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A booming business in unemployment

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[Times photos: Ken Helle]
People use the computers at a WorkForce Tampa Center to look for job openings and fill out employment applications. In May, 5,554 people registered for services at the six Hillsborough WorkForce offices, up from 3,887 a year ago.

By KRIS HUNDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 2, 2001


As the state's unemployment rises, a WorkForce Tampa office becomes a community center where people from varied backgrounds share the experience of hunting for a job to replace the one they lost.

TAMPA -- With unemployment in Florida rising, the state job center in an old mall at Florida Avenue and Busch Boulevard is jammed with desperate people.

A veteran of a short-lived Internet auto sales business is hunched in front of a computer screen, scanning the job listings.

Across the room an out-of-work brick mason hunts through the online application for unemployment compensation.

Seated at a table in the waiting area is a woman who was a lawyer in Cuba, waiting to be interviewed for a factory job that doesn't require English. She ignores the video droning away on a nearby TV, offering job hunting tips -- in English.

In May, 5,554 people registered for services at the six Hillsborough WorkForce offices, up from 3,887 a year ago. Overseeing the operation of Hillsborough County's half-dozen job centers is Kym Bandy, who has tried to deinstitutionalize the main office with little touches such as fake ficus trees strung with white lights. Bandy has seen everything from laid-off cigar workers to unemployed Web page designers trying to get by on unemployment checks that max out at $275 a week while they search for new work. And she knows that the pickings are pretty slim.

"Last year, employers would hire somebody with a 60 percent skill match," she said. "Now they're looking for an 80 to 90 percent skill match and even if you have training and experience, they don't want to pay. Tampa just does not pay very well."

That does not stop people from looking. On one Monday morning in June, 153 people filed through the Tampa office in search of work. Most were determinedly optimistic despite considerable obstacles. Many had been on a merry-go-round of temporary job assignments. Few were receiving unemployment checks.

Here are some of their stories.

* * *
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Brandylyn Swafford looks at her daughter Jasmine's artwork. Jasmine was keeping herself busy while Swafford checked her e-mail at the WorkForce Tampa Center one Monday in June.

Brandylyn Swafford, decked out in T-shirt, shorts and sandals, is checking her e-mail at the WorkForce Tampa Center while her 6-year-old daughter, Jasmine, draws pictures at her elbow. The 25-year-old Tampa resident has two other children, 2- and 3-year-old sons, at home. Swafford has been out of work since December, though she's held occasional temporary clerical jobs since then. But a permanent position has eluded her, despite sending out 90 job applications.

Swafford thinks she knows the reason.

"I'm a convicted felon," said Swafford, who served four months in jail for running up $5,000 of personal expenses on a former employer's credit card in 1998. "No one wants to hire me with a conviction."

Swafford's last job was as grass-roots advocate for the American Cancer Society, earning $25,800. She resigned that job in November, she said, when she was sentenced to two months in jail for violating parole. The infraction: She was unable to make her monthly restitution payment of $300 even with a full-time job.

"That put me even further behind," said Swafford, who also gets $400 a month in child support. "But really, even when I was working, it was tough making ends meet. I was paying $1,000 per month for child care. Now, with subsidized child care, I'm only paying $12 a week. And we're getting food stamps now.

"Still, not having the constant flow of money causes stress."

Swafford is taking classes in mass communications at Hillsborough Community College while she continues her job hunt. She calls her felony "a big mistake" but says she's on the right path now.

"We're not going to take any more steps back," she said. "We're bound and determined."

* * *

James Felton, 42, has a full-time job as a shipping clerk at a medical products warehouse in Tampa. But at $9.63 an hour, he finds it hard to keep up with his bills, even working up to five hours a week overtime.

So Felton took a vacation day recently to visit the WorkForce center and search through the job listings online.

"I'm looking for something, maybe a cleaning service, where I could work three or four hours a night," said Felton, neatly dressed in sport shirt and slacks. "But there's really not too much here."

Felton said he wants extra work so he can get ahead of medical bills for his disabled wife. "The only thing is, the more money I make, the higher her co-pays go," he said.

Though only a handful of part-time jobs appeared on the computer screen at the Tampa office, Felton refused to be discouraged.

"I'll be looking for myself. I even filled out an application that a friend had in church the other day," he said. As minister of his church's youth department, Felton said he often hears kids complain about the lack of opportunities.

"I tell them there are jobs out there, you just have to get up every day and keep looking," he said. "That's how you've got to make it."

* * *

Terrance Davis' hands have slung concrete block and bricks for the past 18 years. So it was slow going as the Tampa brick mason worked his way through an online application for unemployment compensation at the WorkForce office recently.

"I never type," said Davis, 37. "I've got a computer at home but the kids are always on it."

Up until June 1, Davis was building block and brick homes, apartments and commercial buildings for Walters Construction in Tampa. Then the work dried up and his $18 an hour job was history.

"My boss warned me this was coming," said Davis, who learned the trade from his father. "This business goes through slowdowns from time to time. I'm sure I'll be able to pick something up."

