Snow Storms Could Hammer Jobless Figures

The government's monthly employment report is due out Friday morning. February's bad weather has analysts guessing what the report might show. Surveys indicate business payrolls will likely show another loss. The unemployment rate is expected to increase, despite falling to 9.7 percent in January.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Many indicators suggest the economy is improving, but for millions of Americans there's only one number that matters: the unemployment rate. Today, we get the government's monthly employment report, and NPR's Tamara Keith is here to tell us what to expect. Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should start with where we are now: 9.7 percent unemployment. Not good.

KEITH: That's correct - 9.7 percent. That was actually a dramatic improvement from the month before, but 9.7 is not encouraging and many economists believe that it's going to get worse from here, that until the economy starts creating more jobs than it's losing and a lot more, the unemployment rate is going to continue to rise.

The consensus is that it's likely to eventually move back above 10 percent and stay there for a while.

INSKEEP: And let's remember, if we're talking about something close to 10 percent unemployment, we're talking about a good deal more people who are underemployed or worried about their future, definitely.

KEITH: Yeah, that number gets up around 17 percent; people who are working part-time or are in temporary jobs but would like to be full-time.

INSKEEP: Ten percent unemployment for a few months is one thing, but are the effects when we're in the neighborhood of 10 percent for month after month after month after month?

KEITH: Well, there are more than six million people out there who have been unemployed for more than six months, and that's a long time to be unemployed. Your skills start degrading, the job market changes around you, jobs disappear. We're at the point now, where the average length of unemployment among unemployed people is more than six months, and every month it's getting longer.

INSKEEP: Okay. So, what are we expecting for this next report then?

KEITH: Well, we're expecting possible confusion due to weather. Remember the mega blizzards that we went through here on the east coast?

INSKEEP: How can I forget? Yes.

KEITH: And some parts of the country didn't have to deal with it, but here on the east coast we had all of these storms. And analysts are saying that weather could actually affect the payroll numbers. It won't affect the unemployment rate but the number of jobs lost during February could be heavily impacted by weather.

INSKEEP: I want to figure out why that would be. You've got businesses, of course, that are closed for several days or even a week, so there's lost business. But that actually affects hiring and firing decisions in a longer term sense?

KEITH: Not in a longer term sense, but these payroll reports are a snapshot of time. It's a snapshot of the week of February 12.

INSKEEP: Oh. So, if you're a temp, you just didn't get any work that week because nobody was working in Washington or Philadelphia.

KEITH: Right. And they're surveying employers and employers are saying, well, nobody was working. Those people weren't working this week; they don't count. So, White House economic advisor Larry Summers tried to get out ahead of this, earlier this week and said, hey, these numbers could be disappointing but let's just look past February and get to the underlying trend.

INSKEEP: Okay. So, that's his spin, but at the same time, hasn't Summers himself pointed out that we're in a long-term problem here when it comes to unemployment?

KEITH: Yeah, that would be the underlying trend. Things are starting to get better. We're on the verge of turning things around so that the total number of jobs lost and jobs gained in a month, that there will be more gains than losses. We'll start adding jobs slowly and steadily.

But if we want to get back to five percent two years from now, we would have to create 550,000 jobs a month every single month for the next two years, and there is no way - no way, that's going to happen.

INSKEEP: Okay. So, maybe that's not going to happen but are there signs of life?

KEITH: There are signs of life. We're starting to see hiring in manufacturing, temp hiring is up. Two major online job research firms this week are both trumpeting numbers. They're seeing employers posting a lot more jobs.

And the other sign of life or encouragement is that - think back to a year ago. A year ago in February, the economy lost more than 700,000 jobs. Right now we're talking about maybe 50,000, maybe 100,000. That's a dramatic improvement.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith, thanks very much.

KEITH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we'll be listening for the results later today.

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