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Ready, willing and able

Those who would have had a tough time finding work before Sept. 11 are finding it even tougher now.

[Times photo: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Mary Taylor, 12, sits on the sofa with her mother, Cindy Long. Mary wants to be a lawyer or a judge someday, but for now she wants a job that pays enough for school supplies and clothes to help her family.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002


NEW PORT RICHEY -- For the past three months, Mary Taylor has been pounding the pavement, looking for a way to make a decent living for herself.

She's scoured the classified ads, the phone books and even cold-called pet stores, offering to clean out soiled animal cages. She hit the local day cares to see if they needed a hand.

"I love to work," she wrote in a letter to the editor, seeking help from the Times. "I get sick of sitting at home on my butt looking at the TV, playing my music. I want to get out there and work all day long and make some money."

She wants to pay for her own clothes and help out her mom, who suffers from a disabling back condition.

Mary Taylor is one of millions of Americans searching for work these days. The unemployment ranks have swelled since Sept. 11, casting out more people to compete for fewer jobs.

Her particular problem is that she doesn't have enough years of experience. In fact, she doesn't have enough years: Mary is 12 years old.

Federal law says you have to be at least 14 to work. Some local agencies offer volunteer programs for preteens. But the opportunities to earn a decent wage are few and far between if you haven't completed the seventh grade.

One day, she hopes to be a lawyer or a judge.

But in the short term, she dreams of a good babysitting gig, or a job washing dishes or rounding up the shopping carts at a local grocery store.

"I just want to do something," she said. "That would make me happy."

* * *

Even if preteens could legally get a job, it's a terrible time to try.

The number of people who applied for unemployment benefits in Pasco is up by 41 percent in the past eight months over the same period in the previous year. The job centers are swarming with people of all abilities, ages, education levels and experience.

For job hunters like Mary, Greg Switzer and Abe Patrello, who might have a tough time finding work in prosperous times, the sour economy is just one more barrier to hurdle.

Switzer has cerebral palsy. Patrello just had his 90th birthday.

"They're experiencing the same thing that ordinary job seekers are," said John Malley, manager of Career Central's New Port Richey office. "There are just fewer jobs. It's just rough out there."

* * *

Switzer is tired of roughing it.

He has clerical and dispatch experience. He has an associate's degree in business management. And he has the confidence that he can learn to do anything if given the chance.

Switzer, 31, rolled into Career Central in late September, just about the time the first wave of layoffs was rippling through Tampa Bay after the Sept. 11 attacks.

He'd prefer to get some sort of research job, answer phones, file, and work with the public.

But at this point he'd be happy to get a part-time minimum wage job. Switzer's wife has a good job at an insurance company, but he wants to contribute more than just his $200 monthly Social Security disability check to help pay the bills.

And he sees no logical reason why he shouldn't be able to do that. Although his condition confines him to a wheelchair and impairs his ability to do things like type, write and lift things, Switzer can use public transportation. He spent years in public speaking courses and speech therapy, and is more articulate than many people who don't have disabilities.

"I'm not hoping to be president of some company in Florida," he said. "But I have my application into several places. They say they'll call me back to let me know, but they never call."

Switzer knows he has to sell himself just like every other job hunter. But he senses that the minute people see his wheelchair, they don't take his pitch seriously.

"I know that I'm limited," he said. "But I'm not as limited as people think. I believe that I can learn to do almost anything. I'm not going to say I can walk. Because I can't do that."

Switzer dreams of educating people in the business world about his condition so that his 3-year-old nephew, who also suffers from cerebral palsy, won't have to endure the same frustrations he has.

"I don't want him to have to wait 28 years before somebody tells him maybe we'll give you a chance to work," he said.

But for now, Switzer will settle for a part-time job for minimum wage. He has applied to Wal-Mart, the county and the school district, but hasn't had any luck yet.

"Sometimes I wonder why I can't get the job," Switzer said.

* * *

Patrello celebrated his 90th birthday on Friday.

But he says he doesn't feel a day over 60.

He has silver and snow-white running shoes and a temporary job through AARP.

He's still looking for employment for the long term, some extra income so he can take care of his 88-year-old wife, who suffers from glaucoma, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

"You name it, she's got it. She's like a walking drugstore," Patrello said. "I have to get something to supplement my income a little. I've been working all my life, but was never able to save."

Patrello has gone shop-to-shop at Gulf View Square mall, trying to find a place that might want his decades of jewelry repair and sales experience. He has also applied to be a greeter at Wal-Mart. But he's still waiting for a call back.

His biggest obstacle, he thinks, is that he cannot work full time.

"They don't want you for part-time work," he said. "They don't even give you an application."

In the meantime, he's getting a little experience and extra cash through AARP's Senior Community Service Employment Program. The program provides temp jobs, training, and job hunting help for people 55 and older who meet federal poverty income guidelines. AARP pays Patrello $5.15 per hour to work 20 hours a week at various agencies around the county.

This week, he's stationed at Career Central.

There, he'll direct other job hunters to the services they need and show them how to use online job search tools, which he mastered in his first two days on the job.

According to his supervisor, that's twice as fast as it takes people that are half Patrello's age. He's hoping he'll use his time there to find permanent work.

"I'll do anything that comes down my alley, I don't mind," Patrello said, echoing the sentiments of Taylor, Switzer and many others in the job-seeking market. "But you really can't find anything."

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