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Numbers add up to bad times

Unemployment is up. Confidence is down. Experts engage in a tinny discourse _ are we in a recession or is the nation's economy merely sluggish? All the while, Harvey Doers stands in line.

On cracked linoleum, under the harsh fluorescent lights of a state unemployment office, Doers fingers a crisp white form that will bring in the only money this week.

To the experts, he's just a number. One of thousands in the Tampa Bay area who don't have a job. But for him, losing his job as a pipefitter means it's "back to beans and cornbread." Time to worry about the bills again. Time to forget about that new truck.

Numbers and experts present a dry report about the nation's economy. The people standing in the unemployment lines around Tampa Bay tell the story that's easier to understand, but harder to accept.

The recession, a sluggish economy _ whatever you want to call it _ has come home.

The slowing economy has not just affected the vulnerable defense and construction industries, but once seemingly secure industries of finance and law. Accountants and government workers now stand next to construction workers. The line in the unemployment offices is a rainbow hue of white, pink and blue collars. Layoffs are announced with regularity.

In the last year, unemployment has increased significantly in the five counties that make up the greater Tampa Bay Area, according to the Florida Department of Labor. (see graphic)

Now, an estimated 61,000 workers _ Doers among them _ do not have a job.

The local unemployment figures mirror a state and national trend: More and more Americans are losing their jobs each month.

Dave Denslow, professor of economics at the University of Florida, has a job but still worries about job security for others and the health of the economy.

"I think we're heading toward a recession, if we aren't already in one," he said last week from his Gainesville office. He says a number of indicators point to an economic slowdown.

A recent survey by the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, which Denslow runs, shows confidence in the state's economy is at a six-year low. "An overwhelming 61 percent (of those polled) expect bad times for the economy," Denslow said. Half of those surveyed also reported that it was a bad time to buy major household goods, usually a key indicator of the economy's strength.

Currently, 5.7 percent of the nation's workers are without jobs. In Florida, 6 percent are jobless, according to September statistics.

Bankruptcies in Tampa are up 36 percent from last year, said Chuck Kilcoyne, chief deputy clerk of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tampa. Statewide, the figures show that 31,956 Florida businesses fell into such financial disarray they were forced to seek protection from their creditors. This year bankruptcies are up 26 percent statewide.

More families are seeking help from the state. Records from the state department of Health and Rehabilitative Services show a steady increase in the number of families needing food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Doers, 36, doesn't need the reports to convince him the economy is shaky. He and his friend, Charles Steinke, went to the union hall before they reported to the unemployment office.

"There was a call for four jobs and there were 50 or 60 guys sitting on the bench," said Steinke, 46.

Laura Shawhan of St. Petersburg knows, too. A college professor, secure with tenure, doesn't have to explain to her the defense industry is shrinking.

In late September, she lost her job as an automation specialist at Systems Research and Applications in Tampa. These days, she spends her time looking for a new job or waiting in the unemployment office in St. Petersburg, sitting on a hard plastic chair.

The other day, she brought a book to pass time: Guerrilla Tactics in the Job Market.

New faces in line

Unemployment statistics can seem like just numbers until you're one of them.

While Doers and Shawhan take their place in line, the realities of an idling economy hit some workers with a problem they thought they would never face.

Dawn Marsh, 24, stands in a Tampa unemployment line with her briefcase, looking confused. Two weeks ago, she lost her accounting job at a recreational vehicle dealership.

Maybe she had heard that the dwindling economy means that consumers are putting off big purchases. Maybe she even heard about Denslow's report.

When she was laid off, the news hit home. The bulky RVs, which chug large amounts of newly expensive gasoline, are not selling as briskly as they once did at Lazydays RV Center.

Fewer sales meant Marsh had to go, she said.

"I never expected this," she said, juggling her briefcase and unemployment forms. Nor did she plan for it. Car payments are due. Other bills loom. But she says she's glad she was the one laid off in her department.

"The other women in my department are older and have families to support," Marsh said. "At least I'm single."

Robert Greene's hands shake slightly as he fills out his forms. He was laid off at Paine Webber financial services in Tampa, where he said he worked with computers.

"You know how the economy is," he says, with a small laugh. "Every day it just keeps getting worse."

How will this affect him? He has one word.

"Badly."

Greene, 27, turns his full attention to the complicated form. Some parts have to be filled out in pen, parts in pencil. He shakes his head slightly.

Everybody else around him, busily working at the old scarred school desks, seem to know what they're doing. Nobody will answer a question.

