WASHINGTON Skittish employers slashed 533,000 jobs in November, the most in 34 years, catapulting the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent, dramatic proof the country is careening deeper into recession.
The new figures, released by the Labor Department Friday, showed the crucial employment market deteriorating at an alarmingly rapid clip, and handed Americans some more grim news right before the holidays.
As companies throttled back hiring, the unemployment rate bolted from 6.5 percent in October to 6.7 percent last month, a 15-year high.
Job losses were widespread, hitting factories, construction companies, financial firms, retailers, leisure and hospitality, and others industries. The few places where gains were logged included the government, education and health services.
The loss of 533,000 payroll jobs was much deeper than the 320,000 job cuts economists were forecasting. The rise in the unemployment rate, however, wasn't as steep as the 6.8 percent rate they were expecting. Taken together, though, the employment picture was dismal.
The job reductions were the most since a whopping 602,000 positions were slashed in December 1974, when the country was in a severe recession.
Job losses in September and October also turned out to be much worse. Employers cut 403,000 jobs in September, versus 284,000 previously estimated. Another 320,000 were chopped in October, compared with an initial estimate of 240,000.
Employers are slashing costs to the bone as they try to cope with sagging appetites from customers in the U.S. and in other countries, which are struggling with their own economic troubles.
The carnage including the worst financial crisis since the 1930s is hitting a wide range of companies.
In recent days, household names like AT&T Inc., DuPont, JPMorgan Chase & Co., as well as jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp., and mining company Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. announced layoffs.
Fighting for their survival, the chiefs of Chrysler LLC, General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. will return Friday to Capitol Hill to again ask lawmakers for as much as $34 billion in emergency aid.
Workers with jobs saw modest wage gains. Average hourly earnings rose to $18.30 in November, a 0.4 percent increase from the previous month. Over the year, wages have grown 3.7 percent, but paychecks haven't stretched that far because of high prices for energy, food and other items.
Worn-out consumers battered by the job losses, shrinking nest eggs and tanking home values have retrenched, throwing the economy into a tailspin. As the unemployment rate continues to move higher, consumers will burrow further, dragging the economy down even more, a vicious cycle that Washington policymakers are trying to break.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is expected ratchet down a key interest rate now near a historic low of 1 percent by as much as a half-percentage point on Dec. 16 in a bid to breathe life into the moribund economy. Bernanke is exploring other economic revival options and wants the government to step up efforts to curb home foreclosures.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, whose department oversees the $700 billion financial bailout program, also is weighing new initiatives, even as his remaining days in office are numbered.
President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on Jan. 20, has called for a massive economic recovery bill to generate 2.5 million jobs over his first two years in office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has vowed to have a package ready on Inauguration Day for Obama's signature.
The measure, which could total $500 billion, would bankroll big public works projects to create jobs, provide aid to states to help with Medicaid costs, and provide money toward renewable energy development.
The U.S. tipped into recession last December, a panel of experts declared earlier this week, confirming what many Americans already thought.
At 12 months and counting, the recession is longer than the 10-month average length of recessions since World War II. The record for the longest recession in the postwar period is 16 months, which was reached in the 1973-75 and 1981-82 downturns. The current recession might end up matching that or setting a record in terms of duration, analysts say.
The 1981-82 recession was the worst in terms of unemployment since the Great Depression. The jobless rate rose as high as 10.8 percent in late 1982, just as the recession ended, before inching down.
Given the current woes, the jobless rate could rise as high as 8.5 percent by the end of next year, some analysts predict. Projections, however, have to be taken with a grain of salt because of all the uncertainties plaguing the economy. Still, the unemployment rate often peaks after a recession has ended. That's because companies are reluctant to ramp up hiring until they feel certain the recovery has staying power.