New York born and bred Leticia Flores moved here last year for the same reason so many come to Florida: a fresh start in a warmer world.
Thanks to the recession, she had lost her job as an administrator in a Manhattan law firm. New York State unemployment benefits are generous, but rent, even in Brooklyn, is stratospheric. Besides, Leticia's sister was already near Tampa. The message was inviting: Come on down, the water's fine.
As part of the "new" Leticia, she got retrained in medical billing, a field she was assured all but guaranteed her a Florida job. She became an "extern" at one area medical billing business which, Leticia learned, preferred to use a stream of low-cost externs rather than offer them jobs.
At first, Leticia lived with her sister in Riverview. She soon discovered nearby public transit was nowhere to be found. Being from the Big Apple, Leticia at 49 years old had never learned to drive. Not that it matters. She can't afford a car without a job.
She moved closer to downtown Tampa, getting an apartment near Raymond James Stadium on Dale Mabry. Even then, she found, getting to job interviews using Tampa's bus system was laborious — nothing like New York's.
"I'd get out the bus map, and it was a jigsaw puzzle with the bus going all over the place," she says. Connector buses do not wait if the first bus is late, she complains, and many Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) bus stops offer no cover from the sun or rain.
"Our HART line, I like them but, God, I wish they came more often," Leticia says.
In New York, Leticia earned $69,997. When that job ended, her weekly unemployment check of $430 was generous.
In Florida, Leticia's unemployment benefits are puny — half of what she got in New York. Last week, those Florida benefits expired. She's told her landlord that if she can't land a job soon, she may have to give up the apartment and head back to chilly New York.
Lately, it's an all too familiar tale. Florida's losing more disenchanted people.
Now Leticia's seeking interviews at law firms, her first love. She's learned not to volunteer her old wage, which produced wild-eyed wonder in interviewers. It's not like she's asking for the same pay.
"I miss working," she says, the TV on in the background.
She's hopeful of her next interview at a legal aid society.
Leticia reads the newspapers. She watches the news. She shakes her head at Florida's political leadership for its unwillingness to help more people. She has friends in tougher shape over for meals when she can. She wrote Sen. Mel Martinez before he resigned urging him to give bus riders places with shade while they wait and wait.
"It's like Florida's whole system of thinking is ancient," she says. "Who is out there to reorganize Florida? It should be illegal what's being done to the residents of Florida with low pay and unemployment."
She says Florida's current politicians can't do the job.
"Florida is no longer just a mere vacation spot," she says. "People from all walks of life have come to live here."
Why, she asks, is Florida so unresponsive? "We're in a recession that Florida's politicians don't know how to dig themselves out of or don't even care to try."
Sometimes it takes a newcomer with fresh eyes and real brass to tell it like it is.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]