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Struggling to live on $275 a week in unemployment aid

SEMINOLE — Pick an emotion and 48-year-old Michelle Campbell will claim it: anger, frustration, fear, depression.

A divorced mother with sole responsibility for a son in high school, Campbell said she has bounced between unemployment and food stamp benefits for more than a year as she tries to find a job.

"I'm actually looking," said Campbell, who has worked in office management and customer service.

"But I've got to tell you, it has taken a mental toll on me."

Even by normal standards, joblessness is on the rise. The U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday that claims are coming in at well over 600,000 a week, with close to 5 million people receiving regular benefits.

Not counted in those record-shattering numbers are another 1.5 million, including Campbell, who have received extended benefits under federal laws enacted last year.

In Florida, 242,407 workers have sought extended benefits since July, according to the state Agency for Workforce Innovation.

The toll is as psychological as it is economic.

"People are used to paying their bills and eating and having fun with their families, and they can't do that any more," said Gloria Houston, center manager for Tampa Bay WorkForce in Brandon and Plant City.

"They say, 'Oh, oh, it's going to be a long time before I find a job,' and they're putting that in their head."

Jobless over a year

Campbell said her job history includes a small commercial real estate firm and a pest control company that merged with a competitor. Laid off in late 2007, she said she tried to become a skin care specialist. She went to school, but could not land a job.

She fights depression constantly.

"I go to the Seminole library to look for a job on Monster.com," she said. "People don't want you to come into their office. You have to spend two hours sending your resume, all via Internet. They don't want phone calls. It's really terrible. It's just terrible."

Subsisting on the maximum unemployment benefit of $275 a week, she said, "I just barely pay my bills." Last year she went to court for bouncing a check.

After Congress extended unemployment benefits she was able to remain in the program.

But, like the food stamp benefits that stopped abruptly when her unemployment kicked in, the payments are unreliable, she said.

She gets dropped calls and recordings when she tries to call state offices. A visit to the Largo food stamp office this week went badly, she said. A worker suggested she try a food pantry in New Port Richey or Holiday.

Dinner might be pancakes or ramen noodles when even hamburger is too expensive, and it's hard to buy books and school supplies for her son.

"I had to shut off Internet in my house, and because he's in high school, everything he does is on computer," she said. "He goes to the Seminole library and waits for a computer. He has to stand in line."

She worries about running out of medication for a thyroid condition. She wonders who will take care of her son if she gets sick. She wishes companies were more understanding.

"They make it impossible for you to get on your feet again," she said. "I've asked for extensions on the electric bill and they don't even want to hear it."

Benefits could rise

Statewide, Florida's unemployment rate was last clocked at 8.1 percent, making jobless Floridians eligible for two tiers of extended benefits that can last as long as 59 weeks.

Houston, in Brandon, said she has seen numerous recipients who, like Campbell, enter retraining programs but still cannot find work. She hears many people complain of depression. And she sees people making tough choices.

"People who have never done farm labor are out there applying to pack tomatoes, or work in the fields," she said.

State officials expect they will raise benefits as a result of the federal economic stimulus package, by $25 per week.

On the negative side of the ledger, the Federal Reserve Bank on Wednesday reduced its growth forecast for 2009 and increased its unemployment rate projections.

The new forecast predicts that unemployment will hit between 8.5 and 8.8 percent this year, up from the current level of 7.6 percent.

It frustrates Campbell that some people are more adept at getting government benefits. It annoys her that her parents think she is doing something wrong.

Mostly, she said, "I'm tired of being sad."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307.

Tips for filing an unemployment claim

• Apply on the Internet at floridajobs.org or call toll-free 1-800-204-2418. Filing via the Internet can be quicker.

• After qualifying for benefits, check in every two weeks to continue receiving payments, by computer or phone.

• Mondays and Tuesdays have the highest call volume. Try Wednesdays through Saturdays. Call early.

• Call center hours: 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

• When filing a claim, have this information handy: past employment, dates worked, name of employer and reason for leaving.

• If you don't have a computer, go to a library or WorkNet center. Find WorkNet sites at worknetpinellas.org/locations.php or call (727) 524-4344. WorkNet employees don't process unemployment insurance applications but can offer job placement assistance.

Struggling to live on $275 a week in unemployment aid 02/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2009 10:23am]

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