- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao touted the strength of the nation's work force yesterday, even as the economy falters and the jobless rate inches up.

"The state of the work force is strong, skilled and safe," she said in her first State of the Workforce address in advance of Labor Day Monday.

She warned, however, that more workers with high-level skills are needed.

"Today, in many cases, unemployment means a disconnect between the new jobs our economy is producing and the current skill levels of Americans in the work force," Mrs. Chao said. "The skills gap is too wide for too many Americans."

She said job safety is at a record high as the number of workplace fatalities drops. She also said more workers can look forward to a secure retirement because of 401(k) plans that allow them to transfer retirement benefits between jobs.

Company pension plans and lifetime careers with one employer have largely been replaced in recent years by 401(k) retirement funds and multiple employers.

However, she acknowledged challenges for the work force in the current economy.

"There are tremors on the economic landscape," she said. "Manufacturing is struggling. Dot-coms are scaling back. The sluggish economy needs a jump-start."

More than 370,000 workers lost their jobs in the second quarter, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. Hardest hit was manufacturing, with 38 percent of the layoffs.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce downplayed reports of more layoffs, saying they are a short-term trend. The chamber dismissed any forecasts of recession and predicts employment will rise soon. The unemployment rate in July was 4.5 percent, compared with 4.0 percent in July 2000.

"Things have still gotten better for the American worker," said Martin Regalia, the chamber's chief economist. Although the unemployment rate is slightly higher than a year ago, half a million new jobs have been created, he said.

"We are not now in a recession and I don't think we're going to go into a recession," he said.

The economy grew at a revised 0.2 annual rate in the second quarter, the Commerce Department reported yesterday, the slowest growth in eight years.

However, the AFL-CIO warned that although jobs might be available, employees often doubt employers will protect their rights or treat them fairly.

"They see the growing influence of corporations in their lives at every level," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "They feel the threat of renewed layoffs. They see CEO salaries growing in proportion to the number of layoffs they make, not the success their companies achieve."

A survey by the labor federation showed that 68 percent of employees want more protection of their workplace rights. It also showed that 63 percent of workers have "just some" or "not much" trust that their employers will treat them fairly.

Fifty-seven percent of workers said management has too much power, up 10 percent since 1996, the AFL-CIO survey said. It found that nearly one-fourth of women said they were sexually harassed on the job. It also reported widespread discrimination based on age or ethnic background.

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