WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of out-of-work Americans continuing to draw unemployment benefits has surged to a 25-year high, while shoppers turned extra frugal, further proof of the damage from sinking economy, credit problems and financial stresses.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that the number of people continuing to draw unemployment benefits jumped by 122,000 to 3.84 million in late October. It was the highest level since late February 1983, when the country was struggling to recover from a long and painful recession.
New filings for jobless benefits last week dipped to 481,000, a still-elevated level that suggests companies are in a cost-cutting mode.
The work force was much smaller in February 1983, when the number of people continuing to claim benefits was 3.88 million.
At that time, about 87.2 million Americans were in the work force, compared to almost 134 million today. That's one reason the unemployment rate was 10.4 percent in February 1983, compared to 6.1 percent last month.
Still, the increase in people continuing to draw unemployment benefits is an indication that laid-off workers are having a harder time finding new jobs.
Democrats in Congress are pushing to include an extension of unemployment benefits in a new stimulus package, which could be taken up this month. Benefits typically last 26 weeks.
Congress approved a 13-week extension of benefits in June, and the department said about 773,000 additional people claimed benefits through that program for the week ending Oct. 18, the most recent data available. That extension is scheduled to end next June.
Americans hit by layoffs, shrinking nest eggs and other stresses are pulling back even more, sending sales at many big retailers down in what may have been the weakest October in decades. That further darkened the outlook for the holiday sales season.
Target Corp. and Costco were among the many retailers reporting sales declines last month. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, however, logged a sales gain.
On Wall Street, stocks slumped. The Dow Jones industrials were down about 350 points in afternoon trading.
Hoping to prevent a deep recession, the Federal Reserve last week ratcheted down interest rates last week to 1 percent and left the door open to further reductions.
The country's economic state has rapidly deteriorated in just a few months. The economy contracted at a 0.3 percent pace in the July-September quarter, signaling the onset of a likely recession. It was the worst showing since the last recession, in 2001, and reflected a massive pull back by consumers.
With the economy sinking and consumers appetites flagging, employers have been slashing jobs. They are expected to cut around 200,000 jobs when the government releases the October employment report on Friday. The unemployment rate - now at 6.1 percent - is expected to climb to 6.3 percent in October.
As American consumers watch jobs disappear and their wealth shrink, they'll probably retrench even further.
That's why analysts predict the economy is still shrinking in the current October-December quarter and will continue to contract during the first quarter of next year. All that more than fulfills a classic definition of a recession: two straight quarters of contracting economic activity.
Yet another report out Thursday showed the efficiency of U.S. workers slowed sharply in the summer as overall production, or output, declined, reflecting the hit to consumers from housing, credit and financial troubles.
Productivity - the amount an employee produces for every hour on the job - grew at an annual pace of 1.1 percent in the July-September quarter, down from a 3.6 percent growth rate in the second quarter, the Labor Department reported.
With productivity growth slowing, labor costs picked up. Unit labor costs - a measure of how much companies pay workers for every unit of output they produce- increased at a 3.6 percent pace in the third quarter, compared with a 0.1 percent rate of decline in the prior period.
The 1.1 percent productivity growth logged in the summer beat economists' expectations for a 0.8 percent growth rate. The pickup in labor costs- while welcome to workers - was faster than the 2.8 percent pace economists were forecasting.
Economists often look at labor compensation for clues about inflation. These days, however, the Federal Reserve and analysts are more concerned about the economy's feeble state. While the pick up in labor costs might raise some economists' eyebrows, the Fed is predicting inflation pressures will lessen as the economy loses traction.
The 1.1 percent productivity gain was the smallest since the final quarter of last year, while the increase in labor costs was the biggest since that time.