02-19-2017  1:17 pm      •     

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Tolling grimly higher, the recession snatched more than 650,000 Americans' jobs for a record third straight month in February as unemployment climbed to a quarter-century peak of 8.1 percent and surged toward even more wrenching double digits.
The human carnage from the recession, well into its second year, now stands at 4.4 million lost jobs. Some 12.5 million people are searching for work -- more than the population of the entire state of Pennsylvania.
No one seems immune: The jobless rate for college graduates has hit its highest point on record, just like the rate for people lacking high school diplomas.
Employers also are holding hours down and freezing or cutting pay as the recession eats into sales and profits. If part-time workers who can't find full-time jobs are counted in, along with those who have simply given up looking, the rate would be 14.8 percent, the highest in records going back to 1994.
The wintertime blizzard of layoffs -- nearly 2 million lost jobs in just three months -- is destroying any hope for an economic turnaround this year while feeding insecurities among people who still have jobs as well as those who desperately want to find work.
"In this economy, if you have a family to feed like I do, beggars can't be choosers,'' said Greg Ovetsky, who lost his job at an information technology company two weeks ago.
Ovetsky, 37, of Staten Island, New York, said he'll take any position. "You can rest assured I'll say yes. Get a paycheck, get food on the table.''
Across the country, Douglas Walch, 54, worries about losing his job as a park maintenance foreman because his employer of 15 years -- the city of Sacramento -- is preparing for layoffs.
"It's the worst I've ever seen it in my lifetime,'' Walch said.
President Barack Obama, barely a month into his own new job, acknowledged the layoffs were coming at an "astounding'' clip but urged Americans to allow him time for his economic revival policies take root.
"This recovery plan won't turn our economy around or solve every problem,'' Obama said. "All of this takes time, and it will take patience.''
For a day, Wall Street seemed to agree. Stocks seesawed up and down before finishing with a modest Dow Jones industrials gain of 32.5 points. Still the Dow was down a dispiriting 6.2 percent for the week.
The Labor Department's report, released Friday, showed pink slips nationwide hitting all categories -- blue-collar, white-collar, highly educated and not.
Employers slashed payrolls by a net total of 651,000 last month -- the third month in a row that job losses topped 600,000. It was the first time that's happened in government record-keeping dating to 1939.
"These are gargantuan declines,'' said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group.
"Horrible,'' said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at High Frequency Economics.
The unemployment rate leapt to 8.1 percent from 7.6 percent in January, the highest in more than 25 years. Some economists now predict the rate could hit 10 percent by year-end and peak at 11 percent or higher by the middle of 2010.
"The massive hemorrhage of jobs is reminiscent of the 1982 recession when the jobless rate hit 10.8 percent. Unfortunately, it will get much worse,'' predicted Sung Won Sohn, economist at the Martin Smith School of Business at California State University. "It is hard to see where the bottom is.''
Besides the 12.5 million total for unemployed people in February, the number of people forced to work part time for economic reasons rose by a sharp 787,000 to 8.6 million. Those are people who would like to work full time but whose hours were cut back or were unable to find full-time work.
If those people -- along with discouraged workers -- were factored in, the rate would have been 14.8 percent in February.
The jobless rate for people with bachelor's degrees or higher jumped to 4.1 percent. And the rate for people without a high-school diploma climbed to 12.6 percent. Both are the highest in records dating to 1992.
The jobless rate for Blacks rose to 13.4 percent, the highest since June 1993; the rate for Hispanics hit 10.9 percent, the highest since April 1993.
With no place to land, the number of "long-term unemployed'' -- those out of work for 27 weeks or more -- climbed to 2.9 million, the most on record back to 1948.
Construction companies eliminated 104,000 jobs last month. Factories axed 168,000. Retailers cut nearly 40,000. Professional and business services got rid of 180,000, temporary-help agencies 78,000. Financial companies reduced payrolls by 44,000. Leisure and hospitality firms chopped 33,000.
The few areas spared: education and health services, as well as government, which boosted employment last month.
For those with jobs, employers kept a tight rein on hours. The average workweek in February stayed at 33.3 hours, matching the record low set in December.
Disappearing jobs and evaporating wealth from tanking home values, 401(k)s and other investments have forced consumers to retrench, driving companies to lay off workers. It's a vicious cycle in which all the economy's problems feed on each other, worsening the downward spiral.
A bit of positive economic news came from the Federal Reserve, which reported that consumer borrowing increased at an annual rate of $1.76 billion in the first month of the year. Still, the small rise is unlikely to shake economists' views that borrowing will remain weak this year as fearful consumers tighten their belts.
The economy contracted at 6.2 percent in the final three months of 2008, the worst showing in a quarter-century. Analysts believe the economy in the current January-March quarter is contracting at a pace between 5.5 and 6 percent or more.
A new wave of layoffs hit this week, with General Dynamics Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., Tyco Electronics Ltd., and others announcing job cuts.
Obama is counting on a multi-pronged assault to lift the country out of recession: a $787 billion stimulus package of increased federal spending and tax cuts, a revamped bailout program for troubled banks and a $75 billion effort to stem home foreclosures.
But economists said the jobs situation seems to be killing any hopes for an economic recovery later this year as some had hoped.
"Faith in a rebound is running low no matter where you look these days,'' said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at RBS Greenwich Capital.

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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall,'" the president told a group of police chiefs recently. "I wasn't kidding. I don't kid." But the Republican-led Congress is still waiting to see specifics on how Trump wants to proceed legislatively on top initiatives such as replacing the health care law, enacting tax cuts and revising trade deals. The messy rollout of the travel ban and tumult over the ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia are part of a broader state of disarray as different figures in Trump's White House jockey for power and leaks reveal internal discord in the machinations of the presidency. "I thought by now you'd at least hear the outlines of domestic legislation like tax cuts," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "But a lot of that has slowed. Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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