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Jobless rate hits 8.5 percent, a 26-year high

The US has lost 2 million jobs this year, but some of the unemployment numbers could indicate that the recession is finally starting to bottom out.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / April 3, 2009

People walked in line to register for the 2009 CUNY Big Apple Job Fair at the Jacobs K. Javits Convention Center in New York in March. America’s jobless rate in March hit 8.5 percent, the highest level since November 1983.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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In a normal March, businesses put out the “help wanted” signs to get ready for a more vigorous spring. But this time, many bosses were in survival mode and decided not to add to their payrolls.

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As a result, America’s jobless rate in March hit 8.5 percent, the highest level since November 1983.

Overall however, businesses didn’t lay off as many workers last month as they did earlier in the year. That easing may be a sign that the recession is finally starting to bottom out, some economists say.

“The job losses are like a ski slope: They were steep at first, and now we are leveling off,” says David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor’s in New York. “When we get down the bottom of the mountain, there may be a chair lift in the distant future.”

On a nonseasonally adjusted basis, only 58,000 jobs were lost last month, compared with the 172,000 that disappeared in February, according to the US Labor Department.

The government also releases adjusted figures, however. These take into account seasonal work and other normal hiring practices, which make one month comparable to the next. On this basis, the economy lost 663,000 jobs in March and 651,000 in February.

The economy has shed more than 2 million jobs in the first three months of the year, on the seasonally adjusted annual basis.

On the other hand, the Obama administration has projected that the economic stimulus package will create or save 3.5 million jobs, points out Dennis Jacobe, Washington-based chief economist at Gallup.

January was the worst month so far in 2009 for layoffs. On Friday, the government revised its estimate of that month’s job losses to 741,000, up from the original estimate of 655,000. Again, those were on a seasonally adjusted basis, which accounts for normal layoffs after the holiday season.

On a nonseasonally adjusted basis, the economy shed 3.6 million jobs in January alone.

“It’s an enormous number and a reflection of the announcements made before the holidays when pink slips were flying all over the place,” Mr. Wyss says.