WASHINGTON — Apparel retailers cut 6,500 jobs in March, reversing most of the employment gains reported the previous month, while apparel and textile manufacturers continued their long decline and slashed a combined 9,300 positions.

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Specialty apparel stores cut 6,200 jobs in March to employ 1.44 million. Department stores eliminated 300 jobs in March to employ 1.53 million, the U.S. Labor Department said Friday. In February, apparel retailers expanded payrolls by a combined 9,400 positions.

U.S. payrolls fell by 663,000 jobs in March. The unemployment rate rose to 8.5 percent from 8.1 percent the previous month. In all, the U.S. economy has shed 5.1 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, with almost two-thirds of those losses coming in the last five months, the Labor Department said. Employment fell by 651,000 in February. January employment losses were revised significantly higher to 741,000 from initial estimates of 598,000, making it the worst month in decades.

General merchandise stores, which include department stores, added 13,800 positions in March, to employ 3.06 million.

Textile mills, which manufacture apparel fabric, cut 2,000 positions to employ 128,200. Textile product mills, which produce home furnishing and industrial fabric, eliminated 4,900 jobs to employ 129,400. Apparel manufacturers cut 2,400 jobs to employ 174,800.

The March decline in payroll levels was steep but roughly in line with expectations, said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight.

“For the second month in a row, the headline employment decline didn’t meet the worst fears, but this is still a very weak report,” Gault said. “We can’t find green shoots of recovery in this report, though it would not be the first place we’d expect to see them. The jobs market will follow rather than lead.”

The losses in March were not surprising, said Richard Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research Corp. Most economists predict that the current steep declines in employment will continue for several months, he said.

“As great and encouraging as some of the recent economic data has been, there is little to no reason for a business to flick on the hiring switches,” Yamarone said.

Positive economic indicators have been seen in some arenas, but employment, considered the chief economic indicator, has yet to show signs of recovery. Recent reports have shown small improvements in retail sales, excluding automobiles; new and existing home sales; housing starts, and factory orders, Yamarone said, but employment is clearly not a part of the group.

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