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To minimize layoffs, employers cut worker hours

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The attempt by companies like Hardinge comes during one of the worst job markets in decades. Last Friday, the Department of Labor reported that the US unemployment rate climbed to 7.6 percent in January, up from 7.2 percent in December. And the economy shed 598,000 jobs, the worst performance since the end of 1974. Over the past two months, more than 1 million people have lost their jobs.

“This is about as bad as it gets,” says Daniel Meckstroth, chief economist at Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI in Arlington, Va. “There is no good way to spin this as anything good.”

Since October, the US unemployment rate has climbed by one full percentage point, a pace of layoffs not seen since at least the 1980s. Given the number of recently announced layoffs and the rising number of new claims for unemployment, the February job losses could be even worse, some economists say.

“If there is any silver lining to the news, we are seeing job cuts so widespread and massive [that] it may mean everyone is making all their job cuts all at once,” says Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pa. “We are compacting an adjustment process that might have taken two years into 12 months, so we may get through it sooner.”

Reducing workers’ hours may help keep the unemployment numbers from soaring yet higher, says labor economist Della Lee Sue of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “If the unemployment rate keeps going up, it makes a lot of people feel worse about the economy,” she says. “And that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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