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Unemployment high as layoffs become rarer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. labor force has been split into two groups: the relieved and the desperate.

If you have a job, you can exhale; you're less likely to lose it than at any point in at least 14 years.

If you're unemployed? Good luck. Finding a job remains a struggle 20 months after the recession technically ended. Employers won't likely step up hiring until they feel more confident about the economy.

A result is that people who are unemployed are staying so for longer periods. Of the 13.9 million Americans the government says were unemployed last month, about 1.8 million had been without work for at least 99 weeks. That's nearly double the number in January 2010.

Yet the deep job cuts of the recession have long since ended. In January, companies announced plans to trim fewer than 39,000 jobs, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That was 46 percent fewer than a year earlier. It was the fewest number of planned layoffs in January since Challenger began keeping track in 1993. For all of 2010, planned layoffs hit a 13-year low.

Eventually, consumer spending will rise high enough that companies will need to accelerate hiring to keep up with demand. In the meantime, a fading fear of layoffs is likely helping the economy: It's encouraging consumers who have jobs to spend more.

"The fact you know that the paycheck is going to be coming in now and for the foreseeable future gives you permission to do some extra spending," says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger.

Retailers have stopped shedding workers. After the best holiday shopping season in four years, stores cut fewer than 5,800 jobs last month. That's only about one-third the number of a year earlier. And it's far fewer than the nearly 54,000 in January 2009 at the depths.

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