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In a mall of meager jobs, people shop for survival

Published October 2, 2003

The parking lot at the old Floriland Mall is nearly full. If you missed the signs, you might conclude some whopper of a sale is under way.

But the mall, just north of Busch Boulevard in Tampa, long ago went bust as a commercial venture. Government has taken over. This is where you come now, if you're seeking a job.

It is another world here, at the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance Career Center. Here you meet people who, even when they worked, lived paycheck to paycheck, who live now without health insurance or even a car, who think the word pension is just another way of saying joke.

Here you meet people like Mercedes Esquivel.

She counts the weeks until her unemployment checks stop.

The number is down to two.

Then the 53-year-old woman will depend completely on the cousin she's been living with in Tampa. Esquivel moved here from Miami, where she was assistant to the reservations director for Air Jamaica. She was laid off in February.

In her resume, she describes herself cheerfully as "hard working, responsible, detail oriented, fast learner."

The words impress nobody. "I've sent out thousands of resumes," she said. "I've had maybe two interviews."

She came to the jobs center to use its computers to search again for work. This meant filling out forms and then waiting for a spot at one of a bank of computers along a wall of the big office.

The center's computers list as many as 800 jobs at a time. Most get filled. Those may sound like boom times, to you, but you have to wonder what kind of jobs they are, when they pay an average of $10 an hour.

It remains hard even then to cover rent and car payments and life's incidentals and have something left to save. Heaven forbid if you have a credit card bill. Or children to feed and clothe.

In Miami, Esquivel earned $10.50 an hour at her last job. Even that was a pay cut from jobs she'd had before. Still, she managed to bank $5,000. The $5,000 is gone now. She gives serious consideration to getting a job cleaning houses.

Esquivel is the face of the lousy economy, lousy in a particularly acute way in the airline industry since 9/11.

It isn't just that business in general languishes or that jobs are hard to find. Esquivel's plight illustrates the increasing inequality in the economy, in which a woman like her may be hard pressed to find real job security the rest of her working days, let alone pay comparable to earlier earnings.

The rich get far richer while the poor, including the working poor, fall increasingly behind. While Esquivel contemplates cleaning toilets, CEO pay skyrockets. Federal tax cuts only favor them more.

Funny, how we live. Once, Americans clashed over welfare, too many people living off handouts and lying around, refusing to work. We have put those people to work, many of them. Now we have a new problem. Even people who work have real trouble surviving.

Esquivel expected to be out of work no more than three months, not eight. Now worry pervades every corner of her life. She can absolutely not afford to have anything go wrong, not so much as a flat tire or a chipped tooth.

Other people in her situation could also face homelessness. Esquivel is lucky at least in that regard. Her relatives will not kick her out. Still, she feels awkward about depending on them. They have their own responsibilities. She craves her lost independence.

Her resume is thick with certificates for completing this course of study or that, mostly in the travel industry. It notes she speaks not just English, but Spanish and Portuguese. Surely someone would want her with all that. All she wants is some kind of office work that pays decently and has benefits. How hard could that be to find?

On Sunday: the story of an ironworker, trying to find work and keep his family together.

- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at or 813 226-3402.

[Last modified October 2, 2003, 02:49:35]

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