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Unemployment Rises To 8.5 Percent
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Unemployment Rises To 8.5 Percent

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Unemployment Rises To 8.5 Percent

Unemployment Rises To 8.5 Percent
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The unemployment rate shot up in March, rising to 8.5 percent. The Labor Department's monthly employment report showed the economy losing 663,000 jobs, the fifth straight month employers cut payrolls by more than a half-million jobs.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

There was more grim news about the job market today. The Labor Department said the US economy continued to shed jobs at a rapid pace in March. The overall unemployment rate hit a 25-year high of eight-and-a-half percent, and most economists say the worst is not over. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI: Economists had been predicting another huge drop in the workforce, and that's what happened. All in all, 663,000 jobs disappeared from US payrolls last month. Since the recession began 16 months ago, the labor market has lost 5,100,000 jobs, and most of the losses have occurred since last fall. Keith Hall is commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He spoke at a congressional hearing today.

Mr. KEITH HALL (Commissioner, Bureau of Labor Statistics): The job loss is very large. In percentage terms, we've now lost, over the past five months, about 2.4 percent of our jobs. That is the most since March of 1975. Probably more concerning is that this job loss appears to not be slowing.

ZARROLI: The job losses were across the board. There were steep declines in manufacturing, retail, even government. Economist Dean Baker is with the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Mr. DEAN BAKER (Economist, Center for Economic and Policy Research): Just about everywhere is losing jobs. And the one sector that had been sort of the bulwark, health care, where we'd added close to 40,000 jobs a month over the last year, that job growth fell to just 12,000 in the March report.

ZARROLI: Altogether, more than 13 million people are out of work and looking for jobs. Almost one in four has been out of work for more than half year. But the Labor Department also said some nine million people are working part time because they can't find fulltime jobs. When they're factored in, the number of people affected by the bad labor market approaches 22 million.

Twenty-five-year-old Adam Perliss(ph) has worked in digital advertising and TV production. He's getting by on unemployment compensation and occasional freelance jobs because he can't find fulltime work.

Mr. ADAM PERLISS (Works in Production): In this economy, it's just not possible. It's a dead end wherever you apply. Everyone you ask, they say, sorry. Nothing's available. Every place you search on the Internet, nothing's available. And it's just a tough, tough economy.

ZARROLI: The disappointing jobs report comes on the heels of some better-than-expected economic news: factory orders and home sales have shown some improvement, leaving some investors to speculate that the economy may have finally bottomed out. That's one reason the stock market has been doing so much better lately.

But economist Dean Baker is doubtful. He thinks the next few months will see job losses every bit as large as they were in March.

Mr. BAKER: But even if it slows - suppose it fell in half and we're losing 300,000 jobs a month. In normal times, we would think that was horrible. So we're losing jobs at a really extraordinary pace. We're likely to continue to see job loss and increases in the unemployment rate throughout the year.

ZARROLI: Even those who do have steady jobs are feeling the effects of the downturn. The length of the average work week fell to 33.2 hours last month - the lowest level since the government began compiling the statistics in 1964. That means employers are cutting back on the amount of time employees work -perhaps because they want to avoid layoffs.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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