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Looking for work? You and 9.4-million others

Cindy Roberts was shocked when she lost her job as a social worker at a Gulfport nursing home in December. She's even more surprised that she's still job hunting six months later.

"It was a wakeup call to find out employers can just jerk you around," said the 38-year-old St. Petersburg mother of three. "There are so many people looking for work right now that employers are taking their time and playing games with applicants. They know people are almost desperate to have a job."

Roberts is right. In June the nation's jobless rate surged to its highest point in more than nine years, the Labor Department said Thursday. At 6.4 percent, the unemployment rate is up 0.3 percentage points from May, the biggest month-to-month increase since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Nearly 9.4-million Americans are officially unemployed, and that only counts those who are actively seeking work. More than 2-million Americans have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks.

Employers eliminated 30,000 jobs last month. Equally important, May job losses, which had initially been reported at 17,000, were sharply revised, to 70,000.

The leap in unemployment surprised analysts who predicted a smaller increase. The stock market took a dip Thursday partially in response to the news, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping 72.63 or 0.8 percent, to 9,070.21. The last time the unemployment rate exceeded 6.4 percent was in March 1994.

Though Roberts is considering leaving the state to find a social worker position, she might want to reconsider. Florida has consistently done better than the nation, with a jobless rate of 5.1 percent in May. State unemployment figures for June will not be available until later in the month.

Such data were little comfort to the dozens of people crowding the WorkNet Pinellas One Stop Center in St. Petersburg on Thursday, the updated name for the local unemployment office. Dina Watkins had just been laid off that morning from a Clearwater telemarketing company. After four years on the job, she had been earning more than $30,000 a year in salary and commissions.

"I see a lot of housekeeping and assembly work jobs listed on the Internet for $5 or $6 an hour, but I can't live on that," said the mother of two. "It's going to be hard to find something that will match my old pay."

Clarence Bouyer, 44, lost his loan processing job June 1. After a month of working outdoors, he was surfing the Internet looking for another desk job where he could put his business degree to work. "At this point I'm looking for anything," he said while scanning a list of municipal openings.

Sherry Blake relocated to the Tampa Bay area from Dallas three months ago. At 32, she's been an outside sales executive, selling everything from fax machines to laboratory services, for most of her career. Since the terrorist attacks, she's noticed a trend by employers to drop base salaries from sales jobs, offering commissions only.

"The quality of positions and the number of openings have been greatly reduced since 9/11," Blake said. "When I look at the ads in the Sunday paper, it's pretty grim."

June's jobless rate was 2.3 percentage points higher than when President Bush took office in January 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are 2-million fewer jobs than when Bush was inaugurated.

The elimination of jobs has led to a rise in long-term joblessness from 11 percent of the unemployed in January 2001 to more than 21 percent today. This is the highest level of long-term joblessness since 1983, the Economic Policy Institute reports.

The Bush administration, which is likely to come under increasing political attack about its handling of the economy, reacted coolly to the unemployment figures. In a statement, the White House said the job figures are a "sign of a slow recovery from a short, shallow recession."

The government calculates the unemployment rate based on a survey of American households to determine those who want work but don't have it. In June, analysts believe optimism about an economic rebound led more than 600,000 people to resume their search for work, but the economy wasn't producing enough jobs to accommodate the increasing number of job-seekers.

Manufacturing led the payroll cuts and remains the weakest link in the economy's ability to get back to full speed. June saw an increase in the number of jobs in construction, health care, leisure and hospitality and temporary employment services.

The administration argues that the package of tax cuts recently passed by the GOP-led Congress is starting to take effect and will bolster job prospects.

"Its effects will be felt by America's working families, seniors and small-business owners later this month as they begin receiving tax rebates and larger paychecks," said Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. "As this stimulus builds momentum, we expect to see more new jobs created and more out-of-work Americans receiving a paycheck again."

Analysts, however, were troubled that those who were employed did not work longer hours last month; the hours worked figures were flat. If demand in the economy were growing, hours worked would be rising.

Separately, the Labor Department said that initial unemployment claims, weekly figures analysts consider a related indicator, rose to 430,000 last week, an increase of 21,000 from the previous week.

"Claims are not trending down; they continue to trend up," said Paul Kasriel, director of economic research at the Northern Trust Co. in Chicago. "These are real people standing in real lines."

Roberts, the out-of-work St. Petersburg social worker, is one of them. As her unemployment benefits near an end, she struggles to remain positive.

"I'm sure I'll find something," she said, as she clicked through job listings on the Web. "But there are so many people out there looking, applying for one of the few openings is like a shot in the dark."

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundleysptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

At the WorkNet Pinellas One Stop Center in St. Petersburg on Thursday, Dina Watkins, sitting, and Clarence Bouyer, pointing, are looking for work. Watkins, who was laid off that morning, said, "It's been a tough day so far, but I am determined to find another job."

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