Job security becomes Job One at home

As layoffs continue, unemployment is expected to climb again this week.

Growing numbers of Americans have a worry that lies far from the battlefields in Iraq and close to their workplaces at home: concern about their jobs.

Layoffs are continuing at many companies, and with consumer confidence at a 10-year low, even employers who aren't cutting jobs don't appear ready to do much hiring. Economists expect unemployment to climb this Friday when March numbers come out - perhaps from 5.8 percent to 5.9 or 6 percent.

That would follow a disturbing February report in which the economy lost 308,000 jobs.

All this is bad news for people like Amal Haddad Marks.

"The job situation is pretty bad," says Mrs. Marks, who was laid off by the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency a few months ago as the state struggled with a major budget deficit.

Upon applying for a "desirable" job in her field of contract management and other financial areas, Marks sometimes finds that the number of applicants reaches into the hundreds.

The job scene doesn't appear likely to improve in the near term. A consensus among economists has been building that an end to the war in Iraq, lifting the "geopolitical uncertainty" spoken of by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, will not result in the economy snapping out of its current doldrums immediately.

Affecting the college-educated

"Unemployment is not going to go down significantly for a long time," says Maurice Emsellem, director of the National Employment Law Project, in Oakland, Calif. Even the college-educated and professionals - such as Marks - are being laid off in large numbers in this economy.

The difficult job market shows up in polls, with a Gallup survey taken in early March showing 82 percent of Americans see the current climate as a "bad time" to be looking for work. That's up from 68 last November. Christian Science Monitor/TIPP polls show roughly 1 in 5 Americans worry someone in their household will be laid off.

Yet Congress is a long way from settling on any plan to provide either fiscal stimulus to the economy or extending unemployment insurance benefits again.

Nor do Fed policymakers meet again formally until May 6 to consider easing monetary policy, though it's possible that discouraging economic statistics could prompt a conference-call decision sooner to cut interest rates.

Companies announced 138,177 layoffs in February, but planned job cuts fell sharply to 85,396 in March. With the war, American businesses put major decisions and actions on hold, explained John Challenger, CEO of the Chicago outplacement firm that compiles layoff statistics, Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "There isn't a lot of job creation out there."

Nonetheless, some economists reckon the economy is still growing slowly - perhaps at a 2 percent annual rate in the first quarter, according to Goldman, Sachs & Co. forecasters. But economists reckon that a growth rate of at least 2.5 to 3 percent is needed to start creating more jobs.

Where the jobs are

Mr. Challenger sees some areas where employers are hiring. These include the healthcare industry (nurses, pharmacists, pharmaceutical firms, medical products, and so on), and the defense industry, helped by the defense buildup and the Iraq war. In addition, Challenger says some segments of retailing, such as discounters and craft stores, are doing relatively well. Other job possibilities include replacement positions for the 216,000 national guardsmen and reservists called to active duty. Their jobs must be held for them, but some companies must hire new people to make up for those unfilled slots. Challenger calls on American firms to give first priority to the spouses of those called to Iraq. "The reservist may have been the sole earner in the household," he notes.

This week Congress was moving to approve a budget resolution that would allow a tax cut somewhere between the $726 billion approved by the House and $350 billion settled on by the Senate. An actual vote on the tax cuts could be months hence. "Putting money back in the hands of the citizens" will stimulate the economy and create jobs, Deputy Commerce Secretary Sam Bodman said in an interview. Small- and medium-sized businesses will be especially encouraged to create jobs.

Democrats in Congress hold that, while the Bush tax cuts go largely to the rich, breaks for the middle class and poor would do more for the economy.

But no one maintains a tax cut would do much good for many of the long-term jobless before their unemployment benefits run out at the end of May. Congress extended those benefits by 13 weeks beyond the normal 26 weeks earlier in the year.

But Marks, who gets the maximum of $500, finds it helpful in making mortgage payments on a house in Cambridge, Mass. "I am fortunate in having a husband who is still working," she says.

While today's 5.8 percent jobless rate is lower than the last recession, in 1991-92, some see today's job climate as worse.

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