day weekend.

While he expects to see a slight drop in unemployment nationwide, Berger figures that's because of the boon the stimulus package gave to the auto industry, and because school is back in session, meaning high school and college students have taken themselves out of the market.

Miller, who's married, doesn't have to rely solely on her own salary. (She makes $3.63 an hour, plus tips.) But she might be one of the lucky ones.

"Everyone's trying to take second and third jobs," she says of others in her industry. "It's not what it once was."

The staff at Deluxe has gone to bare bones, too, she says, making more work for everyone there, she says. When they do get slammed with a crowd, it makes the quality of service go down, she thinks.

The good news -- with the summer winding down, Miller is seeing more traffic in the restaurant. Her take-home pay has gone up between 7 and 10 percent, she says.

That's a good sign.

And Berger sees some good signs, too, and those are popping up around his neighborhood, where more people are putting their homes up for sale.

"That's good news," he says.

Nationwide, the sale of new homes rose 9.6 percent from June to July, but was 13.4 percent below the July 2008 estimate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales of existing homes rose 7.2 percent from June to July, according to the National Association of Realtors, and that number also marks a rise that's continued for four months.

All that tells Berger that people are feeling a little more confident these days.

"People think they can sell houses now," he says.

Still, he says, most people are cautious, saving their money instead of spending it. It reminds him of the impact the Great Depression had on the generations that followed. That lasted until the 1960s, when the credit industry started booming.

"If we learn anything out of this," he says, "we have learned that you can't just go spend your way out of any situation and everything will be hunky dory at the end of the road."

Psychologically, he thinks the national mood about the economy has gotten as bad as it will get, and while it may stay flat for now, Berger thinks people will start to feel more upbeat, if slowly, early next year.

For now, Miller's hanging in there, and several other people we talked to felt the same -- cautious and unsure about what could happen next, but hopeful, too. Below, we talked with some area workers to find out how they're feeling this Labor Day, how the economy is impacting them, and how they plan to celebrate.

"I'm hoping it's just gonna get better and better," Miller says.

Then, she stops talking for a moment to take an order from a customer.

"You wanna hear our specials?"


"I had these great plans as the summer started," says Jackson Foote, a development associate with Citizen's For Missouri's Children, a non-profit.

Maybe he'd head to New York for a vacation. Maybe Montreal. He thought of taking the train. Then, his plans changed.

"The hotel was too much for me to afford," he says, "let alone some kind of flight."

So Foote did what he's been doing for a while now. He adjusted to the times.

"I've actually made a lot of adjustments to my personal habits," Foote says.

He doesn't eat out twice a week anymore, and he's mindful of turning off the lights.

But Foote hasn't stopped living, certainly, and has actually added some expenses, too. He's started a master's program at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and took out student loans for the first time in his life. And when his office moved 25 miles away, he went from riding his bike three miles to work to filling up the tank of his Ford Focus every week.

"I've never had to do that."

At work, things have gotten a little rougher, too. Because Foote works for a non-profit, they depend largely on corporations and foundations for funding.

"It's very tough out there for them, which makes it incredibly tough out there for us."

His workplace recently had to cut a position, and Foote is good friends with the guy who held that job.

"He's hoping he's gonna recover and get a job real quick," Foote says.

And that, in general, is the mood he's detecting about the economy.

"The people I know are similarly uncertain and maybe just waiting and seeing what's gonna happen," he says.

But for all his adjustments, Foote won't be waiting around to see what happens this weekend. He's headed to Dallas, courtesy of his parents, to see a football game and spend time with them.

It's not New York, it's not Montreal, but it will be a vacation, and for all the uncertainty, it will certainly be welcome.


Sandra Gant walked through a teacher supply store recently, and she thought, "I can make that, I can make that, I can make that."

For Gant, who's taught for 30 years, pieces of cardboard become picture frames. An empty tissue box becomes a train. A canister becomes a pencil holder.

"They say teachers are hoarders," she says, and they are, she adds, because they've learned to live on little and do a lot.

Gant, a member of the AFT Local 420, is a kindergarten teacher at Clay Elementary School in St. Louis.

For her, smart spending and lots of saving have been a way of life, thanks to her profession.

When she first started teaching, Gant earned $13,000 a year. After being laid off from that job, she got another, which paid her $400 a month. She saved that money and bought a house.

Now, as the economy's forced many people to live within their means, Gant's merely continued doing that. She has no major credit cards, and when she wants something, she saves for it.

"I've adjusted to living at the salary that I make," she says.

Gant feels like we're moving in the right direction as a country. And some people may be learning to live like she does. According to an August report from the Federal Reserve, consumer credit decreased at an annual rate of 5.25 percent in the second quarter of the year.

Through a tough economic downturn, many people are now learning the lesson she learned long ago: save what you earn, don't spend what you don't have.

"You can adjust," she says. "You can do it."

She says the same to young teachers now, who don't want to join the union because they're afraid they can't afford it. The price is worth it, to Gant, for being part of something that she feels betters her environment and her rights.

And this weekend, she'll be celebrating all that by marching in the Labor Day parade.

"And then," she says, "go home and cook some barbecue."

And you know she makes that herself, too.