The nation's unemployment rate is hovering near a seven-year high, and new jobs are not being created as the bleak economy teeters on the cusp of recovery and recession.
"To working families, it looks a heck of a lot like a recession," said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the union-supported Economic Policy Institute in Washington and an author of "The State of Working America 2002-03."
The list of large employers seeking bankruptcy protection is formidable: Kmart, Polaroid, Enron, WorldCom, US Airways and more. Companies recently announcing layoffs include American Airlines, Charles Schwab, Williams Cos., Coca-Cola and Nokia.
For Kathy Angiolillo of Woodbridge, Va., the economy couldn't get any worse. She was laid off from her lobbying job at a nonprofit organization July 3 and has a 4-year-old son to support. Unable to find another full-time position, she has been working as a receptionist or office assistant whenever a temporary firm calls.
"I don't care how much they pay, just give me a job," she said. "If they called me to walk dogs I would do it."
Angiolillo has sent out dozens of resumes, often without receiving any response. Employers that initially show interest end up turning her down because they think she is overqualified, will demand too much money or won't stay long.
"I miss the '90s," Angiolillo said.
So do a lot of people. The recent string of corporate scandals and a volatile stock market have made that time of freewheeling prosperity a distant memory to many workers now nervous about the future of their jobs and careers.
The unemployment rate, now at 5.9 percent, dropped to a 30-year low of 3.9 percent in 2000 as the country enjoyed the longest stretch of prosperity on record. Jobs were relatively easy to find, and many employers had to compete for workers by boosting salaries and upgrading benefits.
Between 1995 and 2000 the average income of black and Hispanic families grew by 17 percent and 27 percent respectively. For white families, it grew by 11 percent. The median family income was $52,321 in 2000, compared with $46,857 in 1995.
"The tight labor markets of the late 1990s brought the first persistent, broad-based prosperity in decades," said Lawrence Mishel, EPI president and an author of the "Working America" analysis of Labor Department data.
But the pay of corporate executives grew even faster during that time. A chief executive last year was paid in one day what an average worker earned in almost a year, according to EPI figures.
As wages grew during the boom, so did the hours at work, and America remains a workaholic nation. The average worker logged 1,877 hours in 2000 - more than any other rich, industrialized country, EPI said. The average middle-income, two-parent family works 660 more hours per year - 16½ more weeks - than in 1979.
"But now with the boom gone bust, American workers are heading back to an economy marred by slow wage growth and no job growth, with wage and income disparities widening once again," Mishel said.
Employers are under less pressure to keep improving wages and benefits to attract workers. Hourly wages are growing faster than inflation, but the acceleration has slowed to the lowest since the beginning of 1995. Even a college degree doesn't provide the recession protection it used to. That group has seen a 1.4 percent rise in unemployment, larger than in previous recessions.
"If we are in an economic recovery, it's a jobless recovery at present," said Carl Camden, president and chief operating officer of Kelly Services, the temporary employment firm. "Our two prime concerns about this recovery are its fragility and the lack of strong demand for staffing services."
Employment demand in health care and financial services has improved, however, he said. But economists don't expect hiring spurts until the economy shows more life, and the unemployment rate could continue to rise to as high as 6.5 percent by fall.
Some frustrated job seekers even have given up on their searches. "The labor force is not expanding," said Sung Won Sohn, economist at Wells Fargo & Co. "Many young people are going to graduate school, and people are retiring early."
Times may be rough right now, but analysts expect the job market eventually to improve. A shift is likely in the mix of available jobs and required skills.
About 23 million new jobs are expected in the next 10 years, the business-supported Employment Policy Foundation estimates. Management and related occupations will account for about 29 percent of the gains. Professional jobs will increase by 7.5 million, including 2.5 million new jobs in mathematics and computer science and 2.1 million new jobs in teaching.
"Other occupations, such as machine operators, precision production crafts and secretaries and clerks will most likely see a decrease," said Ed Potter, the foundation's president.