WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's no longer a question of recession or not. Now it's how deep and how long. Workers' pink slips stacked ever higher in March as jittery employers slashed 80,000 jobs, the most in five years, and the national unemployment rate climbed to 5.1 percent. Job losses are nearing the staggering level of a quarter-million this year in just three months.
For the third month in a row total U.S. employment rolls shrank - often a telltale sign that the economy has jolted dangerously into reverse.
At the same time, the jobless rate rose three-tenths of a percentage point, a sharp increase usually associated with times of deep economic stress.
The grim picture described by the Labor Department on Friday provided stark evidence of just how much the jobs market has buckled under the weight of the housing, credit and financial crises. Businesses and jobseekers alike are feeling the pain.
"It is now very clear that the fat lady has sung for the economic expansion. The country has slipped into a recession," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group. Indeed, there is widening agreement that the first recession since 2001 has arrived. Even Ben Bernanke, in a rare public utterance for a Federal Reserve chairman, used the "r" word, acknowledging for the first time this week that a recession was possible.
Job losses were widespread last month, hitting workers at factories, construction companies, retailers, banks, real-estate firms and even temporary-help agencies. Also mortgage brokers, hotels, computer design shops, accounting firms, architecture and engineering companies, legal services, airlines and other transportation as well as telecommunications companies.
Those cuts swamped employment gains elsewhere, including at hospitals and other heath-care sites, educational services, child day-care providers, bars and restaurants, insurance companies, museums, zoos and parks. And the government, which is almost always up.
In fact, private employers have shed jobs for four straight months, though December showed an overall gain for the economy because the government increase outweighed the private loss.
March's losses were the most since the same month in 2003, when companies were still struggling to recover from the last recession. Adding to the angst: Revised figures showed losses were actually deeper than first reported for both January and February.
All told, the economy now has lost 232,000 jobs in the first three months of this year.
On Wall Street, investors took the weak employment figures in stride. The Dow Jones industrials lost just 16.61 points, while other indexes edged higher.
All the economy's problems are forcing people and businesses to hunker down, crimping spending and hiring, a vicious cycle.
"Across the board, businesses have become very, very conservative," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. More downbeat about their own sales prospects because of cautious consumers, employers are cutting back. "It only makes sense for them to run leaner if we are going into a recession or already in one" as Naroff now believes.
The new employment figures were much weaker than economists were expecting. They were anticipating a drop of 50,000 payroll jobs.
Michael Gregory, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets Economics, said the employment report was "emitting recession signals."
The national unemployment rate of 5.1 percent, relatively modest by historical standards, is nonetheless the highest since September 2005, following the devastating blows of the Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Some groups are feeling more of the strains from the economy's current woes. The unemployment rate for Hispanics, for instance, jumped to 6.9 percent in March, the highest in over four years. The rate for blacks climbed to 9 percent, a two-month high.
With the public on edge, Congress, the White House and presidential contenders are scrambling to come up with their own relief plans to stem record-high home foreclosures and stabilize housing - even as they engage in a political blame game.
Democrats want more economic assistance, including extending unemployment benefits. The Bush administration has resisted, saying the government's $168 billion stimulus package of tax rebates for people and tax breaks for businesses will be sufficient once it kicks in.
"We don't like to see one job lost, let alone 80,000," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in an interview with The Associated Press. "These are challenging times," he said. Gutierrez was hopeful the economy would turn around in the second half of this year, given the relief efforts by the government and the Federal Reserve. "We'll get through this."
Democrats were skeptical of the administration's efforts.
"Our economy is spiraling downward," said presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton. "It is time for this administration to put ideology aside and get serious about stemming this crisis."
Barack Obama said, "Instead of doing nothing for out-of-work Americans, we need a second stimulus that extends unemployment insurance and helps communities that have been hit hard by this recession."
Republican John McCain said the unemployment news "underlines the need to focus on innovation, which grows the economy and creates an urgent need for effective worker retraining."
Given the worsening employment situation, the Federal Reserve probably will lower a key interest rate, now at 2.25 percent, later this month.
The Fed has taken a number of extraordinary actions recently - slashing interest rates, providing financial backing to JP Morgan's takeover of troubled Bear Stearns and opening an emergency lending program for big investment houses. All the actions were aimed at limiting damage to the national economy.
With the pace of hiring slowing, the number of unemployed people increased to 7.8 million in March.
Workers with jobs saw modest wage gains. Average hourly earnings for jobholders rose to $17.86 in March and are up 3.6 percent over the past 12 months. With lofty energy and food prices, workers may feel like their paychecks are shrinking. If the job market continues to falter, wage growth probably will slow, too, making consumers even less inclined to spend, which would further hurt the economy.
Many analysts believe the economy shrank in the first three months of this year and could still be ebbing now. The government will release its estimate of first-quarter economic growth later this month. Under one rough rule, if the economy contracts for six straight months it is considered in a recession. When a determination is made by a panel of experts about when a recession has started and ended - it is usually done well after the fact.
Bernanke and the Bush administration are hopeful the economy will improve in the second half of this year. Even so, Bernanke predicted this week that the unemployment rate would rise further. Some analysts say it could climb to 5.75 percent or higher this year.
Advises Hoffman: "If you've got a job, hang on to it the best you can."