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Jobs news gets worse

Gerard Childress hunched over a computer in the WorkNet Pinellas office in downtown St. Petersburg, up on his screen.

Childress, a 46-year-old electrician and construction worker, got laid off four months ago. He comes to WorkNet two or three days a week, scrounging for a job.

"It's very frustrating," he said. "I've never gone this long without working. I just have to keep trying and not give up. But sometimes, that's hard to do."

What makes his task tougher: There are fewer jobs out there. Employers slashed 80,000 jobs in March, the biggest loss in five years, according to estimates released Friday by the Labor Department. Employers also cut far more jobs in January and February than originally estimated.

At the same time, the national unemployment rate rose to 5.1 percent nationally from 4.8 percent, the Labor Department reported.

The news bolstered recession fears, as the job market showed signs of catching the same cold that has plagued the housing, credit and financial sectors. The latest numbers deepened the pall of Tampa Bay's economy, where the ranks of the unemployed have been expanding faster than almost anywhere else in the nation.

"You've got a lot of people out there who are hurting," said Scott Brown, an economist with Raymond James. "Wages are lower, people can't find jobs. Home values are dropping, and credit is tightening so workers can't necessarily borrow against their house to get through a rough patch."

The numbers released Friday don't break out the picture for Florida. But the February numbers are gloomy enough for the region, with unemployment ticking up a full percentage point or more since last year. Although the overall unemployment rate for Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater has remained below the national average, the ranks of the unemployed have been growing at the third-fastest clip among the country's major metro areas.

Among the latest to cut jobs: GE Healthcare Information Technologies in Tampa notified the state this week that it was laying off 72 workers that helped design patient monitoring systems used in hospitals. Mercury Insurance Group in Clearwater said it is laying off 58 workers in its call center and billing departments.

In the meantime, few new jobs are being created, Brown said. "The problem here is a lack of new hiring, rather than job losses."

So will April indeed be the cruelest month, and usher in even worse news? Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress that he expects the economy to continue to weaken in the first half of this year.

Many in the stock market expect a tough first half, followed by a recovery in the second half of the year, Brown said. "That's sort of the best-case scenario now."

David Hamilton of the Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership said many of the region's laid-off workers have been struggling to find a new job, and some have just stopped looking. Lately, Hamilton has seen a lot of truckers unable to find local hauls now that less concrete and drywall is being moved around.

Hamilton has found work for the unemployed since 1996. He wished he could tell workers when the downturn would end.

"I'm about the most optimistic person I know, and I've become pessimistic," Hamilton said.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at or (813) 225-3117. Tom Zucco can be reached at or (727) 893-8247. Times wires contributed to this report.

Unemployment rate by County:

County Feb. 2007 Feb. 2008

Hernando 5 percent 6.6 percent

Hillsborough 3.5 percent 4.5 percent

Pasco 4.4 percent 5.6 percent

Pinellas 3.4 percent 4.5 percent

Source: Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation

Unemployment rate by county

County Feb. 2007 Feb. 2008

Hernando 5 percent 6.6 percent

Hillsborough 3.5 percent4.5 percent

Pasco 4.4 percent 5.6 percent

Pinellas 3.4 percent 4.5 percent

Source: Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation

Jobs news gets worse 04/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 12:13pm]
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