Emergency unemployment benefits are set to expire on Saturday, leaving many jobless in South Florida worried

12/25/2013 3:25 PM

12/25/2013 6:07 PM

Omar F. Baez has applied for hundreds of positions, living off unemployment benefits, food stamps and financial aid from his family since he was laid off from his job as a registered nurse.

Now, with his jobless benefits about to expire on Saturday, he’s unsure how he’ll make ends meet.

“If I don’t get any job when the payments for unemployment are over, I see doom is coming for me,” said Baez, 62, who lives in Hialeah Gardens with his wife and father-in-law, and has been getting unemployment since late February. “What am I going to do? Because my kids can help me, but I don’t know how long they can.”

Across Florida, 73,000 recipients of federal emergency unemployment compensation stand to lose their benefits Saturday, among 1.3 million unemployed Americans whose jobless benefits will expire.

In Miami-Dade, 14,000 laid off workers will lose their benefits, along with 8,600 in Broward and 200 in Monroe County, according to Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity.

All are victims of the budget deal worked out between congressional leaders last week, which did not extend the emergency unemployment benefits that were created post-recession to help workers who had exhausted their state benefits. The federal program previously provided an additional 14 weeks of unemployment compensation to out-of-work Floridians. Both the U.S. House and Senate have adjourned for the holidays.

State benefits also decrease in January to 16 weeks from 19 weeks. Under Florida law, the number of weeks paid is tied to the unemployment rate.

The average Florida benefit is $230 per week, with a maximum of $275 — tied to the amount of wages earned over two weeks at a worker’s last job.

Baez says he has applied for jobs online, made calls and knocked on doors. Employers pass him by because of his age, he believes.

“This is the year I have worked harder than ever, without working, because I don’t know how many places I have visited for an interview,” said Baez, who was formerly a doctor in Cuba. “I have even looked for a job as a mechanic, whatever, a waiter, a life guard in Miami Beach, whatever.”

In Florida, workers were unemployed for an average of 48.7 weeks in the 12 months ending in October, with 36.6 percent unemployed for nearly a year, according to state data. A more fortunate 17 percent found a job in less than five weeks; nearly 22 percent found jobs in five to 14 weeks.

Sary Garcia, employment specialist at South Florida Workforce’s Miami Beach Career Center, said she has met with several jobless workers who are worried about their benefits ending.

“People are very anxious,” said Garcia. “It’s ‘what are we going to do?’ ”

When Congress reconvenes in early January, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will push for a retroactive extension of the benefits.

About 24,600 workers remain on Florida’s state benefits as of year-end, the state said.

Alfredo Briceño, laid off in May from his position as vice president of trade finance at a Miami bank, was hustling on Christmas Eve to find a new job, even one that pays half of his former six-figure salary. Despite his $275 per week benefit, he has cut back on spending and has eliminated monthly travel to visit his teenage daughter in Pittsburgh.

Now, with his unemployment payment about to expire, he said he will have to rely even more on funds he had put away for retirement, draining his savings.

“This has been a very tough year,” said Briceño, 46, who lives in North Bay Village. “In 21 years in this country, I’ve never ever lost a job. I’ve always had a better year than the year before.”

This report was supplemented with information from the Sun Sentinel.

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