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U.S. Unemployment Rate Jumps To 8.5 Percent

Graphic: Payroll Jobs

The U.S. unemployment rate for March reached 8.5 percent for the first time since the 1980s, the Labor Department said Friday, as employers slashed 663,000 more jobs in an effort to cut costs amid a deep recession.

The unemployment rate is an increase from the previous figure of 8.1 percent and represents the loss of 5.1 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, the department said.

Meanwhile, government data for January was revised to show monthly job losses of 741,000 — more layoffs for a month than at any time since October 1949. The decline in nonfarm payrolls in February was not revised, remaining at 651,000.

Manufacturing was hardest hit in the new report, with the sector losing 161,000 jobs in March. Construction industries lost 126,000 jobs, and the service sector axed 358,000 positions.

The average work week in March dropped to 33.2 hours, a new record low, indicating that many companies are reducing workers' hours.

The deterioration in the jobs market comes despite a few hopeful signs recently that the recession — now the longest since World War II — could be easing.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has indicated that the recession could end later this year, setting the stage for a recovery next year. But most analysts expect the economy to remain frail for many months to come.

"This is about as bad as it gets in a recession, so I think — and I cross my fingers when I say this — we should see, yes, further job losses in the months ahead, but they are not going to be as severe as they have been over the last several months," Hugh Johnson, the chairman and chief investment adviser of investment firm Johnson Illington Advisors, told NPR.

"We'll start to see job losses in the third and fourth quarters of the year, but they're not going to be as severe," Johnson said.

From NPR and wire service reports

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