As the economic crisis worsens, 6.5 million Americans are collecting unemployment insurance, the U.S. Labor Department reported yesterday.

The number of newly jobless workers filing initial claims last week rose to 626,000, the highest since October 1982, when the economy was in a deep recession.

Yesterday's report comes as the nation braces for today's bad employment news from the Labor Department.

The Labor Department is expected to announce that the economy shed more than a half million jobs in January, with the unemployment rate reaching 7.4 percent.

"We're going to get a lousy jobs report," said economist Lawrence Chimerine, president of Radnor International Consulting in Bala Cynwyd.

The layoffs "are adding a huge round of pressure to an economy that is already in falling mode," he said. "It's an absolute disaster."

No one expects relief soon.

Those who do get laid off will have a tough time finding jobs. Towers Perrin, a large benefits-consultancy group based in Connecticut, found that nearly 75 percent of those 513 companies surveyed in January are either considering a hiring freeze or already have instituted one.

Nearly 75 percent of human resources professionals surveyed recently by the trade group Society for Human Resource Management expect deep cuts to continue through the first quarter.

Job-cut announcements continue unabated. Yesterday, cosmetics-maker Estee Lauder Cos. Inc., said it would cut 2,000 staffers over four years. On Monday, Macy's said it would eliminate 7,000 jobs.

In a news conference Wednesday by the Economic Policy Institute think tank in Washington, Chimerine said that President Obama should ask the nation's chief executive officers directly to delay job cuts for the sake of the economy.

Laid-off workers and those fearing layoffs are reluctant to spend money, worsening the recession, he said.

Chief executives "are under pressure from their institutional shareholders. If every CEO knew that they wouldn't be the only ones not doing layoffs," they might delay them, Chimerine said.

"That's why they need an appeal from the president to give them broad-based cover."

Chief executive Steven H. Korman agrees. Korman heads Korman Communities, a 500-employee real estate company in Plymouth Meeting. Korman ran an advertisement in The Inquirer yesterday urging executives to "keep your employees working."

"I own stock in many of these companies [that are laying off workers] and would prefer that the company make a smaller profit and the stock fall, in the short term, rather than affect the lives of our neighbors and their families as jobs are lost," his open-letter advertisement said.

"We are not just dealing with numbers and profits," the ad said, "but with real people."