WASHINGTON — The pace of layoffs slowed in April when employers cut 539,000 jobs, the fewest in six months. But the unemployment rate climbed to 8.9 percent, the highest since late 1983, as many businesses remain wary of hiring given all the economic uncertainties.
The Labor Department tally released Friday wasn't nearly as deep as the 620,000 job cuts that economists were expecting, and was helped by a burst of federal government hiring of temporary workers to prepare for the 2010 census. The rise in the unemployment rate from 8.5 percent in March matched economists' forecasts.
The new report underscored the toll the longest recession since World War II has taken on America's workers and companies. However, the slowdown in layoffs may bolster expectations that the worst of the downturn's hefty job losses are past.
"Although we have a long way to go before we can put this recession behind us, the gears of our economic engine do seem to be slowly turning once again," President Barack Obama said Friday, hours after the employment report was released.
Still, companies will remain cautious in hiring, making it harder for laid-off workers to find new jobs.
If laidoff workers who have given up looking for new jobs or have settled for part-time work are included, the unemployment rate would have been 15.8 percent in April, the highest on records dating back to 1994. The total number of unemployed now stands at 13.7 million, up from 13.2 million in March.
Companies also kept a tight rein on workers hours. The average workweek in April stayed at 33.2 hours, matching the record low set in March.
Since the recession began in December 2007, the economy has lost a net total of 5.7 million jobs.
Job losses in February and March turned out to be deeper than originally reported, according to revised figures. Employers cut 681,000 positions in February, 30,000 more than previously reported. They cut 699,000 jobs in March, more than the 663,000 first reported.
The deepest job cuts of the recession — 741,000 — came in January. That was the most since the fall of 1949.
Employers last month cut the fewest jobs since 380,000 in October. Nonetheless, the April job losses were widespread.
Construction companies axed 110,000 jobs, down from 135,000 in March. Factories got rid of 149,000 jobs, down form 167,000 the month before. Retailers cut payrolls by nearly 47,000, fewer than the nearly 64,000 cut in March. And job losses in the financial services industry were 40,000, down from 43,000 in the previous month.
Looking ahead, economists expect monthly job losses for most — if not all — of this year. However, they hope the reductions won't be as deep.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis wouldn't speculate on the future pace of layoffs, but warned that some of the jobs lost "may not come back." She urged job seekers to get the training and education needed to be contenders for work in growing industries, such as health care, which added nearly 17,000 jobs in April.
Many economists predict the unemployment rate will hit 10 percent by the end of this year. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke stopped short of that figure, saying it will be somewhere in the 9 percent range. Regardless, both private economists and Bernanke agree the unemployment rate will keep climbing into next year.
The Fed says unemployment will remain elevated into 2011. Economists say the job market may not get back to normal — meaning a 5 percent unemployment rate — until 2013.
Help on the way
President Barack Obama says more help is on the way for the unemployed. He outlined steps Friday to help the jobless pursue education and training, and still keep their unemployment benefits. Currently, people who are out of work and want to go back to school have to give up their monthly unemployment checks. And if they decide to return to school, they often don't qualify for federal grants because eligibility is based upon the previous year's income.