Job Seekers Are 'Feeling the Economic Tsunami'

It has been nearly a year since Todd Wilson last collected a paycheck. The Kansas computer salesman wasn't too worried at first, for he had a solid work history, decent savings, and a wife with a job.


But now, with unemployment on the rise all around him, such as the 8,000 new cuts announced this week by Overland Park, Kansas, based Sprint Nextel , competition for ever fewer jobs is growing -- and desperation is setting in.

"Anybody who is looking for a job now is feeling an economic tsunami," said 48-year-old Wilson, who says he has exhausted his family's savings and now spends most days searching for jobs at an area employment-assistance center.

"It feels like all of a sudden, it has just fallen apart." Far from Washington D.C., in communities across the United States, the talk of federal economic stimulus plans and bank bailouts offers only faint hope for help.

Many workers say the ever-rising unemployment spells a long road of hardship ahead.

This week alone, U.S. companies including Sprint, Home Depot , Caterpillar, Texas Instruments , and others announced they would cut more than 60,000 jobs.

On Tuesday, another 10,000 job cuts were announced. So far this month, more than 210,000 jobs are known to have been axed.

And in a report due Thursday, claims for U.S. unemployment benefits by the newly jobless are expected soar above 500,000.

All that comes on top of 524,000 jobs lost in December and a spike in unemployment in all U.S. states that left the national unemployment rate at 7.2 percent, up from 6.8 percent in November, according to the Labor Department.

In all, more than 11 million U.S. workers are unemployed, a 48 percent jump from a year ago.

The numbers translate to roughly four job seekers for every one job opening in the United States, according to Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

The grim job picture cuts across nearly every sector, she said. "There are literally millions of workers unemployed with no hope of finding a new job," she said.

"The queue is just too long." Job losses contributed to a record low in U.S. consumer confidence this month, the Conference Board, a non-profit business research group in New York, said on Tuesday.

A new survey by the Society for Human Resource Management also found that nearly 75 percent of human resource professionals from U.S. companies were expecting deeper job cuts in the U.S. labor force in the next few months.

No Quick Fix?

Economists and workers alike say they see President Barack Obama's efforts to jolt the economy taking at least a year or more to jumpstart renewed hiring.

"With the right package, the economy will start growing in 2010 and the labor market will start picking up after that at some point," said Shierholz.

That is slight comfort to U.S. workers and small business owners who see their livelihoods eroding at a rapid pace.

"It's been less than four months since I got this job and I'm already worried about holding onto it," said Anna Chung, 30, who works at a small auto parts supplier in suburban Detroit, Michigan, where the state unemployment rate was 10.6 percent in December, reflecting the automobile industry's dismal fortunes.

"I'm afraid I might be the next to go." In Overland Park, where Sprint's world headquarters dominates the landscape of the upscale bedroom community near Kansas City, the layoffs have many reeling.

"Behind each number is a person and a family," said Tracey Osborne, president of the local chamber of commerce.

The mounting corporate job losses mean slowing sales for a range of service and support businesses. Tax revenues are falling and money for schools and social services is squeezed.

Kyle Witherspoon owns the sports bar directly across the street from Sprint's sprawling corporate headquarters, and for years has served a steady flow of Sprint employees. But he said sales have slowed due to the job cuts.

This week, he was busy booking going away parties for Sprint workers, he said, and bracing for more lost customers. "When these people go now, it will have a huge impact," he said.

At the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City, chief economist Frank Lenk said for every corporate job lost, two more will be shed on average.

"This is a gloomy time," Lenk said. "People are feeling pretty uncertain about their financial security." Computer programmer Larry Martel understands uncertainty.

He had been laid off for six months last year before landing work as a consultant at a Kansas City-area firm.

Now Martel, 50, is just thankful to have a steady paycheck.

"There are people really hurting. It's everywhere you turn," said Martel. "It is probably going to get worse before it gets better."