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Lee County rates near 10 percent

By Staff | Nov 22, 2008

MICHAEL PISTELLA Carmen Ashby stands in front of the Cape’s Career and Service Center office where she frequently visits to use their job-hunting tools. She’s been looking a job since June. An estimated 27,000 workers are now unemployed in Lee County.

By DREW WINCHESTER, dwinchester@breezenewspapers.com

The Cape’s Career and Service Center is a squat, pea soup colored little building that sits across from city hall on Cultural Park Boulevard.

Carmen Ashby finds herself at this satellite office of the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board more often than she would like these days, using their computers and internet service to hopefully find herself a new job.

She’s been out of work since June, after being laid off as a furniture sales consultant in Fort Myers. She held the job for a year, a time frame spent watching their customer base dwindle with each passing day.

Fewer customers of, course, brought fewer dollars for Ashby, but it also brought a nasty pallor to the sales floor, where each sales person fought relentlessly for the promise of a commission that was slowly fading with each passing hour.

That set in motion a chain of events that Ashby is forced to live and deal with on a daily basis.

“I noticed it was so slow, the number of customers was so few,” she said. “We were waiting three hours between customers. It was ridiculous.”

Ashby is but one of thousands of Floridians who are buckling under the weight of a broken economy, one the federal government has been reluctant to claim is in a recession.

Released on Friday, Florida’s unemployment rate for the month of October was 7 percent, just above the national average of 6.5 percent.

Taking a bird’s eye view of unemployment rates across all 67 Florida counties, Lee county falls somewhere on the back half of the sad equation, with a rate of 9.5 percent.

It’s not as bad as, say, Hendry County, where residents face an astounding 13 percent rate, but compared to the 5.7 percent rate Lee faced this same time last year, it’s impossible to deny the people of Lee are hurting.

“We have not seen this high level of unemployment in the last 18 years,” said Barbara Hartsman, spokesperson for the Career and Service center in Fort Myers. “It’s significantly higher than the previous 18 years, maybe the worst ever.”

Hartsman said “thousands” go through the Fort Myers career center, while the about 40 people a day come through the doors of the Cape’s office, which Hartsman said people were still discovering.

They come from all walks, representing the negative job growth in almost all areas throughout Lee, according to Hartsman. She added the decline of the construction industry had what she described as a “domino effect” on the entirety of the county.

“Because of the housing slowdown, we’re one of the most significantly impacted regions in the state,” she said.

With the holidays looming, economic analysts predict a slow if not stagnant shopping season.

The 1.2 million Americans who lost their jobs this year find themselves wondering more about their unemployment benefits than what color tie to buy dad for Christmas.

Congress passed legislation to extend unemployment benefits on Thursday, a $6 billion move that extends benefits up to seven weeks, and by as many as 20 weeks in states hit hardest by unemployment. President Bush signed the measure Friday.

While it does wonders for the 1.1 million whose benefits were due to expire at the end of the year, it does nothing for Gary Young, whose benefits expired long ago.

Young hasn’t had steady work for the last two years, falling in and out of odd jobs for a myriad of reasons, though by his own estimation he is eager, intelligent, and ready to work.

An 18-year veteran Operations Coordinator of Collier County Domestic Animal services, Young found himself staring down the barrel of uncertainty after being forced to retire following an on-the-job accident he says hurt his back.

Like Carmen Ashby, Young was at the helm of a runaway train he could not control; he was fighting through rehabilitation, his unemployment benefits ran out, he lost his home to foreclosure, was denied disability, and he now lives off a “small” retirement from Collier County.

Getting ready to move from his tiny Cape apartment on Thursday, Young –who turns 56 in January — was getting ready to interview for a minimum wage job as a cashier at Dollar Tree that evening.

“I feel like I’m a very intelligent person. I’ve done a lot of different things over my lifetime,” he said. “Now, it’s not that I don’t want to do it, it’s that no one has given me the opportunity.”

A resident of Southwest Florida for three decades, Young said the current economic situation is the worse he’s seen. He also thinks his age is working against him; like a ticking clock or a setting sun, he feels opportunity is winding down.

“It’s frightening, I’m getting by but barely,” he said. “It’s really getting difficult for people … when you get my age they (employers) know you’re going to be a short-term employee.”

Carmen Ashby’s home is not in foreclosure, though paying the mortgage has proved increasingly difficult in the last few months.

Instead, her home acts more like a chain that keeps her tethered to a pole, hoping that things will turn around, that she will find a job in Lee and save the home, the dream, that brought her and her husband to Southwest Florida from Middlesex county, New Jersey.

Her husband has since returned to New Jersey, relying on what Ashby said were “contacts”, to get two jobs.

“My husband couldn’t find a job in 10 months. He tried everything,” she said. “We’re separated, but we have to live.”

It was a conscious decision, according to Ashby, who might also head back north if things don’t start looking up.

She plans on giving it another year before returning to New Jersey. But, unless the real estate market turns around, she’ll take a considerable loss on her home.

“It’s getting worse,” she said. “I feel like I made a mistake (coming to Lee county), but my home is keeping me here.”

Career and Service Centers of Southwest Florida offer a vast array of services for the unemployed, including: job search assistance, self-service resources, referral and placement, employment counseling, career and skills assessment, information about local, state and national labor markets, child care resource and referral, eligibility determination for medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance, career preparation workshops, information on filing unemployment insurance claims, financial aid and training program resources, referral to education and training programs–GED preparation.

The Cape office is located at 1020 Cultural Park Boulevard, Bldg # 2, and can be reached at 239-673-8591.

The Fort Myers office is located at 4150 Ford Street Extension, Fort Myers, FL 33916, and can be reached at 239-931-8200.