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Growing number of underemployed people looking for work are not counted in state jobless statistics

Chris Markham listens to a presentation from Nikki Glasgo, an executive recruiter with WellCare Health Plans, during a Transitioning Executives Network meeting Friday in Largo. Carolann Mannix with Worknet Pinellas oversees the invitation-only networking and support group for executives.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Chris Markham listens to a presentation from Nikki Glasgo, an executive recruiter with WellCare Health Plans, during a Transitioning Executives Network meeting Friday in Largo. Carolann Mannix with Worknet Pinellas oversees the invitation-only networking and support group for executives.

Self-employed, small business adviser Genie Redd wasn't counted among the nearly 800,000 jobless statewide in the latest unemployment statistics.

Chris Markham, a business consultant scouring for work in Tarpon Springs, was left off the list as well. As was down-on-his-luck Realtor George Gonzalez of Madeira Beach, who hasn't been able to sell a single home so far this year.

They're the hidden faces of the underemployed — a catch-all term that includes discouraged workers who have stopped looking for work, those looking for work who may not qualify for unemployment benefits and those who can find only part-time or low-paying jobs at a fraction of what they used earn.

Florida's official unemployment rate is 8.1 percent; in the bay area, unemployment stands at 8.3 percent, the worst major metro area in the state. But economists say Florida's rate would be closer to 18 to 20 percent if you factored in the underemployed.

Wachovia economist Mark Vitner predicts underemployment will rise another 5 percentage points over the course of the year. That would translate to roughly one in four Floridians either unemployed or underemployed.

People like Gonzalez, who made just $5,000 selling homes in Florida's depressed real estate market last year. He used to make $25,000 to $30,000 annually during the good years. At 56, he says he's too young to retire and too old for employers to give him a shot. His best hope is for a real estate rebound.

"There are a lot of people like myself in this business and other businesses that are technically not unemployed … but they're making much less or not making anything at all, and they're not counted on the unemployment rolls," Gonzalez said "The situation is much, much worse than the numbers show."

The Labor Department estimates there are about 4.1 million "marginally attached" workers who are available to work but haven't actively searched in recent weeks. Another 7.8 million are working part time for economic reasons, up a resounding 3.1 million from a year ago. That category covers people who would like to work full time, but are working part time either because their hours had been cut back or they were unable to find full-time jobs.

Add the marginally attached workers and part-timers working for economic reasons into the mix, and the national unemployment rate would be 13.9 percent.

But even that figure short-changes underemployment. For one, it doesn't count people working for less money than they would earn in jobs in their field of education, such as an MBA grad working as a taxi driver.

Heidi Shierholz, labor economist with the Economic Policy Institute, said the category for those who cannot get a job that matches their skill and experience "is definitely a definition of underemployment that's commonly understood, but we don't have a measure of it.

"By all counts, the engineer working at a Safeway (grocery store) is having a dramatic adverse labor market outcome, and we don't have a measure of that," Shierholz said.

Adding to the murky numbers: the labor pool itself, as measured by the Labor Department, has shrunk. In 2001, the "labor force participation rate" was 67.2 percent of the population. As of January, the Labor Department estimated 65.5 percent of the population was part of the labor force. Shierholz said it's unclear how many of the "missing 4 million" are actively seeking jobs. Some may have voluntarily left the labor pool during a healthy economy and are now trying hard to find a job.

If even a fraction of those are still looking for work, they're not being measured.

"If it had stayed at 67.2 (percent), there would be an additional 4 million workers in the labor force" and those newly counted jobless would push the national unemployment rate to 10 percent, Shierholz said.

Chris Markham considers himself swimming in that forgotten part of the labor pool.

For 12 years, Markham worked at the home shopping pioneer HSN, leaving in 2005 to take care of his ailing mother. He struck out on his own with a freelance consulting business and was doing all right. In the fall, he was talking to a New York group about a small business model for home shopping in Japan.

"That never panned out," Markham said, blaming the collapse of the financial services market.

Since then, Markham said, he's been working on his MBA, meeting regularly with his networking group in Largo and relying on a combination of savings and his wife's salary as a schoolteacher to pay the bills.

Across the bay in Tampa, massage therapist Laurel Graham is in similar straits. Her client list, and income, is half what it was a year ago, but expenses continue to rise.

"I'm 56 years old," she said. "It's not like I could start a new career."

Many hurting, left out

Raymond James Financial economist Scott Brown said Florida is particularly vulnerable to the stresses of rising underemployment because so many people here already live paycheck to paycheck.

For those at or near retirement age, declining home prices and dwindling retirement portfolios add to the pressure to find work outside the home.

Genie Redd of St. Petersburg is feeling the squeeze. Both she and her husband, Jerry, are self-employed contractors whose business has dried up, and she fears their savings will follow.

"We have some savings," she said. "We were among those smart enough to put it away for a rainy day, and, honey, it's pouring. It's pouring."

At 64, Redd said she's never before been in a situation where she couldn't secure a job paying a reasonable amount. Until recently, she was using her wealth of business knowledge and QuickBooks experience to help small businesses straighten out their books.

Those business no longer have the revenue to pay an hourly consultant. Her husband, meanwhile, used to work in automotive machine shop equipment sales, a market she describes as "effectively dead."

Political efforts to help leave her feeling overlooked. Being self-employed, she won't get any new tax credit targeting payroll taxes. She and her husband have paid off the mortgage on their depreciated home, so no mortgage bailout helps her. And she can't tap into unemployment benefits, extended or not.

"There's a legion of us out there," Redd said. "We are among the millions who are not counted but would gladly be underemployed if someone would hire us."

One measure of the underemployed

Not included in the national unemployment rate of 7.6 percent, or 11.6 million jobless, is the government's estimate of underemployment. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated there are about 2.1 million people "marginally attached" to the labor force, up about 400,000 or 24 percent from a year ago. The marginal figure, which measures those who were available for work but had not looked for a job in the four weeks preceding the survey, includes:

• About 734,000 "discouraged workers" who aren't looking any more because they think no jobs are available. That's up about 270,000 from a year ago.

• About 1.4 million job seekers who hadn't searched for work in recent weeks because of issues like school attendance or family responsibilities.

• It doesn't include those working fewer hours or at a job paying under their skill, education and experience level.

Growing number of underemployed people looking for work are not counted in state jobless statistics 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 3:31am]
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