Celebrating Labor Day? What’s to celebrate?

This Labor Day will be no picnic for millions of Americans who are unemployed or unable to find full-time work to cover the bills.

The recession officially ended almost two years ago, and while recent data show sluggish yet certain improvements in the economy, they have not trickled down to the job market.

More than 9 million people are unemployed, 700,000 more than a year ago.

Layoffs have eased somewhat, but there is little else in the economy to cheer workers and job seekers on this holiday that honors them.

Vicky Kitzman, 34, was laid off in June 2002 from her $21.50-an-hour job as a computer engineer at WorldCom.

She currently is working at a Colorado Springs amusement park to make ends meet.

Kitzman is paid $7 an hour as a temporary, seasonal retail supervisor with no benefits.

The job ends Dec. 24, when the park closes for the winter.

The pay “covers nothing, really,” she said. “All it’s doing is keeping me from digging deeper into my savings account.”

Her retired parents are helping pay her mortgage. At job interviews, she is told she is either overqualified or unqualified.

“I haven’t found a job in over a year, how can I be overqualified?” said Kitzman, who has associates’ degrees in commercial art and computer programming and is taking classes at night to complete her bachelor’s in computer program management.

Twenty months after the recession ended, the economy has not created substantial numbers of new jobs, making this the weakest recovery since World War II. The previous record was 13 months in 1992, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think tank.

In terms of employment growth, the recovery is the worst since the Great Depression, EPI said.

Employment has fallen by 1 million since the recovery began. Since the recession began in March 2001, about 2.7 million jobs have been lost.

Just this year, 6.4 million new workers have qualified for unemployment insurance.

“People have a right to feel insecure about employment right now and nervous about their near-term prospects,” said Jared Bernstein, EPI’s senior economist. “This is a different Labor Day compared to previous years. There’s fewer jobs. Wages are growing more slowly.”

The weak economy is the issue the White House considers to be President Bush’s greatest vulnerability.

Mindful of the fate of Bush’s father, former President George Bush, workers dissatisfied with their employment and earnings prospects are not the voters that Republicans want streaming to the polls in November 2004.

Analysts say the economy will continue to improve, with hiring picking up in coming months. Hiring in health care has remained strong, and new openings also are expected in business and social services.

Social services, particularly child care and residential care, also should create new jobs. But manufacturing, which has been hardest hit in the recession, will continue to decline, analysts said.

So the question remains: Is there enough time for a turnaround in the jobs market to satisfy voters before the election?

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney does not think so.

“I travel this country constantly,” he said. “People are very dissatisfied with the way this country is going. They want jobs and the ability to make a bread-and-butter living. They want affordable health care, and they want their basic freedoms honored on the job.”

Organized labor will unleash its largest effort ever, spending more than $40 million to educate and mobilize union members to oppose Bush in 2004.

In his weekly radio address yesterday, President Bush said the $13 billion in tax relief approved by his administration “means that America’s workers can save, invest and make purchases they have been putting off.”

Bush said rising consumer spending and home refinancing are already leading to a reviving economy.

“Now we must build on this progress and make sure that the economy creates enough new jobs for American workers,” Bush said. “Next week I will travel to Ohio, Missouri, and Indiana to talk about my agenda for job creation across America.”

He is expected to address improved energy reliability, better trade agreements, and limits on costly litigation.

David Wyss, chief economist with Standard and Poor’s DRI, thinks the 6.4 percent jobless rate of June probably will mark its peak, with small declines in coming months. “This was not much of a recession,” he said, noting that almost every postwar recession has seen unemployment rates above 7 percent. “The bad thing is, it’s not much of a recovery either,” Wyss said.