The "R-word'

Robert Byington is an expert in economic indicators, but he won't say the "R-word."

Each month, he tallies unemployment figures for the state Department of Labor in the Region 4 office, which covers Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties. But Byington is unwilling to say the economy is in a recession.

"I'm not going to say the R-word," he said. "I'll leave that to the economists and the professors."

Technically, the economy is not in a recession, which by definition, means that the nation has seen two periods of negative growth of the gross national product.

UF Professor Denslow has a simpler definition.

"A recession is a drop in unemployment spread across a number of (industries), a decline in retail sales and a great uncertainty about the economic future," he said. "I'd say we're in one."

In late September, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress that the economy was sluggish. And he added that economists who predict a recession are not overreacting.

Mark Vitner, an economist with Barnett Bank Inc. in Jacksonville, said the nation faces a recession, but he believes Florida will face only a slowdown in the economy.

"There's a lot to be concerned about, but no reason to be overly worried," Vitner said.

Both men said the slowdown seems to be most affecting workers in the defense, construction and finance industries. While statewide figures bear that out, according to the Department of Labor, Tampa Bay seems to be bucking the trend.

Unemployment claims from finance, real estate and insurance actually declined in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties compared to claims filed this time a year ago, records show.

In Hillsborough, claims from construction workers went down 14 percent. Meanwhile, in Orange County construction claims went up a whopping 95 percent.

Overall, unemployment claims went up statewide 28 percent over last year.

Ripples in Tampa Bay

Harvey Doers adjusts his baseball cap, the one that says "Central Maintenance and Welding," and talks about the future.

"No more fishing and hunting," he says finally.

They are his favorite hobbies, but with gasoline prices leaping upward, he can't afford to fill his truck for jaunts into the woods. He says he'll only drive to the unemployment office or to seek work.

When he worked, Doers made a healthy $18 an hour. Without overtime, he said, he took home more than $600 per week. Now, the most money he'll get from the unemployment office is $225, the most the state allocates. His wife, whom he said was a warehouse worker at Pullman-Holt Corp. in Tampa, was recently laid off, too.

He doesn't know it, but Doers just caused a tiny ripple of his own in the economy. When Doers conserves gas, he affects the local gas station. When he holds onto the old truck, the salesman who would have made a commission by selling him a new one loses out. When his wife scrimps on Christmas presents, holiday sales suffer and retail workers suffer too.

Figures bear out this ripple effect. A recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, said auto sales in the Southeast are already "soft."

Retailers, such as major department stores, are reducing orders for the fourth quarter _ the important holiday season, the report said.

At times, it seems all the components in the economy are linked as tightly together as the chain-link fences Michael Knowles used to make.

Knowles, who operated a machine making those fences in Tampa, lost his job two weeks ago.

When home sales and construction goes down, the need for supplies also went down.

"I'm almost broke," said Knowles, of Tampa. The routine of filling out unemployment forms is not new. Knowles, 32, remembers the last recession in 1982. He was out of work then, too.

Glimmers of hope

Despite the gloomy picture, economists say there are hopeful signs out there. Barnett Bank's economist, Mark Vitner, said Florida still has strong job growth, about two times the national average.

Vitner predicts 125,000 new jobs will be created in 1991. Although it's not as many as were created in 1988 _ 224,000 jobs _ it still reflects growth.

He also adds that while home sales are slow in some areas, "they're not going to collapse."

Defense industry analysts predict that layoffs at the major companies are over for the rest of the year, but smaller defense sub-contractors in Florida may still lay off workers in the coming year.

Perhaps the most hopeful signs come not from expert predictions, but from stories of personal comebacks from workers themselves.

Jim Samuelson, who was laid off in August, already has a new job. Even though he was sorry to leave his $35,000-a-year job at E-Systems, a defense firm in St. Petersburg, he is optimistic about his new job as a assistant administrator at a Bradenton laboratory. He had to start at a lower salary, but he said he expects to be making his old salary within months.

While she hasn't found a job yet, former defense worker Laura Shawhan said she's looking forward to a new career.

"This is crazy. I'm really kind of excited," she said. "I really feel that I have an opportunity here."

Back at union hall, Doers and Steinke said the mood is upbeat despite a dearth of jobs for pipefitters and plumbers.

"We hear at the hall that good times are coming," Doers said.

He pauses and looks at the unemployment form.

"But we still haven't made any money yet."

_ Times staff writers Alan Goldstein and Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report.

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