The May unemployment report: No rosy colors

The U.S. Labor Department said that 9.0 million workers were counted among the officially unemployed in May, bringing the official unemployment rate to 6.1 percent, the highest since July 1994. When the 4.8 million men and women working part-time because they can’t find full-time work, and the 1.4 million who have become too discouraged to continue job-hunting are added, then some 15.2 million workers, more than 10 percent of the workforce, were either unemployed or underemployed in May.

The Economic Policy Institute looks at the question another way. In its latest “snapshot,” the institute says: “Employment rates – the share of a given group with jobs – are also indicative of how weak the labor market is for some groups of workers. The employment rate for men, 68.7 percent, is the lowest it has been since May 1983, when the unemployment rate was 10.1 percent. This suggests that the current 6.1 percent unemployment rate is not fully capturing the lack of job opportunities for these workers. Similarly, the fact that the employment rate for college graduates – 75.4 percent – is the second-lowest rate since the government began keeping these records is evidence of the weakness of the job market among white-collar workers.”

The Labor Department says 8.2 percent of Latino workers were unemployed last month as were 5.9 percent of white men, 5.1 percent of adult women, 18.5 percent of all teenagers, and 10.8 percent of African American workers. Hardest-hit were African-American teenagers, with an unemployment rate of 37.0 percent, 3.9 percent above April levels. Although the pace of loss has slowed, the economy lost 53,000 manufacturing jobs last month, bringing to 2.6 million the number of these jobs lost since July 2000.

Even more alarming, in the last year, the U.S. lost 4.1 percent of its manufacturing jobs. Among the hardest-hit industries were communications equipment (12.6 percent), apparel (12.8 percent) and computers (12.9 percent). The economy has not suffered such a prolonged period of job loss during any other post-World War II recession.

Other indicators of a weak job market include:

• The percentage of unemployment due to workers who voluntarily leave their jobs fell to 8.6 percent, the lowest level since 1983.

• Average hourly wages increased by only 1.3 percent over the last quarter, with wages of workers in the retail sector increasing by a mere 0.3 percent.

• The number of employed people over age 55 increased by 36,000 in May, as the declining value of 401(k)s continued to drive older workers back into the labor market.

• Of the 2.4 million older workers who have returned to work since February 2001, nearly 1.5 million are women.

• Total employment in the nation’s manufacturing industries is lower today than at any time since 1948.

“From the standpoint of the growing ranks of unemployed, the president’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2002 may have padded the pockets of the very rich, but they failed to create jobs,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. “More of the same medicine in the form of his 2003 tax cut will not put people back to work.”

Meanwhile, the latest U.S. Department of Labor figures show 841,369 applications for temporary extended unemployment compensation for the week of May 17 – a weekly number that has risen for five straight weeks and is at its highest level since October 2002. The Labor Department reported on June 5 that weekly new jobless claims for the workweek ending May 31 reached a five-week high of 442,000. The rate of workers exhausting their unemployment compensation benefits rose in April to 43 percent, the highest rate since the recession began in April 2001, when the rate was 32 percent.

The author can be reached at Fgab708@aol.com