In a depressing end to one of the most devastating years for U.S. workers since 1945, the nation's economy shed 524,000 jobs in December as the unemployment rate rose to a staggering 7.2 percent, the Labor Department reported yesterday.

More than 11.1 million Americans are now unemployed and an additional 8 million are working part-time because they have no choice. All together, there are 21 million Americans - 13.5 percent of the labor force - unemployed or underemployed.

The number of people out of work for more than six months has doubled in 2008, to 2.6 million.

The job cuts came in nearly every category - with losses so large that the good news became categories in which results were flat, and the banner headlines went to relatively small job sectors, such as mining, which added 200 jobs.

"Right now the numbers are grim," said Bruce Rader, a finance professor at Temple University.

Locally, the numbers include a thousand local autoworkers who tightened the last bolts on the last Dodge Durangos built at Chrysler's now shuttered factory in Newark, Del.

"It's kind of surreal," autoworker John Cobb, 46, of Middletown, said after walking away from the plant Dec. 19, his last day on the job after 23 years.

Nationally, manufacturing jobs declined by 149,000.

December's numbers also include 15 real estate lawyers, including partners, from WolfBlock L.L.P., a Center City law firm. Also gone are nearly 20 scientific researchers from the Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia.

For all of 2008, the economy lost a net total of 2.6 million jobs, with November's decline of 533,000 revised upward to 584,000. It was the first time payrolls had fallen for a full year since 2002.

The next few months don't look any better. United Steelworkers official Rob Witherall spent Thursday negotiating with the owners of Gamesa, the Spanish wind-electricity equipment maker in Fairless Hills, on severance packages for 180 factory workers who will be laid off either this month or early in February.

Delaware County's Crozer-Keystone Health System plans to cut 400 positions - and that's in the health sector, the only job category that added a significant number of positions in December. About 37,500 jobs were created in health care and social assistance in December, including nearly 12,000 in hospitals nationwide.

And Cigna Corp., the Philadelphia-based insurance company, said it would cut 1,100 of its workers, including some here.

While there had been monthly job declines since the start of 2008, the pace accelerated in the fourth quarter.

That's because companies that had worried about potential labor shortages as baby boomers retired held off as long as possible before shedding employees, said James Janesky, managing director at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. Inc., a Baltimore-based investment company.

By the fourth quarter, business had degenerated so much that companies were forced to let lots of workers go quickly, said Janesky, who researches staffing and business-service companies from his offices in Cherry Hill.

President-elect Barack Obama called the unemployment report "a stark reminder of how urgently action is needed" to revive the nation's staggering economy.

It's "a crisis situation," said Hilda Solis, Obama's pick for labor secretary.

"It's very bad news," said Robert Dye, senior economist for PNC's Financial Services Network in Pittsburgh. "It's indicative of a market in free fall through the fourth quarter.

"We are seeing massive job cuts by many companies who are in survival mood," he said. "These are the dark days of the recession."

Dye sees cause for optimism in the second half of 2009. Spending from the government stimulus program should kick in and the Federal Reserve's interest-rate cuts will help. With credit loosening, companies may be willing to spend. Mortgage rates are also low, he said, which means "housing affordability is very high now. I think more buyers will come back into the market when confidence returns."

Falling gas and oil prices mean consumers have more money to spend. "That in itself is a big fiscal-stimulus package," he said.

Joe Figlio, 43, of Conshohocken, could use a little bit of stimulus. Laid off Oct. 28 from his job as a pharmaceutical manufacturing manager, he had hoped to go full-time into his sideline of buying, rehabbing and renting homes.

But he couldn't get a loan - not without a job, despite equity in a handful of houses in the Conshohocken area.

Last week, he had his first interview. "I have another one next week," he said.

2008, by Sector

Number of U.S. jobs gained or lost last year.

Sector Change

Education/

health +536,000

Government +181,000

Financial -148,000

Leisure/

hospitality -167,000

Retail -522,000

Construction -632,000

Professional/business

services -681,000

Trade/utilities/

transportation -725,000

Manufacturing -791,000

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Jobs Overview

A comparison of December 2008 labor-market data with December 2007.

Workers unemployed 27 weeks or more: 2.6 million, up 1.3 million from

a year ago.

Employees working part-time because of the bad economy: 8.0 million, up 3.4 million.

Average workweek: 33.3 hours, down

half an hour.

Number unemployed: 11.1 million,

up 2.6 million.

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics