By Christopher S. Rugaber -- AP Economics Writer

WASHINGTON — With nearly 14 million Americans unemployed, a growing number of people are competing for a dwindling number of job openings, allowing some employers to drive down pay and benefits for new hires.

And the latest government figures show competition for jobs intensified in the first few months of 2009.
Employers are laying off workers and taking other steps to cut costs as they grapple with the recession, the longest since the Great Depression. Some companies also are reducing the pay and benefits for new employees, according to a new survey released by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Nearly 15 percent of service-sector companies reduced pay and benefits for new hires in April compared with March, the survey found. Only 2 percent increased such compensation. The rest made no change in new-employee pay or didn't hire at all.

Until this spring, far more service-industry employers — such as in retail, hotel and financial services industries — had boosted rather than reduced pay for new workers, the group said. About 75 percent of Americans work in services.

Jennifer Schramm, manager of workplace trends and forecasting for the society, said companies have concluded that layoffs and other cost-cutting measures haven't gone far enough.

Employers are having an easier time offering lower pay as more unemployed workers chase fewer jobs. The number of job openings nationwide fell to 2.7 million in March, down from 3 million in February and 4 million a year ago, the Labor Department reported Tuesday. It's the lowest number in the eight years the department has tracked job openings.

It means roughly five workers are competing, on average, for each opening, compared with less than two for each job about a year ago.

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