The survey of about 300 printers of all sizes from across the US found that the percentage of printers reporting a profit fell from nearly 79% in the previous quarter to only 50.8% for the first three months of 2013.
"The biggest concern from me is the drop in the number of companies reporting profits," Semper CEO Dave Regan told PrintWeek as the new survey results were released. "I've never seen anything like it like that, it was a big jump. Even in '07 and '08 it wasn't quite as bad."
The good news is more than one in four of the responding companies said revenues for Q1 were up on the last three months of 2012 and that almost 47% expect sales in the current quarter to be better than the early part of the year.
Regan noted that the federal government budget sequester, cutting government spending by 2% across the board and an increase in federal payroll tax, had cast some uncertainty over both the overall US economy and the commercial printing industry.
Regan dismissed the notion that commercial printers were pouring money back into equipment, noting: "We speak to equipment manufacturers all the time and we're not seeing that."
Semper is the leading placement for skilled help in the graphics and printings industries and he said he had seen an uptick in demand for experienced press, digital pre-press and digital press workers.
But he added many commercial printers were reluctant to add new staff because of uncertainty over the implications of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a Obamacare), which takes effect next year.
Regan said some commercial printers with around 50 employees were opting for temporary workers because under the new healthcare rules, companies with under 50 employees will have the government subsidize some of the costs, but for companies with over 50 employees they don't.
"There's just a lot of uncertainty over the new healthcare laws," Regan said, adding that new healthcare rules impacting commercial printers are being put out on an almost daily basis.