The United States is now facing levels of joblessness comparable to those of the Great Depression.

Labor Department data released this month shows in February, employers eliminated 651,000 jobs, the third month in a row that losses surpassed 600,000 – the first time that’s happened since the government began collecting data in 1939.

There are now 12.5 million jobless who make up the official 8.1 percent unemployment rate.

In addition, former full-time workers forced to work part-time now number 8.6 million, up 787,000 in the month from January to February.

What the AFL-CIO says is the “more comprehensive” picture on joblessness – one that includes those who want a job but have stopped searching, as well as those who are forced to work only part-time – is 15 percent.

And then there are the people not being counted by anyone – first-time job seekers who have never found a job. Economists estimate that upwards of 200,000 jobs need to be created each month just to absorb newly eligible entrants into the workforce. Inclusion of these people would push the real total to 25 percent, some economists say.

Jobs lost in February include: 104,000 in construction, 168,000 in manufacturing, 40,000 in retail and 180,000 in professional and business services, with 78,000 jobs lost at temporary-help agencies.

Labor Department figures show that more than 5 million are now collecting unemployment insurance and bankruptcy filings for individuals and companies surged 37 percent in February to more than 103,000.

Plus the jobless rates don’t hit evenly. In some communities, for example among African Americans, joblessness had climbed to 50 percent even before this recent crisis.

Labor and its allies are saying that nothing short of a total restructuring of the U.S. economy can solve the crisis.

The AFL-CIO issued a statement at its executive council meeting that strongly backed President Obama’s $776 billion stimulus package, calling it “a necessary first step in the battle to turn this economy around.”

The federation cautioned, however, that “turning our economy around will take time. The recovery package is but one component of a broader array of policies that must be enacted to restore our economic strength, create jobs and reclaim the American Dream.”

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said, at the March 5 meeting, “We must do much more to rebuild our roads, bridges, airports and air traffic control system, mass transit and rail networks, and ports; to expand broadband access to all Americans.” State governments have to be able to continue essential public services, he said, and to refurbish and build new schools.

“Investment in clean energy and modernizing our electrical grid and energy-delivery network are key to an economic revival.”

Labor is backing most of the Obama administration’s initiatives regarding the economy.

In addition, unions are backing the administration’s budget proposals, which set aside more than $600 billion for overhaul of the nation’s health care system, and the administration’s plan to assist people faced with home foreclosure.

Union leaders are showing no patience with the GOP, however, which, they say, offers no proposals or attacks proposals that would help fix the economy.

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told the World that this applies to “the clueless millionaire crowd, the top CEOs in America.”

The union leader said, “It was their greed, their ignorance, and their arrogance that drove our economy off the cliff.

“And what is their top legislative priority for the year 2009? It’s not the president’s budget. It’s not a jobs program. It’s not a health care program that would save workers and boost the economy. And it sure as hell isn’t any kind of plan that would put any kind of cap on CEO salaries. Instead, it’s an all out campaign to kill the Employee Free Choice Act.”

The labor movement and its allies, along with many economists, see passage of employee free choice as a key component of any economic recovery.