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Belts are getting awfully tight

22 September 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- William Todd, an out-of-work security guard and nondenominational minister, may be a fitting symbol of the spirit of Las Vegas today: He's having to tighten his belt and has little reason to be optimistic about the near-term future, other than his faith in God.

Although Todd, 54, is on call for temporary security jobs, he hasn't had much luck finding one.

"One of the times, I got to the bus stop, and (then) they told me to forget it," he said Friday while looking for work at Nevada JobConnect.

His specialty is laying floors for residential, commercial and industrial projects, but the construction industry has all but screeched to a halt.

"Our last meal is tonight," he said, explaining that he and his girlfriend, who is not working while she attends technical school, have run out of money.

A lot more Nevadans could soon be tightening their belts along with Todd.

Las Vegas' unemployment rate hit 7.1 percent in August, the highest level since the summer of 1993 when the jobless rate reached 7.3 percent in June and slipped to 7.2 percent in July, the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation reported Friday.

Statewide unemployment also was 7.1 percent, the highest in 23 years, and markedly higher than the 6.1 percent national rate, the department said.

While unemployment is a good indicator of the state's economic health, other leading economic indicators are also pointing down, said Keith Schwer, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The good news: "We may see a bottoming six months in the future," Schwer said.

Only then will the Southern Nevada economy start a slow recovery, he said.

Schwer believes the current economic slump will end up being the worst downturn the state has experienced since the early 1980s.

Bill Anderson, chief economist of the employment department, offered a similar forecast.

"We think that the economy will stabilize in 2009 and begin to grow in 2011," he said. "It's going to be a more modest recovery" than the state has seen in the past.

Friday's jobless report showed tourism-driven Las Vegas with the highest unemployment rate among the state's largest cities. The 7.1 percent jobless rate represents a 0.3 percentage point increase from July and 2.1 percentage points more than in August 2007.

The Elko area in Northern Nevada, anchored by mining and agriculture, is doing best among all areas tracked by the employment department. Elko registered 4 percent unemployment in August, up from 3.9 percent in July and 3.3 percent a year ago.

The Reno area recorded 6.6 percent unemployment, and Carson City had 6.8 percent.

Schwer and Anderson blame three factors for the Las Vegas unemployment level: the housing bust, the credit crunch, and high fuel costs, which eat up locals' discretionary income and make it costlier for tourists to visit the desert oasis.

That translates into personal pain for many families who have lost their paychecks.

Saroeun Sen, 22, a pregnant keno writer and mother of two children, was waiting for her husband to find an employment lead at Nevada JobConnect, at 3405 S. Maryland Parkway.

Her husband, Phone Yem, is a poker dealer who was laid off by the Sahara in March. He found temporary employment at the Rio and Caesars, but those jobs ended.

She hates borrowing money from friends but said she and her husband were forced to borrow $1,300 so that they could make their most recent home mortgage payment.

Eric Bubak, a 45-year-old married father of three, worked as a security guard at a Strip casino for three years, typically a secure position. Yet he and four others were laid off. His spouse is a housewife.

Bubak is willing to work as a customer service representative, internal auditor or security guard.

"In today's economy, you can't be too picky," he said. "Right now, I'll take what I can get."

Michael Chavarria, 18, was building stage props for shows such as the Blue Man Group but was laid off three weeks ago. His friend, Tanner Young, 18, worked in a grocery store and now is looking for work in a restaurant as a host or bus boy.

The state's rising unemployment rate is hard not only on those who have been laid off.

Kathy Phillips, chief executive officer of Nevada Commerce Bank, said that employers don't enjoy having to lay off workers, but that some small business owners feel they have no choice.

"That's the worst feeling in the world," she said. "That's the last thing you want to do is hurt somebody else."

August's jobless numbers show the construction industry was the hardest hit with a 9.2 percent drop in total employment since a year ago. The metropolitan area provided jobs for 94,900 construction workers last month, down from 104,500 in August last year.

The job count in casino- hotels and gaming remained relatively flat at 167,000.

More employment help is on the way from the resort industry. Wynn Resorts is hiring 5,300 workers for the Encore at Wynn Las Vegas, scheduled to open in December. An additional 1,200 jobs will be added with the Nov. 11 opening of Aliante Station.

Next year will see the opening of the $1 billion M Resort, which will employ about 2,000. Nearly 6,000 workers will be needed for the $2.9 billion Fontainebleau, and 12,000 will be hired for the $9.2 billion CityCenter project, scheduled to begin opening late next year.

In Clark County, 2,000 jobs were added to the leisure and hospitality industry last month, driven by the nearly 1,100 jobs provided by the opening of the $250 million Eastside Cannery on Aug. 28.

Employment in leisure and hospitality, which accounts for about 29 percent of all jobs in the county, increased 0.7 percent to 273,700 jobs from last year.

However, with area gaming revenue dropping 6.5 percent in the first seven months of this year, hotel-casinos have continued to cut jobs and hours.

Despite the Eastside Cannery's opening, jobs in hotels, casinos and gaming dropped 0.3 percent, or about 600 jobs, from August 2007.

The higher jobless rate is apparent to local companies, too.

Station Casinos spokeswoman Lori Nelson said the company is getting more applications for jobs at Aliante Station than it did in late 2005 when it was hiring for Red Rock Resort.

"It was more people at that time looking to improve their current job outlook," Nelson said. "Today, it is definitely a blend of people wanting to improve their work conditions or move up, as well as an increase of people that are out of work looking for employment opportunities."

Despite the opening of two new locals casinos this year, Jacob Oberman, director of gaming research and analysis for CB Richard Ellis, said the local housing market will have to stabilize before gaming revenues increase and more positions begin to open up.

"The housing market affects (employment) because the first people that got laid off last year were construction workers," Oberman said. "Now the credit crunch has forced commercial construction to slow down. If you want to see gaming revenues get back in line with total employment, you're going to have to see the home market stabilize."

Dennis Farrell Jr., senior bond analyst with Wachovia Capital Markets, said in a note to investors this month that unemployment and housing woes have "affected the psyche of consumer spending patterns" in the locals market.

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