November unemployment report: Not a pretty picture

The nation’s unemployment rate shot up to 6 percent in November, the highest level since 1994. The increase from 5.7 percent in October came as more than 300,000 additional workers joined the ranks of the unemployed, bringing the total number of unemployed Americans to 8.5 million, in what was a considerably worse-than-expected employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s the official count – the some 40 percent of laid-off workers who have cleared all the obstacles and are presently drawing unemployment insurance benefits. But a more accurate measure of the unemployment situation would take into account the 1.4 million unemployed workers who have stopped seeking a job because of lack of prospects.

It would also take into account the fact that more than 4 million people are forced to work part time because they cannot find a full-time job, thus bringing the number of unemployed and underemployed to 13.9 million, more than 9 percent of the workforce.

November payroll declines were largest in manufacturing (45,000 jobs lost) and retail sales (39,000). Adjusting for seasonal hiring, department store hiring was down by 17,000, the worst November for stores since 1982. Factory employment continued its long slide and is down almost 400,000 since January 2002. And in another sign of the current weak demand for goods and services, temp employment fell for the second month in a row and is down 90,000 since September.

The rise in unemployment was mostly among men, whose jobless rate rose by one-half a percentage point. The unemployment rate for African-American men aged 20 or over increased from 9.7 percent to 10.9 percent, the highest level since February 1994. Nearly one-third (30 percent) of youth age 16-19 were unemployed in November as were 7.6 percent of Latino workers.

The brightest spot in the November unemployment figures was the one-tenth of a point decline in unemployment among women workers. All other numbers, beginning with the fact that about one in five unemployed individuals (20.6 percent) have been unemployed for six months or more, were worse. This is the highest concentration of long-term unemployed since October 1994.

Worse yet – and there’s even worse to come – some 360,000 workers exhausted their regular state benefits. Indeed, in October the number of workers exhausting their benefits compared to the number who had begun receiving benefits six months earlier – sometimes called the “exhaustion ratio” – was higher than in any previous October.

The “exhaustion ratios” for July, August and September were also at record highs – stark evidence that the need for a federal program to assist these workers has not diminished.

But that didn’t bother the leadership of the House of Representatives, who refused to allow a vote on a Senate-passed bill that would have granted a 13-week extension to unemployed workers who exhausted their federal benefits. Instead, they insisted on a take it or leave it extension that would have left most exhaustees out of work and out of benefits – and this at a time when the number of individuals who exhausted their federal unemployment benefits increased by 280,000 in October.

In all, 1.73 million workers have exhausted these federal benefits since the program was created last March – and all of them, plus the nearly 100,000 workers who exhaust their state benefits every week, will be left without jobs or unemployment benefits when the program ends on December 28.

Nor is the general unemployment picture going to improve any time soon. Although layoffs in private industry have been widespread and continue to grow, hiring by state and local governments has absorbed much of the pain. But that is going to change as declining revenues and a continuing economic downturn place additional strain on state and local governments, thus posing not only the threat but the actuality of layoffs and cuts in services.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has promised that Congress will revisit the question of extending benefits when the 108th Congress convenes in January. The first challenge is to make sure that Congress does more than revisit the question and to make sure it acts.

The author can be reached at fgab708@aol.com