Business

Some South Florida workers still feel left out of recovery

Job seekers line up outside the Shula Hotel & Golf Resort for a job fair in Miami Lakes last month.
Job seekers line up outside the Shula Hotel & Golf Resort for a job fair in Miami Lakes last month. THE MIAMI HERALD

Cully Waggoner makes $10 an hour answering calls from customers who need their air-conditioners and refrigerators repaired.

Before the recession, he was pulling in $40,000 to $50,000 a year selling computer hardware.

“A lot of my customers were small businesses, and when the economy tanked their business started to dwindle,” Waggoner said. “I missed quota four months in a row and got laid off along with a bunch of other people.”

He’s happy to have a job again — but he doesn’t quite reflect the rosy picture painted by the latest economic statistics for Miami-Dade County.

The county’s unemployment rate stands at nearly its lowest level since 2008, according to preliminary figures released Friday by Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity.

In April, Miami-Dade’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hit 6.2 percent, up from 6 percent in March. The county’s jobless rate stood at 7.2 percent in April 2014, and hit a peak of 12 percent in late 2009.

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But for workers such as Waggoner, especially older workers, the recovery hasn’t felt like much of a boon.

Unemployed for three years, Waggoner, 54, tried telemarketing and selling life and health insurance door-to-door, but he couldn’t make ends meet. “The telemarketing job felt like a boiler room,” Waggoner said. “I hated it.”

His house in unincorporated Miami-Dade County near Zoo Miami almost went into foreclosure.

With the new job at the call center, “I’m just barely scraping by now,” he said.

In South Florida, many of the jobs created as the economy chugged back into gear were low-paying gigs in retail and tourism.

That meant that much of the wealth generated by the recovery flowed to Florida’s wealthiest residents, leaving everyone else behind.

Between 2009 and 2012, the pre-tax income of Florida’s richest 1 percent — those who made at least $378,342 in 2012 — grew by an average of nearly 40 percent, according to a report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

During the same period, the bottom 99 percent of Floridians saw their pre-tax income decline by more than 7 percent.

“It’s gone from bad to worse,” said John Lawrence, 68, a professional photographer and editor whose art gallery in Little Havana shut down during the recession.

A job with the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 paid well but lasted only a few months. Since then, a stroke and surgeries on his foot have left Lawrence barely afloat.

After he pays rent for the boat on the Miami River where he lives, Lawrence survives on about $200 per month.

“I’m living off SSI income and the good nature and goodwill of friends,” he said.

Mekael Teshome, an economist at PNC Bank, said that the recession and a weak recovery left both younger and older workers underemployed or out of work entirely.

Through the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015, 12.5 percent of workers in Florida were unemployed, had given up looking for work, or were working part-time because they couldn’t find full-time jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But there’s reason for optimism, Teshome said.

“As unemployment drops, the bargaining power is shifting back to workers,” he said.

In Broward County, a joint Malaysian-Florida venture called Dunham-Bush USA is looking to hire 45 workers for a factory making HVAC units with an average starting salary of $45,000.

“We want to be here because Florida is the gateway to North and South America,” said David Hogan, president of the local partner in the company. (The company had originally wanted to place its factory in Miami-Dade but lease rates were too expensive.)

And the local boom in luxury condos is creating jobs for workers to staff the fancy new towers.

“The residents and developers want you to deliver services as if they’re at the Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons,” said Paul Kaplan, managing director at Doral-based KW Property Management & Consulting.

The firm plans to hire 450 employees in South Florida over the next two years, ranging from janitors to dog walkers to butlers to building managers.

But the recovery is still moving too slowly for some locals.

Frank Romanowski lost his job in sales and his home during the recession. He now gets flags wholesale from a company in Pennsylvania and sells them on the sides of roads around Miami. He lives in his car.

Cuban flags sell the best, Romanowski said.

“I’m surviving,” he said. “I don’t know how I’m doing it, but I’m surviving.”

Information from the Public Insight Network was used in this report.

Unemployment in South Florida

For the second straight month, Miami-Dade County’s unemployment rate inched up, although the jobless rate still stands at nearly its lowest level since 2008.

In April, Miami-Dade’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hit 6.2 percent, up from 6 percent in March, according to preliminary state figures.

The number of people who are looking for work but can’t find it — the official definition of unemployment — increased by about 2,000 in April. Meanwhile, the number of people with jobs declined by 6,600.

But the small uptick in unemployment should be treated for the moment as a “statistical hiccup,” said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida.

“If you look at these numbers, there’s continued growth in South Florida’s most important industries,” Snaith said.

“That being said, we ought to pay close attention to this data because the national economy has lost significant momentum in 2015” as a result of slow global growth and a strong dollar, Snaith added. “If that persists it could have an impact on South Florida.”

In Broward County, the percentage of job-seekers was 4.8 percent last month, down from 5.2 percent in March and 5.6 percent in April 2014.

Broward’s rate is not adjusted for seasonal changes in the economy and is therefore not considered a reliable monthly barometer of the labor market.

As in previous months, much of the job growth came from South Florida’s traditional pillars of economic strength: construction, tourism and retail.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for Florida and the nation also dropped in April.

Florida’s rate fell to 5.6 percent, down from 5.7 percent in March, and the national rate dropped to 5.4 percent, down from 5.5 percent the previous month.

Nicholas Nehamas

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