Davis, whose thick forearms jut out of a blue V-neck shirt, has only visited the unemployment office once before. And this is the first time he's ever applied for unemployment.

"I came here in the early 1980s when things were slow," he said. "The place was so packed there was nowhere to sit, so I gave up and figured I'd find something on my own. And I did."

Davis has been scanning the want ads and has seen some work advertised in Lutz, though he'd like to find something closer to his Tampa home. But as he filled out the online application, Davis said he didn't expect an unemployment check to go far.

"My kids are 12, 15 and 17," he said. "They're at that age when they want $100 sneakers."

* * *
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Vivien Valle, left, and her mother, Norma Belanos, were at the WorkForce office to fill out paperwork.

As a video on job-hunting tips plays in the background, Vivien Valle fights boredom. She's here with her mother, Norma Bolanos, who worked as a lawyer back home in Cuba, and her stepfather, a former truck driver. Since neither parent speaks English, they are waiting to be interviewed for factory jobs, which pay about $7 an hour.

Valle, who has mastered the basics of English, figures she can do better finding a job on her own. "I want to apply at stores or restaurants or Busch Gardens," Valle, 20, said. "This pay is no good."

Valle and her family came to the United States about 2 1/2 years ago after the Cuban government approved their request to leave.

"We have to pay the government $1,000 in U.S. dollars to get a visa," she said of the official route out of Cuba. "We still have lots of family there."

Valle and her parents originally settled in Syracuse, N.Y., where she took community college courses in travel and tourism and practiced her English. Now that the family has relocated to Tampa, she hopes to take classes in computer science.

During their recent visit to the local WorkForce office, Valle and her parents were helped by a family friend, Carlos Sierra, who fled Cuba on a boat nine years ago.

"Six or seven months ago, there were probably 40 factory positions, now there are less than 10," Sierra said. "I think too many people come to Tampa."

* * *
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Gillianna Martinez-Guice takes a call on her cell phone while she checks for job listings. She says she's not used to being unemployed and finds the process of job hunting depressing.

Since March, Gilliana Martinez-Guice has been a regular at the WorkForce office, setting up interviews by phone, sending her resume by e-mail, scanning job boards online.

Still, the 24-year-old mother of four has come up empty handed. And life on a $275 a week unemployment check is getting tight.

"My car payments are more than that," she said. "It looks like I'm going to have to move out of town to find something."

Martinez-Guice worked for a Tampa construction services company. In four years there she moved up from receptionist to marketing coordinator, making $13.50 an hour.

But Martinez-Guice, who is bilingual and has a high school education, is finding it hard to match that pay level in today's market.

"I tell staffing services I want $13 to $15 an hour and they ask if they can say I'm willing to work for $10 or $12 an hour," she said. "I did one phone interview for a position with Time Inc. and they were only paying $7 an hour."

Martinez-Guice said she's not used to being unemployed and finds the process depressing.

"You feel like no one wants you," she said. "I know I have a good background. Somebody should be able to sell me."

* * *
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Melanie Blais came to the WorkForce office shortly after learning she had been let go from her job at Tampa's Fire and Police Pension Fund.

Less than four hours after being fired from her job as administrative assistant with the city of Tampa, Melanie Blais was in the WorkForce office, filling out an unemployment claim form and scanning online job boards. On her way to the state office, she stopped by a temporary staffing agency, taking math and computer tests and filling out an application.

"I really want to work," said Blais, 34, as she waited for an available computer. "This is the first time I've ever been fired and it really hurt."

Blais had worked for Tampa's Fire and Police Pension Fund for six years and was making $14.76 an hour when she was terminated.

"The pay was pretty good," said Blais, a single woman. "Staffing agencies are telling me that most temp jobs will pay $10 to $14 an hour. But they don't have anything right now that's temp-to-perm."

A week later, Blais is still looking.

"I've had a few calls from employment agencies but there aren't that many administrative assistant positions," she said. "And now they're telling me it could take up to six weeks to get my unemployment check."

* * *
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Michael McGuire, who recently moved to Tampa, shows his resume to Carol Hine of A-1-A Employment. McGuire headed Internet sales for a New Jersey Honda dealership until the company shut down the venture.

Michael McGuire had just been promoted to a job heading Internet sales at a New Jersey Honda dealership when the owner decided to pull the plug on the month-old operation in May.

So after relocating to Tampa, the 30-year-old father of two found himself in June searching the state's electronic job bank, looking for accounting positions paying $30,000 to $50,000. No such positions were listed.

Reducing his salary requirements to $15,000 to $22,000, McGuire found five job listings.

"I've got a degree in business administration and 10 years of management experience," he said. "It seems a shame to me that having a degree doesn't mean anything."

McGuire, who is receiving $275 a week in unemployment, figures he'll need two jobs to support his family.

"I've applied at Cody's steakhouse," he said. "I'll wait tables to get some money coming in."

McGuire tried going through an executive employment agency but was shocked to find the recruiter wanted nearly $5,000 for his services.

"If I'm unemployed, how am I going to pay for that?" he asked. "I can't pay the bills I have now."

* * *

- Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

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