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Jobless vilified as economy improves

ORLANDO — These are hard times for the unemployed. • There are few jobs, competition is fierce and, now, there is a rising sense that if you don't have job, you must be lazy, incompetent or both. • "I think quite a few are content to sit back and take a handout," said Tom Johnson, a plumbing-parts salesman from Orlando. "I'm sure they could find something if they wanted to." • A similar sentiment is drifting through legislative bodies. Federal lawmakers are increasingly resistant to extending unemployment benefits, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott's economic-transition team recently suggested the jobless aren't looking hard enough.

In January, Florida state Sen. Nancy Detert, a Republican, instructed state unemployment officials to more closely scrutinize those applying for benefits.

"We'd like your department," she said, "to, you know, get rid of slackers and malingerers."

The comments sting many unemployed Floridians, who resent the notion that they are sitting at home collecting checks and watching soap operas. They say their days are filled with phone calls, job searches, resume work and anxiety.

Critics who portray them as indolent and unwilling to work, they say, don't understand how weak the labor market is.

"I go to all the job (web)sites every day; I drop off resumes in person, knowing they probably won't get past the front desk," said Denise Scala, a 50-year-old office manager laid off about nine months ago. "I've looked constantly and just haven't found anything."

Scala was making about $48,000 a year when she was let go from the real estate firm where she worked. Since then, she has told employers she is willing to work for less but is invariably turned away as "overqualified."

The label plagues many workers in the middle of their careers.

"To me, it's irrelevant," Scala said. "I just want to work."

Scala's mother, Joan, has sharper words for those questioning her daughter's work ethic.

"They have some nerve," she said.

Estimates vary, but nationally, unemployed workers now outnumber open jobs by about 4-to-1 or 5-to-1.

Arthur Rosenberg, an attorney and advocate for the unemployed, said he is concerned a "blame the victim" mentality is taking shape as the economy slowly improves. People who weren't laid off who read or hear that the worst is over wonder why anyone needs a year or 18 months to find work.

Certainly there are people abusing the system, but most unemployed, said Rosenberg, are desperate for a job. The layoffs were so deep, he said, that they went well beyond marginal workers, cutting loose solid performers who never had trouble finding work in the past.

"It's not that people aren't doing what they're supposed to do," said Rosenberg, of Florida Legal Services. "The problem is there just aren't many jobs right now."

He and others also point out that unemployment is not welfare; it's insurance. Eligibility is determined by work history, and those who haven't worked aren't entitled to it.

"The disaster has happened," he said, "and now these people need to collect."

But businesses and some officials are asking: "For how long?"

The jobless can collect benefits for a maximum of 99 weeks — not all are entitled to that — and already the state has borrowed $2 billion from the federal government to pay benefits. This year, Florida faces a $64 million interest payment that would be covered by raising the tax rate that employers pay to fund the system.

The minimum rate would jump from about $25 to $72 per employee. Businesses were looking at a similar rate increase last year, but they persuaded the Legislature to delay it. This year, they are lobbying for tighter eligibility requirements, tougher enforcement and a fundamental change in how benefits are viewed.

State law now requires that employees get the benefit of the doubt when a company challenges their right to receive unemployment. Eligibility is to be "liberally construed" in favor of the worker.

But Florida's business lobbies want to change "liberally construed" to "neutrally construed," saying the current system puts them at a disadvantage.

The unemployed and those who work with them claim the proposal is an attempt by businesses and some legislators to save money by making it harder to get benefits. Each new requirement, they argue, is another barrier to clear.

The message behind the push — that lazy workers are gaming the system — frustrates people such as Scala and Phyllis McCallister, an Orange County resident who has watched her husband and grandson struggle to find work in the wake of the Great Recession.

He husband, she said, has been hitting all the local hotels, looking for a job in operations or maintenance.

So far, he has had no luck.

"The idea that people aren't trying just isn't true," McCallister said. Critics, she said, need to "rethink what (they say) and not be so quick to judge."

Jobless vilified as economy improves 02/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 5, 2011 3:31am]
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