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Layoffs becoming rarer; hiring on hold

WASHINGTON - The U.S. labor force has been split into two groups: the relieved and the desperate.

If you have a job, you can exhale; you're less likely to lose it than at any point in at least 14 years.

If you're unemployed? Good luck. Finding a job remains a struggle 20 months after the recession technically ended. Employers won't likely step up hiring until they feel more confident about the economy.

A result is that people who are unemployed are staying so for longer periods. Of the 13.9 million Americans the government says were unemployed in January, about 1.8 million had been without work for at least 99 weeks - essentially two years. That's nearly double the number in January 2010.

Yet, the deep job cuts of the recession have long since ended. In January, companies announced plans to trim fewer than 39,000 jobs, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That was 46 percent fewer than a year earlier. More strikingly, it was the fewest number of planned layoffs in January since Challenger began keeping track in 1993. For all of 2010, planned layoffs hit a 13-year low.

A fading fear of layoffs is likely helping the economy: It's encouraging consumers who have jobs to spend more.

"The fact you know that the paycheck is going to be coming in now and for the foreseeable future gives you permission to do some extra spending," says John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger.

Retailers, in particular, have stopped shedding workers. After the best holiday shopping season in four years, stores cut fewer than 5,800 jobs last month, far fewer than the nearly 54,000 in January 2009 at the depths of the recession.

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