The New York Times
By: Lizette Alvarez
March 31, 2011
PALM COAST, Fla. -- With his worn black canvas briefcase at his feet, Richard Dudenhoeffer, a cabinet maker, stood at a computer at the one-stop employment center and scrolled through Florida's employment listings before settling on three applications: Custodian for the Flagler County School Board. City meter reader. Assistant manager at a tractor supply company.
In the year he has been collecting unemployment checks in Flagler County, where joblessness remains stubbornly high, Mr. Dudenhoeffer, 61, has not even gotten his foot in the door, despite his almost daily efforts to find a job, any job. No interviews. No phone calls. No e-mails. No flicker of hope.
Without charity and his $247 weekly unemployment check, he would lose it all, he said, starting with his mobile home and his car, a lifeline in a county with no public transportation.
"I sold my 9-millimeter gun," Mr. Dudenhoeffer said offhandedly, after rattling off the possessions -- coin collection, gold jewelry -- he had sold to stay afloat. "It was too tempting to blow my brains out." He added, "I am just so depressed."
For the jobless like Mr. Dudenhoeffer, the outlook does not look immediately brighter.
The Florida House of Representatives approved a bill in March that would establish the deepest and most far-reaching cuts in unemployment benefits in the nation. Like the law signed in Michigan on Monday, the measure would reduce the number of weeks the unemployed could collect benefits from the standard 26 weeks to 20.
But the House proposal in Florida -- in a high-unemployment state that already has some of the lowest benefits -- takes it one step further by tying benefits to the unemployment rate. If the rate falls, so do the number of weeks of benefits. If the rate dips below 5 percent, the jobless would collect only 12 weeks of benefits, the lowest level.
This has workers worried in Florida, where the unemployment rate, while continuing to inch down, is 11.5 percent, considerably higher than the nation's rate of 8.9 percent. Michigan's rate is 10.4 percent.
The Senate is taking a less stringent approach in its bill, choosing not to reduce the number of weeks or tie benefits to the unemployment rate. The two chambers are expected to resolve their differences within the next few weeks.
The House version, which would take effect Aug. 1 if signed into law and affect people who apply after that date, would also make it easier for businesses to fire employees, who would then not be eligible for unemployment benefits.
The bill's sponsor, Representative Doug Holder, a Sarasota Republican, said creating jobs is pivotal to keeping Floridians off the unemployment rolls. Businesses need the state's help in doing that, Mr. Holder said. The average number of weeks people remain on unemployment compensation is 17.7 weeks, he added, and that means most people would be unaffected, at least in terms of how long they would collect benefits. More than 535,000 Floridians were receiving benefits as of March 26.
"Florida is positioning itself to be the most business-friendly state in the country," said Representative Holder, whose bill would also help weed out those who do not have legitimate claims. "Our unemployment compensation trust fund has gone broke. We have to replenish it. The best way to do that and to right a capsized economy is to provide more jobs."
"To talk about cutting the maximum number of weeks down to as low as 12 is basically accepting as a certainty that lots more people will run out of benefits before they find employment and that they will go many weeks without any income," said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for workers. "It's cruel as a matter of public policy, and it's really kind of wrongheaded in terms of the local economy."
But the business community, led by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, has made passing the House version of the bill a priority, contending that businesses would benefit greatly from relief from the escalating tax to pay for jobless compensation. This year the tax on business owners jumped to $72.10 a year for each employee from $25.20, still relatively low, but it is expected to climb steeply because Florida's unemployment fund is running a $2.1 billion deficit. Thirty other states are facing deficits in their unemployment programs.
"This is our thorniest problem this year," said Bill Herrle, Florida executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business. "There is no happy solution. It's intractable. We have an enormous problem. Our take is that big problems require solutions from all the participants."
Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who has made job creation a cornerstone of his tenure, supports the House approach.
But to some here in Flagler County, where the economy rose higher but fell harder than in any other in Florida in the past decade, the idea of creating jobs by taking away meager benefits from people whose lives have been upended does not seem just. From 2000 to 2010, this slice of Florida, just north of Daytona Beach, had the highest population growth in the state, spurred by construction as houses multiplied along vast stretches of open land. The collapse here was equally drastic. Construction jobs disappeared practically overnight, and the county now has the state's highest unemployment rate, 14.9 percent.
Jobs make news here. A few weeks ago word spread that new Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants in town were ready to hire. Hundreds lined up in the sun to file their applications. Only a few dozen were accepted.
Standing outside the employment center here, Leslie Stultz, a trim 62-year-old man with a Jamaican lilt, said politicians were too quick to dismiss how difficult it was for some people to find jobs in this region of Florida, particularly for workers in their 50s and 60s. Relocating is out of the question when there is no money in the bank, Mr. Stultz said.
He said he recently lost his temporary job performing quality control for a company that manufactures sunscreen. It was his second layoff in two years, he said. His wife, a home health care worker, has seen her income drop sharply. Now he is fighting with the bank to arrange affordable payments so he can keep his tidy white stucco house, decorated with Egyptian artwork and mirrors and with a pool out back, in one of Palm Coast's many walled-off developments.
"People aren't sitting back relaxing and collecting $275 a week," Mr. Stultz said. "There are no jobs here, and there are so many unemployed people."
Mr. Dudenhoeffer, whose kind eyes grow weary as he retells his journey from small-business owner to perpetual job seeker, said he could hear the clock ticking. He explained that he had exhausted his state benefits and was now collecting emergency federal benefits. He said he tried to be optimistic. And despite his grim situation, there are occasional moments of happiness. On his birthday recently, friends collected money to buy him a gift card for Red Lobster.
Still, watching his online job applications simply fall into a void again and again, Mr. Dudenhoeffer said he could not help growing despondent.
"When the benefits run out," he said, "I'll just give up."