Jobless rates dip
PORT CHARLOTTE — The unemployment rate continued to tick down statewide and, to a lesser degree, in Charlotte, Sarasota and DeSoto counties last month.
But the statistics mean little to Lynne Gahagan, manager for the Express Employment agency in Port Charlotte.
She says Charlotte County is flush with jobs, but many on the unemployment rolls are reluctant to take them, preferring instead to live off government supports. She cited unemployment checks, food stamps, phone subsidies and a “gasoline card” the government gives to job seekers.
Several other area employment-service officials didn’t entirely share Gahagan’s experience. They point out the improvements in employment can be measured in fractions of a percentage point.
Meanwhile, government benefits remain austere, with a maximum weekly payment of $275.
“They do want to find good jobs, and they’re reluctant to take jobs that are not going to pay what they need to keep their houses,” said Debbie Guilbault, Port Charlotte center supervisor for Southwest Florida Works, an agency that uses federal funds to help connect workers to jobs.
She added that the unemployed eventually become grateful to accept lower-paying jobs.
The experts were interviewed Friday after the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity released figures showing improvements in unemployment and several other economic trends. Consumer confidence and housing starts also rose last month.
Statewide, unemployment dropped from 10.4 percent in September 2011 to 8.7 percent last month.
In Charlotte, unemployment dipped from 9.3 percent in August to 9 percent in September. That’s down from 11.1 percent in September 2011.
Sarasota County saw its unemployment rate drop from 8.9 percent in August to 8.7 percent in September, down from 11 percent a year ago.
In DeSoto, where the jobless rate still tops our area, the numbers slid modestly from 10.3 percent in August to 10.2 percent in September, down from 12.1 in September 2011.
Express Employment currently is working to fill some 32 jobs in 17 businesses, according to Gahagan. The jobs include law office staffers, truck drivers, movers and plumbers, she said. She also expects to post some 500 seasonal jobs this winter.
“We have more work than we do people,” she said. “And, if you want to make money for Christmas, I can give any kind of retail position known to mankind.”
As a requirement for unemployment benefits, job seekers must apply for five jobs per week. They often submit applications for Express listings via the state’s unemployment website.
But when Gahagan calls the seekers to offer them jobs, “They tell you, ‘Oh, I have to meet my quota but I’m not interested,’” she said. The callers tell her they’d prefer to collect benefits.
“And then, you report them to the unemployment office and they don’t do anything about it,” she said. “It’s a terrible story because nobody will listen.”
Bernie Neumann, general manager of Snelling Staffing Service in Port Charlotte, expressed skepticism there’s a dearth of earnest job-seekers. He also doubts Florida’s unemployment figures. He points out the statistics don’t count those who accepted part-time work or gave up.
The recovery here is going slower than other regions because its economy depends on the earnings of northerners who come for the winter, Neumann said.
“In Charlotte and south Sarasota counties, so much of our economy is built on retirees,” he said. “We don’t have the manufacturing base, or a ‘mouse house’ like (Disney World) in Orlando.”
DeSoto County is seeing jobs pick up this month because it’s “the growing season,” according to Alan Grimes, director of information and technology for Heartland Workforce. He said a couple of orange juice plants are set to open next week.
Picking fruit also picks up, but the work is hard, so jobs go vacant, he said.
In Sarasota County, employment is slowly improving but still falls short, said Carmen Sullivan, district manager for Kelly Services.
Skilled medical workers have remained in high demand, several experts said.