Weak Data Signal Grim Prospects For Workers

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

The recession's toll on workers rose again in September, with the unemployment rate climbing to 9.8 percent, its highest level since 1983, as the count of the nation's jobless topped 15.1 million, according to a government report released Friday.

The report underscores fears that, even as some sectors of the economy have stabilized and stock markets have rallied, the prospects for workers remain bleak.

Economists have forecast that unemployment will rise through the end of the year, when layoffs tend to increase anyway, and some say that the surge of unemployment will extend well into 2010.

The job losses have continued for 21 months, the longest such stretch in 70 years of records, analysts say. Friday's report underscores persistent long-term joblessness, with more than one-third of the nation's unemployed out of work for more than six months.

"It's safe to assume that the recession is technically over, but when is it going to feel like it's over in the real economy?" said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. "That's the question of the hour, and in no uncertain terms, this report shows we are a long way away from that."

In places like Macomb County, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, the unease among the long-term unemployed is palpable. The five employment offices in the area recently hired security officers to stand in the lobby.

"It's something we've never done before," said John Bierbusse, head of the workforce investment board in Macomb County, which seeks to retrain and assist people in finding jobs. "People are desperate. They're on edge when they come into our offices."

Continued weakness in the labor market could make it harder for a full recovery to take hold.

One of the more immediate concerns, particularly in states with high unemployment such as Michigan and Nevada, is how long the federal government will continue to extend unemployment benefits. The House has passed legislation to give an additional 13 weeks of benefits to residents of states with unemployment above 8.5 percent, but a similar measure awaits action in the Senate.

As it is, a few hundred people in Macomb County run out of their benefits every month, but if the program is not extended again soon, a few thousand will start losing their benefits monthly, Bierbusse said.

"It's not like there's a ton of jobs out there," he said.

There are now six unemployed people for every job opening across the United States, and the odds against job seekers are clearly taking a psychological toll.

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