Employers say white-collar job freezes are headed for a spring thaw

As the stock market and some economic indicators keep trending higher -- along with the unemployment rate -- experts are increasingly championing the "jobless recovery" scenario.

But there are some encouraging signs for white-collar workers. A survey of employers from human resources consultants Watson Wyatt says half the companies in its bimonthly poll -- about 200 large employers -- plan to roll back hiring and wage freezes they put in place as a response to the recession. Also, a third plan to roll back cuts in contributions to their 401(k) plans.
The survey found that of the 56 percent of employers who had frozen wages since the recession began, 54 percent plan to unfreeze them within the next six months; that's up from from 33 percent in August's survey and 17 percent in June. And 49 percent of companies that froze hiring expect a spring thaw: they said they plan to at least partially lift those freezes in the next six months, compared with 38 percent in August.

At least a portion of lost benefits will also come back. Among companies rolling back their 401(k) contributions, 70 percent will go back to their original level, while 13 percent will reset them to a lower level than before the recession. Another 17 percent of companies will base contributions on company profits.

But let's not read too much optimism into these numbers. While the employers are making recovery plans, one-fifth said they may have to do more layoffs in what's left of 2009 and even into 2010. So beware of those year-end pink slips.

And don't expect the holiday office party to come back yet; only 37 percent of companies will have one this year (ten percentage points less than last year) and 41 percent of those have cut the party budget.

"The general economic picture right now is definitely brighter than it was just a few months ago," said Laura Sejen, global director of strategic rewards consulting at Watson Wyatt, in a statement. "However, the recovery is uneven and most employers aren't fully convinced that the improvements they've seen are here to stay."

And another caveat: Watson Wyatt's survey concentrates on white-collar workers, so these results don't apply to manufacturing or blue-collar workers. Among manufacturing trades, the indicators are still weak-to-mixed. The same day this survey was released, we saw new home sales drop unexpectedly while durable goods orders rose.

So if you're an office worker, take heart: if you survive the next round of job cuts, things will be looking brighter next year. Maybe you'll even get a raise.
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