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Florida unemployment: Benefits running out for many

Rebecca Truluck was laid off on May 1, 2007, a day etched in her memory.

She had pulled a steady paycheck in vocation rehab and as a job counselor for 26 years. She never figured that two years later she would still be shipping resumes, fruitlessly waiting for callbacks, and fighting the depression and isolation that surface after weeks of job hunting morph into months — even years.

"For nine years, I helped people find work after they were injured on the job," said Truluck, a Tampa resident, "and I can't place myself."

As the 17-month-old recession becomes the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression, there's a club gaining thousands of reluctant members every month: Florida's long-term unemployed.

The National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers that researches unemployment data, estimates the current share of long-term unemployed is setting records. As of March, 24.2 percent of the jobless had been out of work for more than six months, surpassing the previous peak during a recession of 19.8 percent in November 1982.

Florida's unemployment rate in March stood at 9.7 percent or 893,000 jobless out of a statewide workforce of 9.2 million.

"Many of the unemployed we're seeing now would be considered long-term unemployed," said Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees the state's unemployment program.

"It's not a short-term situation if you don't have the skills for the job openings or there are fewer openings," she said.

There's no official definition of what constitutes long-term unemployment.

By one measure, the number of long-term jobless in the state has topped 350,000. That's how many have exhausted both regular state unemployment benefits (lasting about 26 weeks) and federal extended benefits (lasting up to 33 weeks) since the recession began.

Some of those will have found employment since exhausting the benefits or stopped looking for work altogether. For those who haven't, many of them will get a reprieve thanks to the Legislature's recent approval of a measure extending emergency benefits an additional 20 weeks.

But a reprieve is no fix for their monetary or emotional needs. Florida's maximum weekly benefit of $275 only replaces a fraction of lost wages for most and the anxiety of job hunting only builds.

Their permanent solution, finding a new job, is no easy task in an economic climate where the labor supply is up (as Florida's unemployment rate nears 10 percent) and labor demand down (as measured by a lower level of online ads in Florida so far this year).

Alan Stevenson of Palm Harbor, who has been scouring for a new job a full year, approaches the hunt as a full-time job.

He doesn't believe he'll find what he's looking for in a random online ad. Rather he is networking heavily, staying involved in the community and learning new skills.

Stevenson participates in four weekly networking groups, including the Tampa Bay Executive Forum and the Transitioning Executive Network offered through WorkNet Pinellas. He's active with his church, and he volunteers as a middle-school teacher through Junior Achievement.

"It's another way to keep my skills sharp and give back to the community," he said.

As another way to update his skills, he's pursuing a certificate in computer support at St. Petersburg College and has already racked up nine credit hours.

This is alien territory for Stevenson, who turns 60 in August. An information technology executive with experience at IBM, AT&T and Certegy, he had always found a new job within a couple of months at most — until now.

He most recently worked as a manager in application development for WellCare Health Plans. Sensing it was "the wrong job," Stevenson left WellCare in May 2008 confident he would again find something else.

"Both my wife and I, we're not depressed," he said, "and I think our faith has a lot to do with it. We know we'll get through ... this tribulation we're dealing with."

Slow improvement

Rust, the state economist, said some evidence indicates the situation is very gradually getting better. For instance, the number of online job openings advertised in the Tampa Bay area has inched up the past few months.

Labor demand may still be down by over a third in many high-paying professions such as business and financial, computer and mathematical and engineering. But some industries, notably health care, are still hiring, she points out.

Until the economy climbs back, Rust and others encourage jobseekers to look for opportunities to expand their training, explore a new field or go back to school.

Chris Markham is heeding the advice. As his job search stretches beyond a year, Markham is working on an MBA in finance he hopes to finish by this fall. "I hope (the degree) will come in handy once the economy turns around next year," he said.

What do the long-term unemployed look like? According to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project, about 40 percent are between 25 and 45; 58 percent are men; and about a fourth are African-American.

Compared to the tough job market of 1992, the demographics of the long-term unemployed has changed. They're more likely to be women (43 percent, up from 36 percent in 1992); more likely to be older than 46 (38 percent, up from 31 percent). And apparently the better-educated are taking it more on the chin than before. Roughly 41 percent of the long-term jobless have some college education or more compared to 35 percent in 1992.

Also, though it's not measured by the survey, no doubt many are like Rebecca Truluck, willing to take practically any job to weave back into the job market.

Truluck, who received her master's from USF, has no illusions of returning to the days when she used to get paid as much as $80,000 a year. "I can't get a job now paying minimum wage. I can't even get a job at Starbucks," she said. "They tell me I'm overqualified. They're afraid if they train me, I'll be gone."

Truluck, who turned 50 this month, and her husband, George, a schoolteacher in St. Petersburg, have been able to get by in part because their house is paid off and they have no car debt.

"It's not so much for the money," she said. "I need something to do where I can be useful."

She misses interacting with other people. "Part of what this has done is completely isolate me," she added. "It takes away your self-esteem; your sense of identity. ... You need to have a reason to get up in the morning, to have some place to go."

Florida unemployment: Benefits running out for many 05/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 5:25pm]
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