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3,000 Jobs; 500,000 Seekers

A tsunami of applicants at the ports here doesn't bode well for Bush.

August 21, 2004

Bush administration spin doctors won't be able to paint a happy face on the fact that an effort to fill 3,000 new jobs at the increasingly busy ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach led to a spectacular flood of applications, with half a million underemployed people seeking to fill the slots. This California gold rush -- applications were mailed from across the country -- is hard evidence of an unusually tough job market that continues to disappoint nearly three years into an economic recovery.

The port jobs, being filled after a lottery in which applicants' postcards were chosen from a giant bin, are part time and offer no benefits. Some could evaporate after crews process the wave of imported goods heading for store shelves in time for the holiday shopping season. Yet, as a labor union official put it, Thursday's job lottery clicked with Americans because "people are hungry for a decent job."

On that score, these jobs deliver. Pay ranges from $20.66 to $28 an hour, well above the average of $8.38 per hour that entry-level workers earn in Los Angeles County. And those whose names were drawn also fall in line for possible full-time employment and membership in the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union, with a pension and healthcare coverage. Contrast that promise with the frustrating reality facing many Americans who are struggling to make ends meet. California employers cut 17,300 jobs in July; nationwide, just 32,000 jobs were created, well below the 250,000 most economists had predicted. And many of the jobs being created look a lot worse than the jobs that have been eliminated.

Temporary workers remain in hot demand because employers question the economy's strength. Rising healthcare costs make hiring new workers prohibitively expensive for many businesses, while a growing outsourcing trend means some American companies are doing their hiring overseas. Even though corporate earnings have remained relatively strong throughout the recovery, the fruits of the economic rebound have been slow to trickle down to employees in the form of fatter paychecks. Employers don't need to dangle additional money to keep employees because so many Americans are looking for jobs.

Give President Bush credit for staying on message. The White House takes every opportunity to remind voters that this economic rebound comes courtesy of the administration's ill-advised and poorly timed tax cuts. No matter that the Congressional Budget Office recently confirmed that the tax cuts were skewed to benefit the richest Americans rather than middle-class taxpayers. The president is still calling on Congress to extend the cuts. So it's little surprise that a recent survey conducted by a financial services firm found upscale Americans more optimistic than at any time in the last two years.

The president undoubtedly will use the upcoming Republican convention to remind voters that the economy has "turned the corner." But photographs of port officials wading through half a million job applications are a stark reminder that, for many Americans, it's the wrong corner.

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