Unemployment leads jobless into a new, dismal life

For the long-term unemployed, extended job hunts mean reshuffling a life without an income. No more dinner dates, and a trip to the library for Internet.

07/18/2012 5:00 AM

07/19/2012 7:57 AM

Veteran banker Emmanuel Charles uses the library now to check his email since he can’t afford Internet service himself. He drives a Mercedes, but one with 250,000 miles on it.

He lost his job as a branch manager in 2009 amid a global banking meltdown and has burned through almost all of his cash since then. His resume lists a cell phone number but no mailing address because he’s never entirely sure where he will be living a month from now.

“You have to be optimistic and in good spirits,’’ Charles said Wednesday morning, one of about 2,000 people swarming the banquet tables set up for a Davie job fair. “It’s a challenge to manage that sometimes.”

Dressed in a pressed brown suit, Charles finds himself in an increasingly difficult spot in South Florida’s five-year employment crisis. Hiring experts say even in a hostile job market, the recently employed have a much easier time finding work than do people who have been unemployed for a year or more. Federal statistics show about a third of all unemployment Americans fall into that category — about 4 million people in all.

“It gets harder every day’’ for someone without a job, said Ann Machado, president of Creative Staffing, which helps companies hire temporary and permanent workers. “We tell people to volunteer” rather than let a gap in a resumé grow with time.

Nationally, the average time of unemployment is just under 20 weeks, down slightly from 22 weeks a year ago. There are no recent state statistics on duration of unemployment, but South Florida’s labor market tends to perform worse than the nation’s. While the national unemployment rate stands at 8.2 percent, compared to 9.6 percent in Miami-Dade and 7.5 percent in Broward.

South Florida employers added just 12,000 payroll positions between May 2011 and May 2012, thanks to a slower hiring pace. On Friday, Tallahassee will release the June employment data for Broward and Miami-Dade and show whether the sluggish trend continued into the summer.

With so many candidates to choose from, employers would rather hire someone fresh from another job. Meanwhile, dwindling savings, expiring jobless aid and other subtle stresses tied to unemployment can make it even harder to compete in a labor market crowded by those with relatively flush bank accounts and recent ties to the working world.

At the start of 2012, Ray Sparkes knew he would soon lose his job to out-sourcing. But as chief financial officer for the Florida Grand Opera, he figured his contacts among South Florida’s elite would land him another position fairly quickly. They did not.

“I had hoped it would be easy for me,’’ Sparkes, 60, said in a telephone interview from his North Miami home. “I feel I’m becoming a bit of a drag on the people I’m networking with at this point.”

His wife works in real estate but has not had a sale this year. Sparkes no longer has an income since losing his job in March, and the expenses quickly caught up with him.

The Sparkeses used to have a regular dancing date on Fridays. Now they stay home. Motorcycle riders, they tried keeping up with their regular rides to join friends at restaurants without eating. But that got awkward.

“People quickly figure out what is going on,’’ Sparkes said. “My wife says she can see by the look in my eye, I don’t want to be there because of the money. So why go?”

The isolation that comes with a constrained social life adds to the worry by Sparkes that his extended job search would compound his problem. The longer goes the hunt, the less likely his circle will be there to help.

“It’s like offering to help someone paint their house. You might go there a weekend or two... but when it stretches to seven months, it gets old,’’ he said. “You have to be careful with how you feel about yourself. You have to stay positive, or people will subconsciously pull back.”

In recent days, Sparkes reported some good news. Two companies talked to him about taking senior financial positions, and he’s optimistic he’ll land a position by next week.

For Charles, the former bank manager, the past three years were made harder by having to pay medical bills for his adult son. He has found that his extensive bank experience wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of a college degree, so he’s taking online business classes from Broward College.

“You have to do what you can,’’ Charles said near a table for a Fort Lauderdale staffing firm that supplies employees to doctor offices.

The free fair managed by the Job News employment website opened its doors at 10 a.m in Davie’s Signature Grand event hall. By 8 a.m., 750 people were in line, said Tiffany Price, general sales manager for the company. By noon, participants had picked up all of the flyers and materials Job News had laid out, despite another two hours to go. The lines to enter the banquet room with employers’ booths stretched so far into the hall’s lobby that it was difficult to tell where it began.

Nearby, Cassandra Weston waited to hand her resumé to an accounting firm, hoping her business training would land her a position. The longtime employee for Broward County’s Health Department lost her job in September, and with it the luxury of keeping up her daily routines.

“Right now, I don’t turn on my air conditioner,’’ the 52-year-old said. “I had money to buy gas. I ride my bike now.”

Employed, Weston would visit Fort Lauderdale’s Swap Shop at least three times a week to shop. Now she only goes there Thursday mornings, when vendors at the flea market can set up for free. For $17 on those mornings, Weston says she can purchase all the fruits and vegetables she needs for a week’s worth of fish stews and fresh juices.

“I take care of myself now,’’ she said. “Because I can’t afford to go to the doctor.”

HeraldSource, part of the Public Insight Network, contributed to this article. To learn more about the network or to join, visit MiamiHerald.com/insight.

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