June jobless rate seen rising to 9.6 percent

WASHINGTON: Out-of-work with no place to land, the legions of America's unemployed are growing.

The Labor Department is scheduled to release a report Thursday expected to show the nation's unemployment rate edging closer to double digits. Wall Street economists predict the jobless rate will rise to 9.6 percent in June from 9.4 percent in May. That would mark a 26-year high.

The rising rate comes as recession-weary companies continue to cut workers. Economists expect a loss of 363,000 jobs in June, up from 345,000 job cuts in May. Economists believe a chunk of those cuts will be tied to shutdowns at General Motors Corp. and fallout from the troubled auto industry.

Still, if economists' forecasts are correct, it would be consistent with the belief that the worst of employers' payrolls cuts have occurred. Companies are expected to keep shedding jobs through the rest of this year, but economists hope the pace will continue to taper off.

"Employers were very quick to pull the trigger on job cuts last year, and most of the biggest cuts are behind us. But companies are going to be very cautious about hiring," said economist Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics.

The deepest job cuts of the recession came in January, when 741,000 jobs vanished, the most in any month since 1949.

Another report from the department due Thursday is expected to show the number of newly laid-off people filing applications for unemployment benefits dropped last week to 615,000, from 627,000 in the previous week. The number of people continuing to draw benefits is expected to nudge up to 6.740 million from 6.738 million.

Even if companies slow the pace of layoffs, they will be reluctant to hire until they feel certain the economy is back on its feet. That's why economists are forecasting a continued rise in the unemployment rate over the next year. It's expected to hit 10 percent this year.

Many think it could rise as high as 10.7 percent by the second quarter of next year before it starts to make a slow descent. Some think the rate will top out at 11 percent. Others think the peak will lower — around 10.5 percent — by the spring of 2010.

The post-World War II high was 10.8 percent at the end of 1982, when the country had suffered through a severe recession.

The worst crises in the housing, credit and financial markets since the 1930s plunged the country into the current recession, which started in December 2007 and is the longest since World War II.

As the downturn bites into sales and profits, companies have turned to layoffs and other cost-cutting measures to survive. Those include holding down workers' hours and freezing or cutting pay. In May, the average work week fell to 33.1 hours, the lowest on record dating to 1964.

Newspaper publisher Gannett Co. on Wednesday said it plans to cut 1,400 jobs in the next few weeks, about 3 percent of the work force, as it faces a prolonged slump in advertising revenue. Farm machinery company Deere & Co. earlier this week said 800 salaried employees, or 3 percent of its salaried work force, took a voluntary buyout offer. Cessna Aircraft Co., which makes corporate jets, has said it would cut 1,300 jobs by this summer on top of 6,900 earlier layoffs.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke predicts the recession will end this year, with many economists forecasting that the economy will start to grow again as soon as the current July-September quarter.

And fresh signs of improvement for the economy have emerged. Manufacturing activity declined less than expected in June, and an index of pending home sales edged up May for the fourth straight month, reports out Wednesday showed.

But recoveries after financial crises tend to be slow, which is why economists predict it will take years for the job market to return to normal. Some predict the nation's unemployment rate won't drop to 5 percent until 2013.

An elevated unemployment rate could become a political liability for President Barack Obama when congressional elections are held next year. The last time the unemployment rate topped 10 percent, the party of the president — then Ronald Reagan's GOP — lost 26 House seats in midterm elections in 1982.

So far, many people are saving — rather than spending — the extra money in their paychecks from Obama's tax cut, blunting its help in bracing the economy. Much of the economic benefit of Obama's increased government spending on big public works projects won't kick in until 2010, analysts say.

The White House last week said federal money is being shoveled out of Washington quickly, but states aren't steering the cash to counties that need jobs the most.