U.S. Continues to Add Jobs at Slow Pace, Report Shows

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Courtesy of The New York Times

Despite their concerns about looming tax increases and government spending cuts, American employers added 155,000 jobs in December, about apace with job growth over the last year, the Labor Department reported on Friday.

A Ross clothing store in San Francisco advertised it was hiring last month.

Jordan Douglas, a 24-year-old single mother in Pampa, Tex., is enrolled in a program that allows her to receive jobless benefits while attending school to become a nurse.

The biggest gains were in health care, food services, construction and manufacturing, with the latter two probably helped by rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. Government payrolls fell modestly once again, the report said. The unemployment rate was 7.8 percent, the same as in November, whose rate was revised up from 7.7 percent.

“It’s not a home-run report by any stretch, but it’s constructive,” said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics. “It’s another month of fairly stable, solid, moderate job creation.”

Over the course of 2012, the country added 1.8 million jobs, despite continued job losses in the government sector and anxiety related to the presidential election and scheduled tax increases and spending cuts.

Economists are unsure of what the rest of the year holds for the American job market, but most are forecasting more of the same: hiring fast enough to stay just ahead of population growth, but still too slow to make a sizable dent in the 12.2-million-person backlog of unemployed workers.

At the current pace of job growth, it would take seven years to get the unemployment rate back to where it was when the recession began in December 2007, according to one calculation. A number of encouraging trends in the economy suggest that businesses have good reason to speed up hiring, including the housing recovery, looser credit for small businesses, a rebound in China and pent-up demand for new autos. Friday’s report also showed slightly faster wage growth and longer working hours in December, both of which bode well for hiring.

But Congress’s last-minute deal earlier this week to raise taxes will offset some of these sources of growth, since higher taxes trim how much money consumers have available to spend each week.

“Job creation might firm a little bit, but it’s still looking nothing like the typical recovery year we’ve had in deep recessions in the past,” Mr. Ryding said. “There’s nothing in the deal to do that and nothing in this latest jobs report to suggest that. We’re a long way short of the 300,000 job growth that we need.”

The fiscal compromise also renewed for a year the federal government’s emergency unemployment benefits program. That allows workers to continue receiving unemployment benefits for up to 73 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate in the state where they live, and acts as a stimulus to the American economy because unemployment benefits are spent almost immediately.

The extension has proved to be a tremendous relief to the two million workers who would have otherwise abruptly lost their benefits this week.

“We woke up on Wednesday morning and saw the news and just said, ‘thank God, thank God, thank God,’ and then went out and went food shopping because we knew we had money coming in,” said Gina Shadis, 56, of Newton, N.J.

Both she and her husband, Stephen, were laid off within the last 14 months from jobs they had held for more than a decade: she from a quality assurance manager position at an environmental testing lab, and he as foreman and senior master technician at an auto dealership. They are now each receiving $548 per week in federal jobless benefits, or about a quarter of their pay at their most recent jobs.

“It has just been such a traumatic time,” she said. “You know you wake up in the morning with shoulders tense and head aching because you didn’t sleep the night before from worrying.”

While Congress’s deal on New Year’s Day brought clarity to tax and unemployment benefits policies, lawmakers have still not settled their disputes about federal spending cuts and the debt ceiling. Economists worry that the lingering uncertainty over these issues could discourage businesses from investing in more workers or equipment.

“We may be seeing the calm before the storm right now,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomic Advisors, noting that a recent survey from the National Federation of Independent Business found that alarmingly few small companies plan to hire in the coming months. “Small businesses are wringing their hands in horror at what’s going on in Washington.”

In the meantime, more than six million workers have exhausted their unemployment benefits altogether since the recession began in December 2007, according to the National Employment Law Project, a labor advocacy group.

Millions of workers are sitting on the sidelines and so are not counted in the total tally of unemployed. Some are merely waiting for the job market to improve, and others are trying to invest in skills to appeal to employers who are already hiring.

“I have a few prospects who say they want me to work for them when I graduate,” said Jordan Douglas, a 24-year-old single mother in Pampa, Tex., who is enrolled in a special program that allows her to receive jobless benefits while attending school full time to become a registered nurse. She gets $792 in benefits every two weeks, a little less than half of what she earned in an administrative position at the nursing home that laid her off last year.

She calculates that her federal jobless benefits will run out the very last week of nursing school.

“This had to have been a sign from God that I had to do this since it all worked out so well,” she said.

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