Could you live on $275 a week? That's Florida's maximum unemployment benefit
By By Marcia Heroux Pounds
South Florida Sun-Sentinel|
Jun 16, 2008 | 3:00 AM
Florida ranks as one of the lowest-paying states in the nation in what it pays unemployed workers.
Whether you lose a $30,000-a-year job or one that pays six figures, your maximum unemployment compensation breaks out to $6.88 an hour — less than what most fast-food restaurant workers make in South Florida.
The state's $275 weekly maximum benefit hasn't changed in 10 years and is making the economic downturn more painful for Florida residents as more join the unemployment rolls each month.
In Massachusetts, unemployed workers collect up to $600 a week. In Georgia, they take home up to $440 a week.
"It was shocking," said Lochard "Shawn" Pamphile, 40, who collected Florida unemployment benefits after being laid off earlier this year. "In New York, I was getting $405 a week."
He and his wife, Vernetta, decided to move their family to South Florida in November 2006 after Pamphile was laid off by J.P. Morgan Chase in New York, where he had worked for 15 years. He found a job with the consumer products company Phillips, which had an office in Palm Beach Gardens. The couple bought a home in The Acreage. But in March, the company closed its South Florida office and moved workers to Boston.
Vernetta Pamphile found a job as a tax accountant and hopes to avoid again moving the couple's two sons, ages 4 and 11. Shawn Pamphile is pursuing an accounting degree at Palm Beach Community College while looking for a job.
Florida has lost more than 64,500 jobs since a year ago, many in construction and related industries, financial activities and manufacturing.
Unemployment analysts say Florida's laid-off workers are facing even leaner times. As employers get nervous about the economy, they'll cut back on hiring or not fill open positions. More workers are expected to exhaust their unemployment benefits, which in Florida last a maximum of six months, based on the worker's employment history.
"Florida treats workers badly on lots of fronts," said Bruce Nissen, director of the Center for Labor Research at Florida International University. "We don't have a worker-friendly government. We've hardly made any changes to unemployment compensation. The changes that have been made all have been negative to workers."
Making ends meet
Many of South Florida's unemployed in recent months lost their jobs because of the housing and credit troubles facing the state and the nation.
Bertha Gonzalez, 39, a divorced mother of two in Miramar, was laid off in November. She worked in the mortgage business for 15 years, the last two with First Franklin Financial, a subprime mortgage lender in Plantation.
She enjoyed her job and hoped for a miracle. It didn't come. First Franklin went out of business in November.
"I was there until the end," she said.
Gonzalez had refinancedher mortgage about a month before her employer closed its doors. She tapped her home equity to pay her mortgage and living expenses for at least six months, with the help of her ex-husband's regular financial support. Then he was laid off from his job in January.
Though she has two children to support, Gonzalez received no additional unemployment pay. Some states, such as Illinois and Iowa, pay unemployed workers with dependent children, spouses or parents slightly more each week.
In May, unemployment benefits were about to run out when Gonzalez got a job offer in customer service for T-Mobile. Her base pay is less than half of her salary in the mortgage industry, though she has the opportunity to make more in bonuses.
"It's enough to pay the bills," she said. But Gonzalez will have to move her children from private to public school in September to reduce expenses.
Gonzalez explored moving into the health care industry, where she thinks there will always be jobs. She has attended some classes at WorkForce One, but the class she really needed — on entering the medical and health care field — is on hold. No funding is available.
That scenario will become increasingly common as state and local governments cut their budgets to deal with falling revenue.
In Palm Beach County, funding for work-force placement and training is being trimmed from $6 million to $5.6 million for fiscal year 2008. In Broward, it's scaling back from $7 million in fiscal 2006 to $4.98 million, according to the Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees the state's unemployment compensation program.
"It will impact our ability to train people for other jobs," said Mason Jackson, director of WorkForce One, Broward County's agency that helps the unemployed find new jobs. "It will reduce the people we have to make matches."
Business pays benefits
Until recently, Florida has enjoyed a relatively low unemployment rate. In April, the rate was 4.9 percent, unchanged from March, when it was at a four-year high.
Unemployment compensation is funded through a partnership between the federal and state government, and it goes into a trust fund held by the federal government. State legislators have the discretion to set the weekly unemployment pay, though changing it is difficult. That's because workers don't pay for unemployment benefits; employers do. And in Florida, businesses historically have been a strong lobby in the Legislature, so increasing employer expenses is a hard sell.
"There would have to be a law to increase the amount," said Tom Clendenning, who oversees unemployment compensation in Florida. "We couldn't arbitrarily increase that amount."
Legislators may be reluctant to try to collect more from employers because that would raise business taxes. Low taxes are a prime lure for new business to the state.
While other states have exhausted unemployment benefit trust funds in recent years, Florida has more than $2.2 billion in its trust fund, which can be used only for unemployment compensation payments.
But the trust fund balance will decrease if unemployment levels continue to rise, said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the Manhattan-based National Employment Law Project, which has studied unemployment benefits throughout the nation.
In April, Florida paid $142 million in unemployment benefits, nearly double what the state paid in the same month a year ago.
If the recession worsens, it also is likely to take workers longer to find new jobs. An estimated 172,000 people in Florida will exhaust their unemployment benefits in 2008 without finding work, Stettner said.
That's what happened to Liana Grant, 39, who lost her job as a Medicare specialist at Miramar-based Humana almost a year ago.
"It's the first time I've been unemployed," she said.
After six months, the unemployment checks stopped, and Grant is still searching for a permanent job. She is grateful she can live with her mother. She now works for temporary staffing agencies. Recently, she found four days' work as an extra, for $100 a day, in the movie Marley & Me, which was filmed in South Florida.
Her next move is to go back to school to become a nursing assistant.
"All of this has forced me to have a plan," Grant said.
Florida's unemployment system has operated under the philosophy that it's better to get people re-employed than keep paying them unemployment compensation.
The system can work, particularly when laid-off employees receive job training and placement help.
Lee Roberts was in upper management in the Deerfield Beach office for D.R. Horton, one of the largest builders in the nation. Roberts, who earned $158,000 in salary and bonuses, was one of 20 people displaced when Horton closed its office in October.
Her husband, Gerard Sabatino, also had been laid off from a mortgage company, First NLC Financial, based in Boca Raton.
With the help of a counselor at Palm Beach County's employment agency, Workforce Alliance, Roberts reworked her resume, focusing on her hiring and management skills.
Today, Roberts works as a recruiter for All Medical Personnel, a Hollywood-based staffing company. The Delray Beach resident hasn't replaced her six-figure salary, but hopes to within a few years.
"Starting over is not easy, but you can do it," Roberts said. "There's hope."
Marcia Heroux Pounds can be reached at email@example.com or 561-243-6650.